Won’t necessarily convert those who don’t enjoy the genre
Review Price: £11.39
Available on PC
When people discuss games as a storytelling medium, they’re usually talking about sweeping Kojima-esque cutscenes, pithy Nathan Drake dialogue, or even Lee-and-Clem Walking Dead moral choices. And understandably so, since it’s in this way we’ve been told story through our entertainment for years – authored narratives, constructed by writers versed in the art of telling tales.
Are those really the most interesting stories games can tell, however? I bet you have amazing tales from your times in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Grand Theft Auto or Far Cry, none have anything to do with their respective game’s ‘story’, but were created by their systems. Emergent moments where physics, AI, mechanics and a little bit of magic all combine to create something truly personal, and truly impossible in anything else.
Subset Games’ debut effort, the wonderful Faster Than Light, was built on this conceit. As a combination of turn-based strategy and rogue-like, FTL was effectively the Star Trek simulator of which we’d always dreamed. Despite its simplistic look, every run captured the kind of drama and unpredictability of a great space opera, all driven by the internal mechanisms of the game.
And now, with its long-awaited followup – Into The Breach – Subset does it again. This time, it’s a more classic turn-based tactics game, where your team of three mechs sets up on an 8×8 grid, and has to tackle the incoming Vek threat (bugs, basically) before they destroy the buildings on each map.
Again, it’s a rogue-like, with the overall aim being to recapture at least two of the four islands (each split into multiple maps) before taking on the end-game battle, and hopefully saving humanity.
It’s a deceptively pretty game, with nicely animated pixel-art that’s reminiscent of SNES-era classics; there’s some excellent character artwork, which adds flavour and personality to proceedings. Special mention, too, to the fantastic score, which elevates the action into something with real gravity and consequence.
The action is startlingly simple, far more so than most examples of the genre. You only ever have three team members: a Titanfall-style mech, a tank, and a mortar-lobbing, long-distance cannon. They can level up individually throughout each run, and if they die on the battlefield, they’re replaced by an AI-driven equivalent who can’t be upgraded. Within seconds, the basics become obvious: move your mech near an enemy; hit it or shoot it; wait for their turn; rinse and repeat.
Only Into The Breach isn’t really about that at all. Unlike, say, Xcom, where the drama is governed by a series of dice rolls that mean each encounter can never be truly predicted, every enemy attack in Into The Breach is foreshadowed at the end of their turn.
For example, a bug lines itself up next to a skyscraper. It can’t attack it on this turn, instead it highlights the square in red, meaning that’s the attack it will carry out next (remember, the Vek are trying to destroy the city, which effectively acts as your lifebar).
You go into your turn knowing this, and crucially, almost every attack you have in your arsenal will move your enemies around the map. So you whack the bug with your mech, and it slides one square over, meaning it misses the building on its next go.
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With that knowledge, you begin to create a sort of mastery of the battlefield. If you can move a bug so its attack misses a building, can you then move it so that attack hits one of its team-mates? Can you slide it into a lightning storm (many maps have unique status effects)? How about smashing it into another enemy so they both lose health, and also so it blocks a third enemy from spawning on that square?
It turns Into The Breach into something much more akin to a block puzzler than your typical tactics game. Every turn has the potential for greatness or utter disaster. As you improve, and start playing on the Normal difficulty mode – Easy is best to begin with, as it was in FTL – every turn becomes crucial.
Into The Breach becomes a daunting sequence of seemingly hopeless scenarios that require the smartest possible choices each turn to conquer. And when you realise that one move with your mortar cannon (which slides all enemies adjacent squares by one space) will be the difference between crushing defeat and glorious victory, you feel like a genius. Every time.
As is the case in FTL, although each run is unique, there are elements you can carry in-between. If you hit certain requirements on a run, you can unlock a new squad that carries different abilities into the fray, fundamentally changing your tactics and making for a completely new experience.
But you can also carry one pilot with you each time. This makes for some heart-wrenching decisions to be made as you say goodbye to Chris or Myra, who held off the Vek threat for so long, but also connects you with someone else who may stay with you for tens or even hundreds of hours. And if they kick the bucket? Devastation.
These are the stories Into the Breach creates. They’re all driven by gameplay; the deflating loss of a favourite pilot. The amazing, inspired decisions that destroy three enemies in one go and save the city, seemingly delivered to you directly from the Gods. The agony and the ecstasy, how you can go from mastermind to dunce in the space of a single turn.
Subset games has achieved a mastery of the microdrama, and as such, Into The Breach is about as essential as indie games get.