Review: Head Into the Breach to Save Humanity in this Challenging Masterwork

Image courtesy Subset Games Into the Breach is the second game from small indie developer Subset Games, popular for their debut title FTL: Faster Than Light. Known for its pixel art style, roguelike elements, and simple but complex gameplay that allows deep strategy, FTL was critically and commercially successful and continues to have a loyal cult fanbase that still play and mod it to this day. Into the Breach has all of these elements, plus a compelling story to bind together its chess-like mech action. Image courtesy Subset Games When you begin a new game of Into the Breach, there is a short set of dialogue that subtly, but brilliantly sets up the world. Old Earth has flooded, and from it emerged four island nations, each controlled by its own mega-corporation. Under threat by the Vek, a species of large bug-like creatures, the peoples of Earth must use what ancient Earth technologies are left to survive. This includes time travel—and this isn’t the first time you’ve tried, and likely won’t be the last. You control a three person squad tasked with stopping the Vek threat and saving as many people across as many timelines as you can. With a world built with the help of legendary game designer/writer Chris Avellone (Planetscape Torment and Knights of the Old Republic II) its setting feels like it takes cues from films like Edge of Tomorrow and Pacific Rim. Each decision makes it feel like the weight of humanity’s future rests on your squad’s mechanized shoulders. Image courtesy Subset Games Into the Breach is all about squad-based, turn-based combat. Your goal is to protect the power grid by destroying, disabling, or blocking the Vek. Each time a building is destroyed—any building—your power grid takes a hit. When it reaches zero, that timeline is lost and you are allowed to send one pilot back to try again. Almost every action you take is permanent—there is no save scumming here. With rules that mesh Battletech and chess, Into the Breach sometimes feels more like a tabletop game than a video game. During your turn, each of your mechs can move and then perform an action, like attacking or healing. Like FTL: Faster Than Light, there is little room for error in Into the Breach, but its unforgiving nature is part of its appeal. Hardly unfair, you usually get what you see in each scenario with no hidden dice rolls or chance on hit (save for a very few abilities.) Image courtesy Subset Games By its very nature, Into the Breach invites you to embrace failure. I admit, I fought against this for my first two hours, trying in vain for that perfect initial run. Instead of learning from the failures, in what felt like a fast-paced trial-by-fire, I fought against them. Soon though, I started to embrace losses and use them as learning experiences. The losses in Into the Breach are hard, but part of the branching timelines--any building that gets destroyed, either by the Vek or your own negligence, results in a loss to your all-important power grid, and losing a mech results in the permanent loss of that pilot. Image courtesy Subset Games There are four main mech classes: prime, brute, ranged and science (plus a few secret classes) and many subclasses, such as artillery, boulder tossing, lightning, etc. Prime mechs are generally upright and look like robots while the rest are a mixture of large anti-Vek machines that resemble tanks or fight jets. Each different mech type has access to different weapons, as well as having its own specific weapon type by default.  Some of these deal damage directly, while others push or pull Vek or allies into or out of harm’s way. You can pull a Vek into an environmental hazard, or into the line of fire of another Vek. You can even stand your mech in between a Vek’s shot and a building to stop its destruction. Image courtesy Subset Games You get more mechs by unlocking different squads. You start with the Rift Walker squad, and after reaching certain achievements through gameplay you earn currency that you can spend on unlocking other squads. You can even mix and match mechs from different squads to form your ideal Vek killing force. Not only are the types of mech a consideration but the pilots are, as well. There are two different pilot types: generic pilots, and what I call “hero” pilots. Hero pilots have additional traits and skills that make them a great asset, like the ability to ignore webbing that would stop your mech from moving, or giving any mech the ability to fly. These hero pilots can be found in pods shot back from alternate futures. It’s possible to populate your entire squad with these pilots, but when it comes time to open another breach, you can only ever send one back. Luckily, all of the pilots you have collected remained unlocked and you can select a “fresh” non-leveled version to start with. Image courtesy Subset Games There are multiple difficulties which you can choose to tackle Into the Breach. You can still unlock squads and complete timelines in easy difficulty, but each building contains less people, therefore making your end score total lower—the higher the difficulty, the higher your potential end score. These achievements aren’t just for bragging rights; remember: they’re the only way to get the currency that allows you to unlock more mechs. Image courtesy Subset Games In order to complete a timeline, and therefore playthrough, you must have at least two islands cleared of Vek. To unlock additional islands, you must meet the requirements: the second island unlocks after the first, the third after the first two are cleared, and the fourth after you have four cleared. This is significant because it is possible to initiate the end of a timeline (playthrough) after having cleared just two islands with the final confrontation scaling to your current playthrough. Each time you clear an island of Vek you are given the choice of spending points gained from completing bonus objectives on random items for sale, or use those points to repair your power grid or buy additional power cores—an essential item for powering your mechs' weapons and systems. Image courtesy Subset Games The entire production is brought together by a powerful soundtrack by FTL: Faster Than Light composer Ben Prunty. I was a huge fan of his previous work with Subset Games, and he does not disappoint here. From the haunting title track to the epic island themes, the soundtrack is a notable accomplishment in itself. Image courtesy Subset Games Into the Breach is another masterwork by Subset Games. While not as unforgiving as FTL: Faster Than Light, Into the Breach is extremely challenging and therefore extremely rewarding. It punishes mistakes greatly, but gives you all of the information you need to make informed decisions—the highest praise you can give a turn-based strategy game. Battles themselves are never dull, as almost every choice is high-stakes, and the different mech types allow for a huge variety of tactics and strategies. I love Into the Breach. It’s a title I’ll be playing until Subset Games releases their next masterwork. Into the Breach is available now for Windows, with a Linux and Mac release planned but not yet announced.
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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.