Thursday, September 6, 2018

Against All Odds: Into the Breach

Into the Breach by Subset Games was released on Nintendo Switch on August 28 2018. (Photo: Gamespot)

Historically, I’m terrible at strategy games. I can grasp the rules of chess, but I’m never able to think ahead and avoid my king’s inevitable demise. I rule over my fiefdoms in Risk with the same short-sighted bluster as the worst despots in history, charging into conquests that end with me fleeing back to Australia with my tail between my legs. I love the story and graphics and atmosphere of StarCraft, but I can barely complete the main campaign without cheat codes (never mind compete against other players online). So it was a rather big surprise to find myself sinking hours and hours into Subset Games’s Into the Breach, which is one of the toughest strategy games I’ve ever played.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s recently been ported to the Nintendo Switch, meaning that the addictive tug of its bite-sized gameplay sessions can be satisfied on the bus, at work, in bed, or wherever else I am. The game’s beautiful but undemanding pixel art graphics and simple interface are a perfect match for the Switch’s smaller screen, too. But the platform I’m playing on isn't quite as important as the gameplay, and how clever and engaging Subset has made it.

The premise is simple: giant bug-like aliens called Vek are waking and burrowing up from deep within the Earth, ravaging cities across the world. Humanity has built giant mechs to combat the threat, but their efforts are never enough to stem the tide of destruction. Time-travel technology allows mech pilots to reset the timeline when they fail, hoping that maybe their new reality is one where humanity can survive. Combined with an eight-by-eight grid board and a turn-based combat flow, it’s Pacific Rim meets Fire Emblem, where you control three mechs who have one move and one action they can spend per turn to try and kill Vek, mitigate the damage they do to civilian buildings, and prevent them from surfacing. There are special objectives that can earn you rewards when completed, but the only real goal is to survive until the Vek give up and retreat.

(Photo: IGN)

It might sound simple, but Into the Breach is deceptively complex. Every turn, each Vek’s next action is clearly telegraphed, so you know exactly what will happen if you fail to stop them. This is supported by a crystal-clear UI that maximizes simplicity and legibility, making it possible to understand the board’s action at a glance (but also providing specific information if you need it). Into the Breach is a game about mitigation, where you are constantly outnumbered and outgunned, making calculation of risk and reward of paramount importance. It might seem like killing a Vek and removing it from play is always the best idea, but what if you could simply shift it one square, and force its incoming attack to miss? What if you could shift it so that it blocks an emerging Vek, or attacks one of its brethren instead? Is it worth having one of your mechs block a shot and take severe damage, if it means you will maintain the upper hand in the next few turns? (Into the Breach reminds me of some notably different games, like Blizzard’s Hearthstone, in this regard, where “tempo” – maintaining the momentum of early luck and success – is key.) I’ve spent over thirty minutes, sometimes almost an hour, just staring at the board, my head buzzing with different possibilities and outcomes. In a game where every move could be fatal, it’s necessary to take your time and carefully consider your options.

But despite its difficulty, Into the Breach is not punishing. There are several significant aids that make you feel like you have tools to fight back against its unfair odds, like the ability to reset a turn once per battle, and the ability to bring a single pilot back in time with you when you fail – preserving the experience and special skills they’ve gained along the way. The game’s risk/reward balance is also reflected in the special objectives offered on each map (say, to protect a specific building from damage, or to block Vek from spawning 3 times), which can provide major rewards that help keep you in the fight, but come at the cost of adding those goals to your already-significant list of considerations when facing the Vek. It’s rare, especially on harder difficulty settings, to come out of any battle unscathed with every objective met – but you are richly rewarded when you manage to pull it off.

In addition to these special objectives, there are also achievements, some of which apply to the game as a whole and some which apply to specific mech squads, which amplify the desire to keep coming back to the game. Battles are over in short sessions, usually from five to twenty minutes, and the game’s final challenge can be faced after clearing only two of the game’s four sectors, meaning that “beating the game” is really just the beginning – you’ll want to try again in order to unlock more mechs and pilots, earn bigger rewards on higher difficulties, and maybe find some secrets along the way. It all comes together to create an addictive loop, a familiar “just one more turn before bed” pattern of behaviour that resulted in me pouring hours and hours into a game I never even thought I’d enjoy. Other tough but satisfying games like Cuphead and Bloodborne have also managed to keep me hungry for more, but I’ve never experienced that feeling with a game based on clever strategy and forethought, not on quick reflexes and level-headed focus. I thought I was terrible at this stuff, but I guess I just needed to find the right game to sell me on the genre.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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