A ton of tactical depth is packed into this small-looking game.
A lot of tactical depth can happen on a simple eight-by-eight grid. Into The Breach, the follow-up to the legendary FTL: Faster Than Light from Subset Games, creates a fantastic variety of turn-based tactical battles between your team of three mechs and giant, city-destroying kaiju monsters. On a regular basis, Into The Breach makes me scratch my head and wonder how I’m going to get out of this mess alive. And on a few of those occasions, it’s a thrill when I actually do.
Aside from the subtly detailed animations, the colorful and easily readable pixel-art graphics style does risk Into The Breach being mistaken for a typical simplistic mobile game – though, to be honest, I very much hope it’s eventually ported to phones so I can play it everywhere I go. On the most surface of levels, it’s about moving your units into position to shoot, punch, bombard, push, or otherwise affect the waves of monsters that erupt from the ground, and uses an XCOM-like one move, one attack per turn system that’s become common since 2012. But the way its countless smart rules interact with each other makes learning the nuances of its battle system one of the most rewarding tactical experiences I’ve played in years.
On one of Into The Breach’s semi-roguelike runs (meaning there’s no saving and reloading if something goes wrong) every choice you make feels important, especially after you’ve played a bit and unlocked some new starting options. Each squad of three mechs has a unique set of abilities: you begin with the straightforward Rift Walkers, who have a simple melee bot with a damaging knockback punch, a tank with a damaging knockback shot, and an artillery unit that damages a tile and knocks back all adjacent tiles. But then you can unlock the Blitzkrieg, who have a Lightning Mech with an electrified whip that hits everything adjacent to its target in an unlimited chain of damage, a Hook Mech that grapples enemies and moves them adjacent to it, and the Boulder Mech which launches giant rocks that deal damage, push back horizontally adjacent units, and can obstruct a tile. Or the Flame Behemoths or Frozen Titans, whose specialties you can probably guess but come with some unexpected twists that make them great to experiment with. You can even build your own squad by mixing and matching mechs from any of the ones you’ve unlocked in search of brand new strategies.
You can improve your chances considerably by avoiding tougher battles until you’re ready.
On top of that, you get to pick one special pilot from an unlockable set of 13 who add a unique ability to whichever mech you assign them to, amplifying the potential starting combinations through the roof before you even begin to upgrade your team. If, for example, you put Abe Isamu in a unit like the Zenith Guard’s Charge Mech, which can ram enemies from any distance, his armor trait will negate the damage that mech would deal to itself by doing so. Or, if you place Silica in the Boulder Mech, you can launch two long-range attacks in a single turn that – if you’re positioned correctly so you don’t need to move – can obstruct two squares. (The other two pilots you start each run with are relatively expendable, but can gain experience and level up for small bonuses.)
Then you pick which of the four islands you’ll visit first, which takes some thought. The terrain conditions on each are fairly consistent: For instance, you’ll always see breakable ice and freezing storms on the wintery island, water and flammable foliage in the green island, dunes that can spawn dust clouds when hit and lightning storms on the desert island, and acid pools and conveyor belts all over the tech island. But the diverse set of enemies and the boss you’ll face are randomized each game, so you have to consider which ones your squad is best equipped to counter. I absolutely hate the slugs that launch spider eggs that first entrap any units adjacent to it and then spawn an extra enemy you have to deal with, so I avoid those until I’ve upgraded enough to improve my odds of dealing with them. And if I’m using a squad that doesn’t deal a lot of direct damage, taking on the dividing blob boss early rarely works out well. You can improve your chances considerably by avoiding those tougher battles until you’re ready.
Once on an island, you pick which of the regions to fight in based on their risks, side objectives, and natural hazards, and also which ones you need to complete to unlock access to others you want (because you can only attack an adjacent territory). Because you can only fight five battles on each island before the boss appears, you have to make sure you’re picking wisely: do you want to go for as many upgrade points as possible or focus on gaining power for your grid (effectively your overall health) as a buffer against taking damage later? And is it worth taking on tougher missions to try to do both at once?
Of course, the battlefield is where things get really interesting. Enemies always move first and telegraph their attacks, making every turn a clever puzzle about how to prevent monsters from striking vital targets, or, better yet, to redirect their attacks back at their allies by nudging them around the map. The order of operations can make or break your move; holding the Alt key will expose the order in which enemies will attack, so you can set up situations where it may appear as though the enemy is still threatening a target but you’ll know that another enemy will be tricked into killing it for you before it gets the chance to attack. At the same time, smacking an enemy will often move them to another tile (depending on the type of attack) and if you didn’t take that into account you can easily block yourself from making another move you had planned. And there are always unforeseen circumstances until you’ve mastered everything: maybe you didn’t account for the sand dune on a square that, when attacked, creates a dust cloud that makes it impossible to attack from that position.
So it’s great that you can undo as many moves as you like until you attack, and once per mission you’re allowed to reset time to the start of the turn (unless you’ve brought Isaac Jones, who gives you a second one). That allows for at least some limited save-scum experimentation before you’re committed and makes learning tough lessons sting considerably less than they would otherwise.
But because the civilian buildings on the tactical maps actually represent your overall health – called the power grid – and enough damage to them will end your run, protecting them can be more important than the survival of any mech. That means it’s usually better to absorb damage yourself, even if it means one of your mech pilots will be killed and replaced by an AI that can’t be leveled up (which would otherwise confer random benefits like increased movement range or extra hit points). Learning when to sacrifice a mech by placing it between a threat and civilians and when to take the hit to your power grid is part of Into The Breach’s elaborate balancing act.
Learning when to sacrifice a mech and when to take the hit to your power grid is part of Into The Breach’s elaborate balancing act.
Civilian buildings are also the only place in Into The Breach’s combat where randomness comes into play, in that they have a chance to resist taking damage when hit. The odds start at a low 15%, but can be increased by earning more power after maxing out your power grid meter. Everything else is certain: there are no critical hits, no unexpected misses, and no events that aren’t telegraphed a turn in advance. That makes it feel almost entirely fair, with the one unpredictable thing being a chance for something to work out in your favor.
Into The Breach’s quick mission maps aren’t randomly generated, but there are factors that make them feel different each time. For one, a wide variety of side objectives, such as protecting a train that moves across the map, using an acid launcher to destroy all the mountains on the map, or freezing and protecting a pair of hostile robots help keep one from feeling too similar to another. Other maps have natural hazards you can use to your advantage, like a tidal wave that wipes away an entire row of the map each turn (which you can bait or shove non-flying enemies into to kill them, but won’t damage your mechs), lightning storms that destroy anything on four randomly chosen tiles each turn, or ice storms that freeze anything that happens to be standing in a large area at the end of a turn. There’s also the chance for a Time Pod to crash-land on the map, challenging you to either collect them or prevent the enemy from destroying them before the mission ends to earn rewards like new abilities, extra upgrade resources, or new special pilots. Because a mission usually only lasts for five turns, there’s a lot of pressure to accomplish all its objectives in a short time.
Since you only ever have three mechs on the field (unless you equip a small deployable tank, or in certain missions where you’re defending weaker friendly units) every battle is a struggle to keep from being outnumbered by the enemies who are constantly emerging from the ground. If there are five enemies attacking and only three mechs responding, that means two of your three mechs must come up with ways to stop two enemies – and that’s not easy. That gives rise to situations where you have to make tough decisions on whether you want to save a civilian building, strike a killing blow on an existing enemy, or prevent a new one from arriving on the battlefield by parking a mech on a spawn point. You take a point of damage, sure, but that’s a small price to pay for one less enemy to deal with next turn.
Some situations can feel like no-wins, especially when the enemy AI decides to ignore your mechs and concentrate all its fire on buildings, which can’t be moved out of the way. You can predict where they can move by clicking on them during your turn to see their movement radius, but what they won’t always do what you expect. In those cases, “winning” becomes mitigating the damage as best you can, and because you can still win a partial victory even if you fail one objective it’s not the end of the world. But often, what at first seems like certain doom can be solved, and that’s the best feeling in Into The Breach.
At the end of each island, you spend the resources you’ve collected on buying and powering up a randomly available assortment of upgrades that can dramatically change the way your mechs behave. Many are drawn from the other mech teams, letting you mix and match to create hybrid units, plus an assortment of other powers like the ability to hit every enemy on the map once per mission or a passive ability that causes civilian buildings to create a force field after they take damage to prevent a second hit. Like with FTL’s randomly stocked stores, this setup forces you to think and improvise as you play the hand you’re dealt instead of repeating the same successful strategy over and over, and adds terrifically to replayability.
One opportunity that Into The Breach feels as though it misses is that there’s not much dynamic storytelling going on, beyond some contextual chatter from your pilots and the governors of each island that celebrate individual victories or lament losses suffered. Each run feels pretty much the same as far as story, which – if you compare it directly to the similarly structured FTL – makes them a little less memorable. The alternate-timeline wrapper that lets one experienced surviving pilot warp back in time and join your next run (whether you win or lose) gives it just enough flavor for there to be what feels like a distinctive Into The Breach universe.
It’s a small-looking tactics game that’s kept me playing more intently than most big ones.
The two-phase final mission is a little anticlimactic in that it’s not that different from the boss battles you’ve already fought, and follows a very similar pattern each time. It’s definitely not easy – it took me over a dozen attempts to reach and finally beat it, including several times when I came within a single turn of beating it, only to fail – but having now done it a few times, it’s starting to feel like the most routine part of Into The Breach. Its saving grace is the fact that by the time you get there you’ve likely geared up your squad with significantly different abilities, so at least the way you fight it is different.
I must also mention the musical score by FTL composer Ben Prunty, which is very similar in its low-fi electronic style. It’s also similar in that it’s fantastic at setting a sci-fi mood, and I could listen to it all day without it ever getting repetitious.