Into the Breach is a turn-based strategy roguelike game from Subset Games, in which players must pilot a trio of mechs to defend a group of islands from giant bug-like invaders. After the success of their previous title, FTL: Faster Than Light, the studio really appears to have hit their stride in the genre, and Into the Breach shines as a result.
After a simple introduction I was thrown into a launch screen, where I could pick a team of mechs, a pilot, and the difficulty. As it was my first time playing the game, my choice of pilot and team was limited to a single option for each, but it was immediately clear that the game would provide plenty of replay value if I so chose to try every team and pilot available. With my “selections“ in place, I began my first campaign in earnest.
As soon as I started my first run, I started clicking through all the menus, looking for all the options I would later gain to upgrade and improve my mechs. I was not disappointed; each pilot has the opportunity to level and give their mech passive bonuses like health or movement. Additionally, every mech’s weapons can be upgraded to avoid friendly fire, increase range, damage, or even give the mech a new ability to use. All the possibilities for the first trio gave me high hopes for the rest of the teams, which could be unlocked by earning achievements with my currently available groups. As exciting as the menus were, the real fun was found in battle.
Each battle starts pretty evenly, with a few bugs positioned to square off with my trio of robo-defenders. A few cities are scattered about, giving me something to defend, and the fight starts, beginning a dance of declarations, interruptions, and attacks. The bugs, formally named Vek, start every battle with their plans to attack the cities or the mechs. Players are given their turn to interrupt, kill, or otherwise impede the bugs from their targets, I’ve had the occasional stroke of heroism and stood in front of a shot intended for innocent lives. Here is where the game really shines: player choices. Cities power your mechs, and your goal is to maintain enough energy to keep fighting the good fight. Your pilots provide the mechs they control with passive bonuses, but they are ultimately expendable.
A mech that is reduced to zero health is knocked out of the round - unless they’re healed - but every battle will revive them, albeit without their former pilot. It goes without saying that sometimes in order to save myself from a premature game over, a pilot would have to take the brunt of an attack, often fatally so. This remains the lesson that stays with me as I play: sacrifice for the greater good is worth it. Sometimes a city needs to fall in order to ensure that a bug is killed next turn, or a pilot has to die to guarantee I receive a bonus reward after battle. These potentially severe consequences have made for some of the most exhilarating and painful choices I’ve ever made in a game, but the feeling of pulling off a wild maneuver to save a city or pilot is incredibly satisfying.
Though the spotlight for battles is clearly focused on mechs and Vek, the battlegrounds themselves are often vying for attention. Each sector of the island represents a battle, with additional conditions offered for a reward, like protecting a train that moves through the level, or breaking an ancient dam to create a river to buffer against attacking insects. Although less of the game is left to chance than a traditional roguelike, these battle conditions can provide plenty of variety to keep players engaged, especially considering each island has different objectives. If those trials aren’t enough for the expert gamer, there are also a series of achievements stemming from challenges about playing a perfect game, or several, or even using 3 of the same mech.
When my first campaign started, I had a single island to defend. Initially I believed the islands would unlock in order, similar to other roguelikes, but after completing the first island, I was informed that since the second island was unlocked, the two could be selected in any order for future attempts. Each island harbored their own scenarios and terrain, which could alter a player’s choices in battle further, such as a desert that can provide smoke screens when individual tiles are attacked. This freedom to tackle islands in any order keeps the game from getting stale; I’m no longer forced to play through the same four islands in the same order every time I play. If my team would work better in the glacial island, I can knock that one out first, growing in strength and resources before I deal with the other three. Better yet, after completing the second island, players are given the choice to chase the Vek down to their nest on a volcanic island.
A few runs into the game, I had earned enough achievements to unlock an additional squad. Selecting the least expensive, I quickly discovered just how differently the game could be played. While my first squad was fairly straightforward - a punching robot, a tank, and an artillery cannon - the second group I unlocked completely changed how I played. This group was instead focused on sabotage and subterfuge, where I had to use their abilities to create tiles of dust, which contained lightning harmful to the Vek. Having only tried three of the eight available teams, I look forward to seeing how each team reinvents the simple act of stopping enemy attacks.
As players become familiar with all the systems in the game, two goals become apparent. The first is to beat the Vek, chase them back to their volcano HQ and wipe them out. The other is to level your pilots as much as possible in hopes that one will survive to the end. Since time travel is a key mechanic in the story, each game ends with a single surviving pilot (if any remain) being sent back in time to take the helm for a mech in your next game. Again, this harkens back to the theme of sacrifice; even if all is lost, one person can go back in time to make the difference the second, third or even the hundredth time around. Luckily, Subset Games has created a title that will definitely prompt hundreds of attempts.