I never really got into FTL, the previous game from developers Subset Games. It just never quite clicked for me, despite the cool look and sci-fi setting which should have been my exact wheelhouse. The procedural generation never quite gelled and I found myself wanting a similar but, somehow different, experience. Subset Games seemed to know that, and responded in kind.
Into The Breach has some elements of the procedural generation present in FTL, but switches it to a isometric, turn based, combat game with Mechs. I like giant robots so this is, most definitely, my shit. The game takes place on an 8x8 grid that is procedurally generated every time you pick a battle, giving you different things to contend with using your squad of three mechs.
Set in a world where humans have pretty much destroyed the planet, you are tasked with defending four islands from invasion by the Vek, a race of giant insects that have come to wipe out humanity. Each island has a specific theme, taken from fairly standard gaming tropes: the lava island, the ice island etc. However, each island is under the control of a mega corporation that requires your squad to drop in from space and defend it, with each broken up into areas that will have another set of things to contend with.
This might be mountains that get the way of attacks, large conveyor belts that can move allies and enemies away or towards advantageous positions, or an incoming tidal wave that slowly destroys part of the map each turn. You have just four turns to survive the battle, dealing as much damage to the Vek as possible, with the added wrinkle of side of objectives and the buildings on each map that you must try and defend.
Those buildings must be defended because they each represent a bar of the ‘power grid’ and if that reaches zero, it is game over and the Vek have won. At least, in this timeline. The pilots of your mech squad have the ability to open up a breach in time, teleporting out when defeated to continue the fight in another timeline, it's seriously cool sci-fi stuff, and I love the world Into The Breach creates.
It's a world where mega corporations rule and the planet is decimated. The thin line of three pilots is all that stands between the invasion from beneath and the extinction of humanity, and it gives each battle a surprising weight, a weight that is heightened by small text boxes that appear at the start of a battle. Your mech’s have dropped in, and the civilian’s sheltering in the buildings cry out things likes “We are saved! And “Thank you for Helping us!”.
Instantly you know there are people in those buildings and you must defend them at all costs. The end of each battle gives you a count of the number of civilians you saved, a brilliant way to rate your performance. Sometimes though, you can’t help but lose people, collateral damage in a larger conflict.
The Mech’s you command each have their own advantages and disadvantages, but each individual makes a squad with a specific purpose. The default squad is all about dealing damage, but as you complete certain achievements you earn medals to unlock more, and each will change how you play the game. My favourite is the Rusting Hulks, a squad of two spider-walkers and a jet. This team denies certain squares on the map to the enemy by covering them in smoke, electrified smoke that deals damage at the end of each turn and cancels attacks.
By planning your moves and knowing how each squad members abilities can compliment the others, taking down Vek, saving all the civilians and completing secondary goals can be achieved in the same battle, and boy, does it feel great when that happens. A ‘perfect run’ in a given fight makes you feel like a badass commander, with a small fleet of giant weapons at your disposal and saving humanity one district at a time.
If things do go badly wrong, and they will, a lot, then you have the option to abandon the timeline and breach out. This allows you to carry one pilot into the next timeline, but resets everything else. Mechanically this starts a new run of the game from the very beginning, though if you have unlocked any additional islands you can then choose them in any order.
Morally...you just left billions to die in a timeline and that is something you have to live with. It is just a game but the world built here means that is something that does play on your mind, or at least it did on mine, and it makes the game just that little bit better.
Once you do reach the end of the game, and finally beat the last mission, the satisfaction at a well placed set of plans coming to fruition is immense, matched by a small dialog telling you the pilots went down in history as having beaten the Vek and the number of lives saved by those three heroes.
Of course, that isn’t it. There are always more timelines, mechs to unlock and plans to come together. I only unlocked around half of the available squads by the time I beat it for the first time, and I knew there was plenty more to do if I wanted to keep playing...and I wanted to keep playing. It's a sure sign of a great game.
The setting is more critical to the games success than you would first think, because at first blush it is a cursory way to give a little context. As you dig deeper into the games lore, you then realise that no, the stakes are real, humanity is on its last legs and your team are all that stands between it and total destruction.
Into The Breach is a game for mech fans, sci-fi fans, and just good game fans. It’s mechanics coalesce into a game that provides you with everything you need to win, except your own skill. But slowly, with each abandoned timeline, you get better, until the defeat of the Vek is finally at hand, at least, in this timeline.