If you’d have told me a few months ago that Subset Games, the makers of “FTL: Faster Than Light,” were going to come out with one of the tightest, most interesting strategy games ever made, I’d have laughed in your face.
“FTL” was an interesting roguelite, sure: It featured frustrating, tough as nails, half hour long runs that ultimately came down to a roll of the dice, but the level of mechanical and narrative variety on offer was more than enough to distract from the fact you were losing all the time.
However, no matter what you were doing, the combat in “FTL” never added up to much more than two guys standing on opposite sides of a room flinging hourglasses at each other with catapults. Whoever has the bigger and fuller hourglasses is always going to win, so the victory is determined before the fight starts — it’s just a matter of whether or not you can realize you’re outmatched soon enough to get away.
Comparatively, the individual chess-like strategy fights of “Into the Breach” contain some of the most brilliant strategy puzzles ever made. With only five or so turns each and a few pieces to work with, they contain none of the fluff present in games like “Fire Emblem” or “XCOM.”
Never in “Into the Breach” will you simply move a piece to move it across the map. At any point in time, you’re juggling the need to attack your enemies with the need to prepare for incoming foes to defend your base structures and your own units. Every action you take has to accomplish multiple things, and those actions have to link up with one another to accomplish even more things.
Better yet, every time one of your defensive structures takes a hit, your very limited health bar — which is preserved over matches — takes damage. So a screw up in one match can mean big consequences for a long portion of the game. Near-perfect matches aren’t a special occasion in this game: They are fully expected in order to beat it.
"Near-perfect matches aren’t a special occasion in this game: They are fully expected in order for you to beat it."
Fortunately, it’s not that hard to get those near-perfect matches. If you keep your units alive and play the game smart, there’s almost always a way to get out of any given turn without taking any damage — it’s just up to you to see to it. I lost this game in the final match twice due to errors which were entirely preventable.
While “Into the Breach” has some of the best moment-to-moment strategy gameplay in existence, the tissue connecting the matches is a little flimsy. Each match takes place on a region within one of four islands. While they all center around the same tile-based grid strategy, each island has its own distinct enemies and mechanical gimmicks.
Initially, it’s necessary that you visit and complete all of the island in order to unlock them, but afterward there’s little incentive to revisit areas you don’t like. Every island has its difficulty balanced to match your party the moment you step foot on it, so you can confidently visit whichever islands you want in whatever order.
The final fight in the game opens up after you complete just two islands, and it, too is always balanced to your party’s level of progression. So if you’re really into the Fire Island and the Grasslands but are not a fan of the Ice or Acid Islands, you can wave them goodbye.
Maybe you’ll stop by again someday for some sort of achievement or challenge run, but you never have to set up shop there. In a sense this is nice — allowing players to pick and choose which content they like best — but it assumes that players don’t want to see everything that the game has to offer.
The game’s story isn’t delivered with much confidence, either. What’s there is excellent and really gives the game a unique narrative feel, but most of the time, the story is mere background fodder for the gameplay.
You play as a time traveler leading a team of giant robots into the past in order to launch a last-ditch defense against a race of bug-like alien creatures called the Vek. You return to the past just hours before the Vek overwhelm the Earth and must push them back on a couple local islands near their point of origin.
The player must do this long enough to gain access to their base so you can fight your way in and blow their headquarters to smithereens. It’s a run-of-the-mill invasion narrative, which only sets itself apart in its framing.
The game has something to say about endless war and conflict. Even though it has a “Victory” screen, its story never really resolves itself. Every time you lose the game, or you decide things are getting a little rough and you want to start over, the world you’re in doesn’t reset.
You abandon the entire timeline you’re in to the alien invaders and simply hop over to an alternate universe where you haven’t screwed up yet. Even when you do manage to beat the game, your team just hops to yet another timeline, looking to fix that one as well.
This perpetual cycle of genocide and hope for salvation — and what it might do to people over time — is by far the game’s most interesting story aspect, but it’s rarely expanded upon. Characters react to this cycle in single lines of dialogue, and there’s no feel for how their mental states are changing.
If you want more developed characters, turn back to “Fire Emblem.” If you want an invasion narrative that lasts long enough for you to get really invested, “XCOM” has you covered. But if you’re looking for something fun, quick and with enough of a story to keep you engaged for a while, I recommend “Into the Breach.”
Final Grade: B+