Pitting giant mechs against alien bugs, this winningly focused post-apocalyptic spree eschews resource management in favour of living moment by moment
Mon 5 Mar 2018 12.13 GMT Last modified on Fri 9 Mar 2018 15.20 GMT
Post-apocalyptic chess with time travel, collapsing worlds and tanks the size of skyscrapers: any summary of Into the Breach makes it sound like the most over-complicated game in the world. But remarkably, this lunch break-friendly and charmingly chunky turn-based war game strips away so much of the stuffiness and over-complexity of the strategy game genre, without sacrificing what makes pitching armies against each other in the comforting blue glow of a monitor so endlessly tense and captivating.
Your “army” in this case constitutes three “mechs” (gigantic assault vehicles), facing down about a dozen similarly oversized alien bugs on each mission. These invaders nearly destroyed a future Earth, but survivors from the even further future were able to send an assortment of war machines back through time to reverse the apocalypse. Lest that sound like overwrought Terminator vs Pacific Rim fan fiction, rest assured the storytelling is kept to a brisk minimum. It’s there to prop up robot-bug brawls and to ingeniously justify restarting after a failed campaign, the survivors simply send back more mechs and try again.
PC, Subset Games
Each mission takes place on a small boardgame-like grid, which represents a city-sized space, but can be crossed by your mechs in as little as two turns. The focus is on protection more than destruction: saving civilian-filled buildings from demolition by the invaders, or indeed from your own stray shots is more important than either eradicating the bugs or keeping your own mechs alive. If too many towers fall, too few people will survive, and you’ll need to start over.
Where other strategy games can require oppressively long-term construction, resource management and formation, in Into the Breach you live moment to moment, turn to turn. Matches last just 10 minutes. At the start of your turn, you’re shown exactly which buildings and mechs are endangered, and when you end your turn, you will know which ones you managed or failed to save.
Each mech, more of which can be unlocked and upgraded as time goes on, has its own abilities – a shove into water or a pull into the path of another enemy, an acid bomb or a level-wide laser – hence the chess comparison. The bugs are lethal but stupid, attacking whatever’s in front of them, so their position on the board is crucial. Mastering an artillery strike that shuffles three different enemies’ positions is comparable to understanding the power of a chess knight’s L-shaped bounce. Yet even chess seems flabby and obtuse next to the masterful elegance of Into the Breach’s micro-battles.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, at least for anyone who played its brilliant but cruel predecessor FTL: Faster Than Light, is how overwhelmingly fair Into the Breach is. There are no random events that unexpectedly handicap you. Instead, every situation is winnable from the outset (though poor first-turn decisions will change that), and you are shown the consequences of any action before you commit to it.
There is an element of the precision and finesse more commonly associated with a Nintendo title than a PC strategy game here, which is all the more impressive given that mission layouts are randomly generated. Into the Breach is challenging enough to make you regularly howl in fury, but only at your own errors. The rage will always translate into the conviction that, next time, you will save the world.