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Wot I Think: Breached

And sinking

Breached [official site], a small and rather peculiar game about attempting to scavange an alien landscape for materials to briefly survive, is out tomorrow. I've played it a bunch of times, and here's wot I think:

Breached is a lovely idea in search of a game. Deliberately obfuscated from the outset, you find yourself in some sort of computer control room, surrounded by screens the size of walls, apparently with only two tasks: refuel, fix your generator. Who you are, where you are, why you're doing any of it - that's yours to try to discover as you play. And in creating this sense of mystery, it succeeds, and is both intriguing and infuriating. In fact, that's a good pair of words to describe the whole experience.

The game is split into three parts. On waking each day, your character writes a diary entry - you influence this very slightly by clicking on one of two highlighted words in a line to divert the thoughts in that direction. At the end of an entry, topics that have been mentioned in previous iterations of this diary (we'll get to that) are hashtagged, and clicking on them will search through the archives for other mentions. Through this method, you slowly build up a vague understanding of your circumstances, and it's a completely splendid idea.

The second part of the game involves opening scavenged containers for generator parts, and attempting to guess at the correct mix of ingredients to create fuel. Formed from harvested materials called Alpha, Beta and Gamma, you take stabs at a mix and get informed of the percentage quality - you're after 100%, so you need to keep tweaking at this recipe. And to get those materials, you need to play the third part, the bulk of the game, flying drones around an alien planet surface.

This is controlled just with the mouse: left click to accelerate, right to brake, and steer with movement. As you flit about on the sandy wastelands you need to track down the ores you're after from bizarre structures, while keeping an eye out for containers, and all the time attempt to avoid the drone-destroying evils of strange glowing orb anomalies. Get caught in one of these and your drone is destroyed, along with anything it's gathered. You've got three slots to fill before returning your findings to base.

All simple enough, except for the game's most limiting resource: your tiredness. It seems you are very, very tired. Sending out a drone will use up 30-40% of your daily energy, while attempting a fuel mix will gobble up another 30%. A failed drone trip is, therefore, a disaster, since you only have supplies to keep you alive for seven days. So it therefore becomes a matter of careful balancing of your time, in order to try to achieve these two tasks. And blimey, that's not simple.

And here appears the game's biggest issue: it's very slow, very simple, and success is not likely. What would already be a pretty tough ask in such limited time is made all the more unlikely thanks to the random nature of discovering a key part for the generator - really removing the last hope of skill to see you through in the first couple of plays. Which leads to the rather enormous problem that playing again means starting from scratch each time, the only gains being a better understanding of what the game's about, and an increasingly off-putting knowledge of the unlikelihood of success.

Each play through takes probably an hour to two hours depending upon how distracted you are by Twitter, but going back in again after that really offers nothing new at all. You can fill in any tiny gaps you may have missed in the story, and attempt once again to gather what you need in the time you need to do it, but the will to do so is not rewarded by emergent moments or surprises. You basically play the same game over and over until you get it right.

Which is all the more peculiar when the game has its own internal logic for a restart to be a continued narrative. It's a slight spoiler to tell you that you realise this isn't your character's first attempt at this when you play for the first time - I won't say how or why - but that perfectly sets things up for repeated goes to fit into this pattern. However, as abundantly obvious an idea as this is, it's completely unrealised by the game. You just start from the same place, and read the same text, and do the same things in the same places. It's bonkers! This could have used some procedurally generated landscapes so you don't end up learning your way around the scant few it offers, it could have played with the notions of repeated attempts, it could have added so many other goals to be attempted from a pool to make new plays a novel experience. But rather it ends up feeling very tiny, very slight, and certainly under-ambitious.

Which is a shame, considering there's so many smart things here too, especially the way it delivers its story. (Though that too feels under-realised in light of repeated plays.) It also looks absolutely lovely, once you're in a drone. A gorgeous, crisp landscape of strange outcroppings and bizarre features, a little marred by your drone's unpredictability as to which slopes it will attempt, and which it'll just slide all the way down into a distant valley. Like I say, intriguing and infuriating at every turn.

In the end, Breached is just too small in every aspect to feel satisfying. I'd love to see this fleshed out into something with more ambition and more purpose. As it is, even at the reasonable price of $7, it feels too fleeting.

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