Any studio with a debut as strong as FTL might well be wary of that Difficult Second Album syndrome. How do you follow up a game so idiosyncratic and widely adored without risking disappointment? The answer, it turns out, is with a kaiju vs giant mech tactical masterclass.
We’ve been playing Into the Breach.
Adam: Cards on the table. Into the Breach is one of the best things I’ve played this year. It’s not out yet and we’re all having a big early look at an incomplete version, but it feels pretty much ready for release bar a few placeholder graphics and possible balance issues. The point is, this isn’t a preview build as such - it’s the full game, more or less, and I love it.
It’s a game of tiny, one-screen tactical maps, and short battles. A handful of turns. And I can’t stop playing it, over and over and over and over. We’re all loving it, right?
Brendan: I like the plot. You’re a bunch of time-travelling mech warriors who must defend the earth from gargantuan insects. It’s basically Edge of Tomorrow meets Pacific Rim.
Graham: It's so smart, so good at creating tense little situations, at presenting you with every bit of information you need, at creating the sense that there's always a way out of whatever terrible situation you're in.
I feel like we should describe the mechanics. For starters: it's turn-based, but not straightforwardly. At the beginning of each round of turns, you're shown what the enemies are going to do on their turn. This giant beetle is going to charge this skyscraper; this [thing] is going to spew acid at this power plant; this giant squid is going to undulate strangely. You then have the opportunity to decide how you're going to move, and when you hit End Turn, your actions happen first. It becomes, therefore, a game about interruptions. Shove that giant beetle to the side so his attack misses the skyscraper and hits his squidmate, position your mech to block that acid attack and save the power plant, etc.
Matt: I love how each turn starts out seeming like it’s going to be an absolute disaster. Your main goal is to protect the buildings on each level, and each one that gets destroyed knocks down your energy level in a way that’s roughly equivalent to losing hull points in FTL.
So at the start of a turn, you might be facing five or six separate threats - and you only have three mechs to deal with them. It might seem insurmountable at first, but then you realise that if you use your artillery to just knock that unit there it’ll simultaneously dunk one bug straight into the water, move another one so that it blocks the incoming fire of a separate threat and move one of your mechs into range to punch that last insectoid into oblivion.
Brendan: It’s very chessy. You start to look at rows and squares, thinking: “How do I lock down that area?” or “If I put my artillery robot along here, he can target this whole stretch of land”. When some laser-armed robots joined the fray, with the ability to fire a laser in a long, straight line, I thought: “Oh no, these are the rooks.” It even has a board that is 8 x 8. Maybe that’s an accident. But maybe it is really clever.
Adam: I’m contractually obliged by my BRAIN and SOUL to mention Invisible, Inc. It’s a lot like Invisible, Inc., while simultaneously being an entirely different kettle of kaiju. What’s similar is that I can spend so long mulling over the consequences of a single move - it’s amazing, because it shows you the consequences. There are no dice rolls, no random elements beyond the actual layouts and enemy placements. It gives you all the data and then you have to figure out how to make use of it.
Graham: I think if I read about smarts, and turns, and seemingly-impossible situations, and FTL, I'd be thinking, "Oh no, this game is really hard." But I've been surprised by how forgiving and generous it is. You can undo any mech movement you make until you commit to an attack; in each battle, you can fully reset a turn once; there's a turn timer, but it's counting down to you winning and the enemy retreating.
In every element, it's more forgiving than it initially appears. Your mech pilots can die, but you can continue to use the mechs in later missions only without their XP bonuses. You can take as much mech damage as you like and they'll always be back at full health at the start of the next mission. It lets you set your own difficulty in some decisions, too: you always have a choice of at least two missions to take next,and their difficulty is made clear beforehand, and the rewards aren't substantially better for taking the harder challenges. Heck, even the endgame is accessible. There are four islands, but you can attempt the final mission after completing just two of them and that mission scales to your squad's current level. All of these things have meant that I reached the final mission on my second attempt. I got creamed on that mission, but it doesn't feel like a game about grinding out deaths until you work out the one best build, in the way FTL started to feel.
Brendan: WHAT. It’s hard, man. At least, normal mode is. It has the undo button and the “one reset per turn”. But the challenge of keeping your energy levels up is as tough as keeping a hull waxed and polished in FTL. I don’t know how you reached that final mission so fast. I’ve died so many times to bothersome arachnids, I forget what the face of my first mech pilot looks like.
Adam: Into the Breach is easy; Brendan is terrible at games.
BUT no. I don’t think it’s easy, but forgiving is a good word. It gives you lots of opportunities to rethink and recalculate before committing to a move. And it’s important that your mechs aren’t actually all that valuable. You’re protecting the human population (or robots sometimes) and they’re in city tiles. If they take too many hits, it’s game over. Mechs never really die, as Graham says, you just lose the pilots. So there’s this whole other tactic of using your mechs as shields, protecting the cities. Again, it’s a bit chess-like, this idea of sacrificing one piece to save another. The cities are the kings.
Brendan: And the pilots are the pawns :(
Matt: I think the first mechs you get given might be one of the weaker sets, which doesn’t help with the initially punishing difficulty. They’re simple to use, though I found myself in more situations where there was nothing to do to prevent armageddon. It also has that thing where underperforming at the start can set you back massively - whenever I lose a pilot, and the special advantages they provide, I start another game. Though maybe I’m just a baby who can’t commit to my failures.
Adam: It definitely gives you the simplest mechs first, rather than either the worst or the best. They’re not the easiest option in terms of blasting through the game, but they’re the easiest to understand. One shoots in a straight line, one punches, one launches artillery. - and I should point out that as you unlock new three-mech squads, you can also mix and match mechs.
Matt: You can WHAT.
Brendan: I also did not know this.
Adam: Yeah! Go to the squad list and hit randomise, then just keep hitting it if you don’t like the squad you get. I’m not sure if you can just drag them in and out, but you can definitely mix up the classes and squads using that randomise button.
My point is, it’s a game that increases in complexity as you unlock stuff, but it’s the complexity of what you can do, so instead of just punching or shooting, you’re ejecting smoke that prevents baddies from attacking, or pushing and pulling enemies around the map without actually damaging them. And then there are pieces of equipment that change the way scenery and weapons work. The islands get more complex too, throwing in a third faction in the form of robots that have lost their artificial minds and attack EVERYONE. And half the time you have to defend them, even though they’re trying to kill you.
It keeps adding these new wrinkles without losing the simplicity of its tiny maps and brief missions.
Matt: Yeah, I love how the different mechs and maps make you look at the battlefield in completely different ways. My favourite at the moment is Robotic Judoka, which is fronted by a dude whose signature move is picking up bugs and chucking them up and over his head. Sometimes that’s into the incoming fire of another insect, sometimes it’s straight into a pool of acid. It’s always awesome.
Brendan: I like the mech who farts electrifying smoke when he launches a missile. If there’s an insect in the smoke, it can’t attack because it’s blinded by the electric stink. And it gets damaged too. This too makes you think about rank and file, while also keeping in mind the capabilities and weaknesses of your units. Where are they most useful? Where are they most vulnerable? For me, Into The Breach is a disciple of Advance Wars. And that’s brill.
Adam: There’s definitely something of the Advance Wars about it. I think the big difference, beyond the predictability of the enemies, is in the way objectives work. There are always multiple objectives - defend a train or a certain building, kill a certain number of monsters etc - but the only one that you have to accomplish is survival. After the turn limit is hit, the baddies always retreat and anything else you do along the way is just for bonus points to upgrade or heal the power grid (which is your persistent health meter across missions).
It means every mission is very tight and controlled (and, yes, I know that’s true of Advance Wars, but this is even TIGHTER). You don’t have to worry about moving units from one part of a map to another or capturing facilities. It’s absolutely a short-form game. Even a full successful run can take less than an hour and individual missions are miniature.
Graham: I agree with both Advance Wars and Invisible, Inc. comparisons. The third game it makes me think of is Unity of Command, which similarly condenses expansive battles and complex tactics into these pocket missions. But where Unity of Command conveys the miserable, inch-by-inch progress of the eastern front, Into The Breach seems bent towards making you feel smart. I agree - it's not an easy game. But I do think it's a game that wants you to have a good time and to do incredible things and to win against the odds.
Brendan: It’s a clever diorama of alien war. I like it. I am sad that nobody reading our chat can play it yet. When can they play it, Adam?
Adam: Early next year is what I’ve heard. Hopefully that means a couple of months from now. I want everyone to have a chance to play it because it is not only great, it’s also one of those games I’d show to people who don’t like all my big, off-puttingly interfaced strategy games and say, “this is what I like. This is it”. It’s pretty, it has really fun writing (the leaders of the various islands are great personalities) and the whole alien vs mech theme is delightful.
Matt: For me, Into The Breach is a game where I’ll sit back for up to five minutes while I think through every possible move I can make, then leap into action with a 30 second spree of convoluted chain reactions that reconfigure the board from a disaster into a bug-on-bug massacre. I come out of it feeling like a tactical genius, in a similar way to Invisible Inc.
I’ve already thwarted the insects once with my judo-bots, but unlike with other games I still feel like there’s loads left to do. I want to try and win after only completing two islands, and then unlock every squad of mechs and win with those too.
Into the Breach is out early next year.