Into the Breach is a newly released game by Subset Studios (the team behind beloved space travel roguelike FTL: Faster Than Light). It’s a tactical combat roguelike in which players control a team of mechs and attempt to hold off waves of murderous giant insects. Both tactics combat and roguelike elements often fall flat for me, but this game combines them in a way that makes them both work wonderfully.
Since the roguelike formula started to catch on, I’ve always been a huge fan… in theory. I’ve enjoyed a lot of roguelikes but rarely for more than a few hours of playing around. I’ve played a bit of games like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, and The Binding of Isaac. I even fell off relatively early on FTL, despite having a generally better time with it. I find that many of these games have steeper difficulty curves than I can manage. After a time, I reach a point where I’m not getting much farther with each run, and each run takes long enough to become tedious. I tend to fall off long before I feel any sense of mastery, and long before I feel like I’ve experienced a significant amount of the game’s content.
And I don’t mean to imply that these games have poorly crafted difficulty curves or are not good games. They just don’t work well for the time investment that I’m willing to commit. I naturally gravitate towards narrative driven games or games that have a fixed single-player campaign. I like to be able to complete an experience and then set it down. But I’ve always wanted to like roguelikes more.
When it comes to tactics games, I’ve often been interested but ultimately bounced off of them. I’ve gotten through one Fire Emblem game (Awakening) and I’ve started other kinds of tactics games like Final Fantasy Tactics or XCOM and just… not been that into them. I never personally found the strategy elements of these games to be intuitive enough to be compelling. I’d set things up and then be frustrated and confused when the enemies decimated my ranks on their turn, or I’d waste a bunch of time ever-so-carefully putting units just outside enemy attack range, trying to bait them into coming into range first. It rarely wound up being the puzzle I was looking for and often resulted in long, tedious fights that ended in disaster after making one big mistake.
As is the case with roguelikes, I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything objectively wrong with tactics games, or that they don’t deserve the followings they earn. They just don’t click with me personally most of the time, and I have trouble wrapping my head around them.
Into the Breach is a combination of roguelike elements with a particularly unusual tactics combat system. So it’s really not the sort of game that typically appeals to me… but neither was FTL (which delighted me anyways). Into the Breach manages to work for me, however, because of the way the combat system is designed, the way the battles are short and punchy, and the game limits the player’s ability to undo their mistakes. These elements not only make a compelling experience of exploring new regions and new mechs, but also manage to sustain exciting play throughout repeated playthroughs.
Of any tactics game I’ve seen or played, Into the Breach has the most puzzle-like interactions. Each turn presents a number of impending attacks to be averted by killing enemies or pushing them away from their targets. Or knocking them into mountains. Or each other. Or blocking them from spawning. Or knocking them into environmental hazards. Or kicking up dust to ruin their aim and cancel the attack. Or knocking them around such that they hit or block each other instead of the buildings under the player’s protection. There are so many wonderfully clever and satisfying interactions to uncover, and all sorts of weapons and tech that can be acquired between battles, often providing abilities that change tactics meaningfully and diversify combat options.
And the roguelike aspect of it also eliminates one of my biggest problems with tactics games; the temptation to start a mission over when things go south. The game does allow the player to freely undo move actions if they haven’t yet fired their weapons. It also allows a single turn per battle to be reset before proceeding. And that’s just enough to feel extremely helpful when I misjudge or fail to notice something, but still be scarce enough that I often find myself staring forlornly at the “RESET USED” indicator, wishing I could have another do-over. There’s no way to reverse anything else, and this actually works incredibly well. These limitations are a necessity in order to provide the stakes of a roguelike, but they also allow just the right amount of mistakes to be made while still providing a granular undo mechanic.
Fights themselves are also fairly short, only a handful of turns and a small team of mechs. This helps keep the action moving, and I very rarely find myself making frivolous actions (like moving a unit just to get it closer to the rest of its team). Battles can be chosen from a number of options, each providing various bonus objectives that allow players to regain resources or earn points to be spent later on upgrades. The way the combat encounters are woven into the game’s surrounding systems is satisfying and well-paced.
I’m writing this after my first victorious run of the game, which I found to be one of the most satisfying single-player victories in recent memory. I had moments where I’d pore over a particular turn, moving units around trying to find the right way to move all of the enemies and obstacles into just the right position, allowing me to cancel out all the impending damage to my units and to the civilian buildings in the area. And I’m far from finished with this game; there are many more teams of mechs to battle with, most of which have very different abilities and force me to use drastically different strategies.
I don’t know exactly how well this game will work for others who don’t care for these styles of games. Maybe it won’t be that magic formula that clicks for you. But if what I’ve said sounds interesting, then I honestly can’t recommend Into the Breach enough.
Also worth mentioning, if you buy it before March 6th you’ll get a free copy of FTL as well, which is a wonderful game in its own right.