On a rocky outcrop high above a ruined city, a lone figure gazes out at a purple sky. The horizon is lined with gutted skyscrapers; a row of jagged concrete teeth. Atop a mound of rubble, bathed in shadow, a pilot’s cape flutters in the wind. She is a knight, of sorts, and rarely without armour. For now, it stands beside her – a mechanised titan, tall as its mythical namesake. She breathes deeply, tasting the sulphur on the breeze, a bitter reminder of what has come to pass. With a final sigh, she strides toward it, her cape whipping up fragments of dust behind her. Once more, into the suit. Once more,Into the Breach.
The opening harmonic string swells of Into the Breach are both spurring and heart rending. Weeping electric guitar builds to a driving march. Chimes, like frozen church bells, hail a requiem. There’s something reminiscent of gaelic folk underneath the slick production; an earthy ballad for the beating hearts that pilot steel. A song to set a fire in your chest, but one that promises sacrifice after sacrifice.
Speaking to Fantastic Arcade, artist and designer Justin Ma says that Subset Games threw out eighteen months worth of work during the team’s painstaking process of design and iteration. A year and a half of toil, discarded in pursuit of Subset’s vision of perfection. Every moment of Into the Breach is permeated by this sense of sacrifice. It’s present in the grim aura of duty as your mechs plummet from orbit. In the suffocating tension that underscores every fraught tactical choice. It’s even there in the name. Into The Breach. A fated clarion call. A paradox of cyclical finality. A gargantuan metal foot, stepping through time itself to stomp an insect the size of a city block.
The Only Good Bug is a Dead One
Writhing somewhere between Starship Troopers’ Arachnids and Godzilla’s Mothra are Into the Breach’s insectoid Kaiju, The Vek. With your chosen team of three Mecha, you’ll engage them across four islands. Each island is split into eight zones, and each zone represents a single mission. Your objective is always the same; survive for five turns. On top of this, you’ll also be given side objectives that grant rewards. Squish a certain number of bugs, for example. Or keep the Vek away from a missile silo long enough to initiate launch. After completing five of the eight missions on any given island, you’ll trigger a boss mission. Beat the boss mission and you clear the island.
Clear two islands, and you’re given the option to enter a final mission. Survive that, and congratulations, you’ve just beaten your first run of Into the Breach. Sounds simple, right? After all, these machines are built for war. Only, their survival is tied to the thousands of lives that populate the islands’ cities, and each of those homes is just a single attack away from destruction.
Your Mechs are the only things holding the Vek back from overwhelming the planet. A power grid is the only thing that keeps your Mechs functional. The city blocks keep the grid running. So when a monstrous stag beetle rears itself back to charge into a skyscraper, and the only way of preventing the attack means sending your favourite pilot to certain death, what do you do?
Taking no Chances
Oh, and certain death isn’t dramatic overstatement here. There’s no randomness in Into the Breach, no dice rolls or percentages, just clear information on the exact consequences for each and every decision. From the exact tiles on the 8×8 grid the Vek will spawn on next turn, to the direction, damage, and status effects of their actions, nothing is left to chance. When a crack appears in the earth to announce the emergence of the Vek next turn, exactly which of the creatures is uncertain. On very rare occasions, a building will withstand an attack. Everything else in Into the Breach is telegraphed directly.
Industrial Insect Repellent
So a turn might go something like this. You’re playing The Rift Walkers. The only team available initially, but just one of the eight you’ll eventually unlock. Your mission is to protect an old train packed with supplies vital to the war effort. A gargantuan scarab scuttles to the right of the map and takes aim at a civilian building. A chitinous, mantis-like leaper bounds beside your bipedal combat mech. The mantis wraps your mech in webbing, preventing it from moving. Meanwhile, A soldier scion – a floating mechanical squid that grants each Vek an extra hit point – floats over the tracks. If it isn’t taken care of, the train is doomed to collision next turn.
Ignoring her own safety, the combat mech pilot turns away from the leaper and forces the scion off the tracks with her fist, destroying it. The scion down, the remaining Vek are vulnerable.
Your artillery bombards the leaper from the back row, freeing the combat mech and pushing it a tile to the left. An extremely useful ability that can be used to reposition foes.
With just the scarab left, your tank lets loose with everything it has. A cannon blast strips away one of the scarab’s two hit points. The impact forces it into a mountain. Tumbling rocks do the rest
The board, for now, is clear. But you weren’t able to block any of the emerging Vek tiles by placing a mech on top of them. Now, you’ve got two more leapers to deal with, and three more Vek next turn. Throw in progressively stronger bugs with new abilities. Environmental hazards. New Mechs. Suddenly, the sheer variety of scenarios possible from the simple ruleset start to make themselves clear.
This is how Into the Breach plays, but it’s how the game feels that creates such an endlessly compulsive experience. Subset have achieved something remarkable here. A game with the potential for gripping, emergent micro-narratives without relying on randomness to create tension.
Action and Reaction
In lieu of a strictly choreographed story, it’s usually down to chance elements like hit percentages to serve a dramatic function in tactics games. We’ve all got our share of unique personal stories. Tales forged from the wreckage of certain victories gone sour. Crushing failures that saw our units striding through the smoke like body armored, ashen-winged phoenixes. But Into the Breach snubs the dice rolls and shuffled decks usually necessary to create such uncertainty.
Instead, somewhere between the atmospheric score and scenarios that see you at a constant disadvantage, those underlying themes of duty, perseverance, and sacrifice make themselves known. Each as powerful as expensive cutscenes or endless codices of lore. It’s one hell of a feat for an interface rendered like a Gameboy advance game, but these numbers and grids are capable of producing gripping battle poetry.
Oh, and industry legend Chris Avellone wrote the dialogue and pilot backstories. Sparse combat barks offer insights into their histories, fleshing out personalities just enough for you to really feel the gut punch when sacrifice becomes necessary for the sake of the mission.
As previously mentioned, you can take on the final mission after completion of two of the four islands. If you choose to persevere, you’ll unlock new achievements and powerful weaponry, but the climax will scale in difficulty. At the end of each run, successful or otherwise, you’ll choose one pilot. They retain their experience and go through to the next timeline, making them available for subsequent runs. Everything else is lost. This loop of achievement hunting and experimentation with different squads keeps Into the Breach compulsive long after the two or so hours a single full run will likely take.
This does mean that, if you’re someone for who completion means seeing the end credits, Into the Breach is going to be over very quickly. The draw here is in mastery, experimentation, and the joy of experiencing just how many wildly divergent scenarios a set of systems you could replicate in a tabletop game can produce. However, if the metagame doesn’t appeal to you, then you may find Into the Breach lacking in content.
Should You Buy It?
One disadvantage of having no random chance is that the element of surprise, while not removed entirely, is relocated. Challenges take the form of puzzles, and the joy of discovery arises from finding solutions. Were you, for example, to have a run of Into the Breach where every solution was immediately obvious to you, then nothing else would add variety to your game. Unpredictability is present in enemy emergence, but also contained there, quarantined off in a safe little pocket that you can almost always make plans for.
This said, I’m personally not someone who spends time trying to master games, and Into the Breach has me utterly invested in unlocking every squad and collecting every achievement. I’m dozens of runs in, and can easily see it being hundreds before I decide to let my suit get rusty.
We often talk about satisfying endings, conclusions that sum up our experiences perfectly. Into the Breach doesn’t have one of these. But it does have satisfying, powerful, and conclusive moments, and they’re present after every single decision you make. In the systems, as in the story, time is cyclical. One more turn, more mission, more timeline. Once more, Into the Breach.
Into the Breach was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.