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RPG Codex Review: Into the Breach
Review - posted by Infinitron on Tue 27 February 2018, 23:59:59Tags: Into the Breach; Subset Games
[Review by sser]
Subset Game’s Faster Than Light came with a plainly obvious idea: being Captain Copyright-Infringement while managing a drama-magnet spaceship. The gaming industry bolted upright in their Snuggies and slapped themselves. Of course! Who knew pairing fun roguelike gameplay with the most popular thematic in all of sci-fi would work so well? FTL ended up selling alright. Now, six years later, the developers finally emerge from their Scrooge McDuck pools to release Into the Breach.
Into the Breach is a bit of a strange game to review because, to be frank about it, is extremely simple. A review of it would almost equate to a writing of the game’s manual, that’s how straightforward it is. If you’ve read a preview of the game, you’ve already got the gist. But let’s get to it anyway.
Like FTL, Into the Breach was intended to be played over and over again. But where FTL made losing a harsh learning experience, Into the Breach ties the concept directly into its narrative: you lead a team of mechs against a horde of mountain-sized insects called the Vek. If you win, you jump dimensions to save other alternate realities in need of help. If you lose… you also jump dimensions to save alternate realities in need of help. Most of the planet is underwater and sits around waiting for your multi-dimensional firemen to show up. Despite the questions this setup might raise, the thought behind this existential exterminator nightmare doesn’t go much deeper.
The game’s artwork is snappy and SNES-y. Like FTL, it is pixelated but brimming with character.
Vek cannot swim. Kevin Costner is redeemed.
Each game follows the same path: you are offered four islands and a fifth Vek Bowser Castle that you must ultimately assault for a win. Each island carries a separate theme: temperate, desert, frozen, and Republicans winning fifty elections in a row. Once on the chosen island, you progress through sectors, each providing a small reward for fulfilling objectives. Throughout the campaign, you need to protect cities as they're the on-field pips representing your Power Grid – more or less the campaign’s “HP.” If the Power Grid goes down, you lose.
The mechs are piloted by unique though somewhat disappointingly undeveloped characters. Each pilot can level up, gaining crucial skills like adding HP, move speed, or super useful traits like ignoring crowd-control effects. Mechs can also be ‘leveled’ in a way, using reactors to boost their engine power so they can equip new gear or upgrade the ones they already have.
Into the Breach’s gameplay is simple: over the span of a few turns you manipulate enemies around an 8x8 grid to protect the Power Grid. Mechs start with one skill and almost all of them involve displacing enemies; conversely, most Vek are singular in their offensive. Like Heroes of Normandie, you’re also shown in what order events will sequence. It is sequencing which is the lynchpin of Into the Breach, as you’ll often be forcing Vek into killing one another. This allows for pleasing moments where you nudge and scoot critters just where you want them, hit end turn, and then watch the mini-Rube Goldberg unfold with fratricidal aplomb.
I’ve seen Into the Breach described in a lot of interesting ways, from a game of mechanized billiards to something more akin to aikido. While I was playing it I just kept thinking, “Whatever you do, just don’t call it a puzzle game!” But like so many writers who visit North Korea that cannot ignore the reality of 1984 come to life, I can’t really refer to Into the Breach without touching base with its puzzle-game roots.
Barring a small yet potentially significant %-chance for attacks to miss the Power Grid, the game essentially has no RNG. Enemies telegraph attacks and, with a brilliant interface that spares no details, you only need to read the information and respond accordingly. Sure, there is a bit of variety that is in the spirit of classic RNG. For example, you don’t know where enemies will go. Your pre-battle setup may end up leaving you borked before the battle even begins as enemies scatter into such nasty positions it may as well have been you playing the other side. You also don’t know what sort of monsters might appear either. I had one perfect run slightly tarnished when a ‘grabbing’ insect snagged a mech to certain doom on the very last turn. C’est al Vek.
But in the age of Jagged Alliance and X-Com and Battle Brothers, most look at RNG as a form of percentages, odds, and risk-taking. None of those reside within Into the Breach. Every single aspect of detail is covered with absolute determinism. Like any good puzzle game, things aren’t where they should be and you need to put the pieces where they rightfully fit. The schism between a good score and a smoldered run is solely the responsibility of the player. You have but the greatest weapon at your disposal: time. And, similar to the fantastic and also RNG-less Invisible Inc., there's an even more powerful tool you may be keen on using: the ability to revert time and restart at least one turn a fight.
An infinite amount of time does give me pause, though. Due to the ‘sliding puzzle’ gameplay and the ability to read information so tight and terse Sid Meier would drool, there isn’t much in the way of challenge. I very nearly beat the game on my first run, beat it on my second with a completely different squad, and absolutely breezed through it on a third campaign with another fresh team. It’s a large break from beating FTL which was like trying to rescue a cat from Evil Dead’s rape tree.
Unfortunately, if you put Into the Breach on Hard, it only increases the number of Vek in an attempt to brute force defeat into your hands. Despite following a familiar design path, Invisible Inc. felt as if it had a better grip on difficulty. It utilized a fog of war to present players with unforeseen challenges that they then responded to on the fly. Because Into the Breach is such a puzzle-game at heart, I think that it needs a timer or a ‘rope’ like Hearthstone to compel players to act quickly. I would not have cruised through the game repeatedly if I had to make snap decisions in the tougher situations. Though the game might look like a SNES title, I feel like emulating SNES-era difficulty by simply adding more enemies isn't the right or at least only route to go.
If beating the game is so straightforward, what is the catch that’ll keep one coming back like there was in FTL? There is a bit of a ‘meta’ in Into the Breach that lends it replayability: the mechs themselves. There’s a large cast of machines to choose from and it’s a blast running new teams through a campaign. Some machines are overpowered while others struggle to make a cohesive, kaiju-pinballing unit. You’ll often be surprised which mech proves to be the MVP of the squad. Once you’ve unlocked your fair share, you can start mix-and-matching the pieces. You can make runs with all bruisers and try to stomp your way to victory. Or you could run a team of full-on utility, peacefully pushing and pulling insects around like a hardcore battle of Jains and Kaijus.
After beating an island, you spend or sell resources to better kit your team.
A long list of achievements to chew through.
Into the Breach is a well-oiled machine. So well-oiled that even in losing it's more akin to a flipped bobsled caroming down a chute than the dooming and chaotic car crashes of a bad XCOM turn. There's a certain glide to your mistakes such that, even in failing, you're pretty much exactly where you should be. At the same time, this ‘on-the-rails’ experience may run out of gas for some. So it is small, easy, and doesn't necessarily have any issues at all. The interface is flawless and the rules of the game are straight and narrow. The graphics are fine and you can invest hours into a rotating cast of mechs. It’s almost as if you asked a watchmaker to make you his finest watch, and what you got back was a work of beauty – it just so happened to also be digital.