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The Rally Point: The Riftbreaker is light on strategy but carries a lot with it

The Krypton Factorio

I hesitated. Not to play The Riftbreaker, you understand. I'd played its demo last year, which was enough to sell me on playing the full game. But to cover it as a strategy game is another matter.

It does games in particular a disservice to get prescriptive with genre, but there's no question that Riftbreaker falls under 'action strategy', with an even greater emphasis on action than, say, Hostile Waters or Sacrifice. But then, it also has detailed base building, tower defence, and a tonne of resource management. I've given up trying to categorise it, and it will always be distinct from most strategy games, but I think its peers could still learn a few things from it.

Comparisons are sometimes made to Factorio, which are perhaps unwise. If you're looking for another machine-building paradise, this will disappoint you. Factorio is all about logistics and complex gathering and delivery chains that don't appear in Riftbreaker at all. With the exception of liquids and electricity, everything magically appears wherever it's needed, even across the many continents you'll eventually be zapping back and forth across.

It sort of is a different interpretation of Factorio's premise, though. You're a "scientist" (fire! More grenades! Rocket towers GO!) who's teleported to a distant planet in an explorative attempt to find a new home for humanity (Cryo mines! Build more storage on top of those grasslands! Fire!). Said planet is teeming with life, which you repeatedly insist to your thankfully non-wacky AI companion must be protected (aaaahahahaha dieee you nest bastard! Laser drone! Fire!), lest we repeat the mistakes of Earth (acid gun! Upgrade the furnace that burns alien corpses for fuel! FIRE).

"The planet is teeming with life, which you repeatedly insist must be protected (aaaahahahaha dieee you nest bastard! Laser drone! Fire!), lest we repeat the mistakes of Earth."

So yeah you're kind of a monster. Embedded in a powerful mech, your real job is to travel the planet gunning down hundreds of thousands of living things, ostensibly because they keep attacking your base, but eventually because they're in the way of your insatiable thirst for resources. Where Factorio made it difficult, but possible to minimise your impact on the aliens, your goal is to supply a teleporter big enough to get you home, and that requires liquifying enough biomass that you could probably build a bridge out of the bodies and spacewalk there.

To enable this, your mech can be outfitted with three weapons on each arm, a heap of abilities and armours and special moves (mines, repair buzzes, shockwaves, even a game-changing cloak). Supplying and researching this is your base, which is where the strategy side comes in. It's a compelling hybrid of a looter-shooter action RPG with a wave defence base building game.

It's the immediacy above all. Where just recently I've complained about the deposit, here's Riftbreaker practically paying it for you. You're a mech, you can build stuff, you need to protect this building and gather things, now shoot anything that looks at you funny and we'll figure the rest out when we get there. There are nuances, and complications, and things I didn't understand, but the things I did understand were engaging and accessible and effective enough to keep me afloat until I was ready to learn the rest.

You get to choose your own pace. Not with a menu at the start (which often necessitates knowing the game somewhat anyway), but by your own behaviour. Riftbreaker isn't particularly hard, and if you're feeling brave or plain enjoying it, you can run off and fight in the wilderness at any time, teleporting back to base if there's trouble. If you're less confident, or plain enjoying the base parts, you can instead concentrate on those until you're ready to push out, unlocking more research goodies, perfecting defences, and tidying up after attackers.

In particular, it's got me thinking about how most traditional RTSeses like Age Of Empires 4 tend to be over long before they tell you. Lose your army in a Starcraft and the enemy will almost certainly lay waste to everything, with even a rapidly spawned backup Zerg just delaying the inevitable. Suffer a big enough villager massacre in AoE and you'll never catch up. It's a bit unfair to directly compare such different designs, but Riftbreaker demonstrates a principle more RTS games could learn from: you can come back. As long as your HQ building is intact, you can scale back your operation and rebuild. Hell, perhaps it'll even be a good chance to redesign your base.

Strategy games could do more in general to let players set our own pace. All too often their pacing is mathematical. Take the RTS with its slow and tedious start, ramping up to an overwhelming onslaught of a hundred notifications. Or the 4X, with its all-or-nothing demands for exponential growth and upgrades just to stay competitive. Even turn based tactical strategy land, home to your XCOMs and Jagged Alliances, is full of games with both feet on the accelerator (although interestingly, the original UFO had occasional months where the aliens would do almost nothing, giving the player a rare reprieve in which to research and patch up the wounded, and the impression that an interplanetary invasion takes some actual planning and co-ordination much like a real war). It's part of why getting back into a long campaign is an often daunting prospect and I end up starting again rather than continuing one I forgot about in 2019.

Riftbreaker is, of course, not remotely a 'pure' strategy game, and so it can do things others can't. Even sat in a holding pattern of shooting aliens and scanning plants for scientific data (and thus more resources when you tear them down while blasting monsters, or intentionally deforest like the colonising arsehole you are), not only are you consolidating, but you're, well, you're blasting. The action might be kind of simple but it's gorgeous and utterly spectacular, in a way screenshots can never fully convey. What's unreadable in stills is an endless explosion of colour and lights, superb weapon effects and discovering that instead of discarding your spear when you made a better one, you can use both at once oh my God. Now if I can just figure out a way to replace my legs with spears as well...

Not every game can have that kind of raw thrill, or sheer spectacle to fall back on when you don't feel like engaging with the rest of the design. But all too often, they do almost the opposite. I want to fight battles in Total War, but instead I have to march my armies all the way across the world. I want to manage this siege in Age Of Empires, but instead I have to fart about training spearmen and shoving villagers at repair jobs. Riftbreaker does have stuff you have to do, of course, but apart from obvious emergencies like repairing and defending, it can wait. And if you don't enjoy the shooting much, well, you probably ought to move on really, but you could focus on an extremely well-turreted base spreading walled tentacles across the world. I'm actually kind of tempted to try that now, even if it's just on a secondary base - over time you teleport around the planet to explore and exploit new areas, and establishing a cheap and simple outpost building there lets you set up automated contributory mines, or revisit them any time in person.

Strategically the biggest decision is exactly that: how to expand. Do you cherry pick good resource sites in defensible locations and arm them to the teeth? Or go for quantity, establishing lots of tiny sites on any exposed ore, with token or even no defences, so you can enjoy massive income and periodically rebuild an area, or rely wholly on your own guns for defence? I thought I'd do the former, but I gradually found myself building a single mega-base instead, an entirely haphazard mess of batteries, armories, and far too few turrets outside the key areas. The many layers of walls I'd built up might one day be what saves me from total destruction, but mostly I think I've been trying to recreate that special Factorio feeling of intimately knowing a needlessly complex layout.

Ultimately though, it's pretty light on the strategy side, and its reticence to dramatically punish you will be a negative to some. And that's valid! For all my complaining, I certainly understand the desire some players have for a rough and demanding experience. Riftbreaker has some other issues too. It's hard to know what to focus on early on, especially if you're naturally cautious and unwilling to run off into the unknown to investigate its entirely unexplained map icons. Both your mech AI and player character will badger you often with low-urgency information like "storage full", and their long conversations don't take into account what's happening on screen, so I often found myself wishing they would shut up and talk about this plot point later while I fight off this massive wave of lava-chucking aliens. And while the changes in weather and so on are a nice touch, some of the random events (notably the hailstones) are unbearably tedious to deal with if you haven't already blanketed your base in repair towers.

It's definitely lightweight in comparison to probably anything else I've covered here, but Riftbreaker's building and defensive considerations have pulled me in as much as its raw and gorgeous action, and the way they're intertwined are geared towards rewarding rather than hamstringing you. All the fancy stuff I'm unlocking feels additive rather than grudgingly doling out the fun, and its combination of action, exploration and building is a rare example of uniting the most compelling parts of often conflicting styles. Considering I used to switch off the tower defence parts of Factorio, I'm impressed how interesting a game all about them can be.

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