Developer: Subset Games
Publisher: Subset Games
Rating: n/a (Likely E for Everyone)
To call indie developer Subset Games legendary might be considered hyperbole for a two-man team. However, Justin Ma and Matthew Davis have been considered poster boys for how crowdfunding can make dream projects possible, securing $200,00 out of the $10,000 initial ask. Following that sort of rabid anticipation for a space-faring roguelike as well as its overwhelmingly positive reception across Steam and iOS, the developer did not need a kickstarter to initiate its sophomore effort, Into the Breach.
Into the Breach is a clean game. I have not so much as detected an alternative spelling for “donkey.” Violence is conveyed through giant mechs, giant insects, and giant arachnids. When a mech takes too much damage, it shuts down, and the pilot inside is considered KIA. When multi-legged foes die, they “squish” in satisfying faction, much like what happens when their tiny intruder cousins meet the swift justice of the bottom of a shoe. If there is anything that might raise alarm, one series of missions describes artificial intelligence as “life.” This is a common theme in sci-fi, but unlike in Mass Effect, here, Into the Breach presents this idea not as a question, but as a fact.
I first want to acknowledge that I will be actively resisting the urge compare FTL: Faster than Light with Into the Breach. I have noticed a tendency around the industry for the creations of indie developers to be compared within the context of their own work, rather than in the context of the industry as a whole. I believe that this is unfair. I have yet to experience, for example, Ubisoft’s The Division compared to the Rainbow Six series; they are both shooters, but their mechanics dictate nuanced distinctions in how the games should be approached and played. In respect of this, I hope that when I do mention FTL, I will be doing so as a frame of reference in respect to its popularity, rather than to prescribe expectations for Into the Breach.
Set in a future presumably in the FTL universe where the world has failed to heed the signs of global warming and the ocean has risen to consume all land but four privatized islands, titanic, city-sized subterranean monstrosities called the Vek emerge to the surface, threatening to escalate humanity’s status from endangered to extinct. The Rift Walkers, a combination of humans and anthropomorphic AI piloting mechs equal in size to the Vek, drop from a colossal airship to defend the last of the world’s population. They accomplish this by outright destroying the alien intruders or delaying their advance and forcing a retreat. Should the Rift Walkers fail in protecting the last remaining cities, the power grid suppressing the monsters will collapse, and the Vek will invade unabated, dooming the planet.
Though Into the Breach presents its story as players taking the offensive—as opposed to FTL where it is better for the fugitive Galactic Federation vessel to avoid combat—players will oftentimes find themselves maneuvering to postpone the enemy’s offensive. Combat in Into the Breach takes place on an 8×8 grid. To begin, players deploy their three mechs within a horizontal, sixteen-space range on the map with the Vek spawning on the opposite site. The enemy always goes first, to which one must respond over the course of four turns. Punch, shoot, push, pull, freeze, burn, electrocute, and melt foes to victory.
A delectable synthesis of environments, enemy AI, Vek variety, and squad diversity drives the stellar gameplay that one should expect from the makers of of FTL. A key difference here is that failure in Into the Breach can be attributed to a lack of skill rather than a lack of prayers to RNGesus. Environments include the basic elemental typology that one would see in common platformers—grass, ice (water), desert, and industrial. As war rages, enkindled grass creates a hazard that, should a unit find themselves ending a turn on such a tile, they will incur damage over time (turns) through immolation. Damaged dust tiles generate clouds neutralizing an occupying unit’s ability to attack; water similarly impairs the offensive capabilities of mechs, but is instantly lethal to Veck. Toxic tiles saturate units in A.C.I.D., doubling incoming damage. Mines can either freeze or one-hit a unit foolish enough to end a turn on one—usually the AI, which is a flaw in programming for which I have no complaints. Environmental effects such as lightning storms, tidal waves, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions also deal OHKOs, but these are rare, and usually on sections of an island that are low-risk, low reward.
I consider the Zenith squad the worst squad in the game. In this montage, the charge mech has been replaced with a mech using the Blitzkrieg squad’s hook weapon so that the laser mech can shoot four Vek. Smart!
The squad compositions are among Into the Breach‘s greatest strengths. Their basic compositions entail a “prime” class mech that sports a large HP pool and damage potential; “brute” class mech that specializes in manipulating the positions of enemies; and a “ranged/science” mech that can contribute to the cause from across the screen. There are eight squads in total (that I know of), and I will only discuss a few for the sake of space. The previously-mentioned default Rift Walkers are balanced to handle a plethora of situations, each able to push Vek one tile away via artillery, a ranged shell, or melee attack. The Blitzkrieg squad focuses on chaining attacks with the lightning whip prime mech while manipulating Vek positioning with the hook mech or outright blocking emerging enemies with the boulder mech. The Steel Judoka magnify the importance of Vek positioning due to its science-class gravity mech equipped with a passive that augments the damage output of Vek friendly fire; it is crucial, therefore, that the prime judo mech and ranged siege mech position foes accordingly. The Rusted Hulks are my favorite squad thus far, relying on the brute-class jet to create electric clouds thanks to the range-class rocket mech’s passive that cancels enemy attacks and induces damage for any units in the cloud at the end of a turn; the science-class pulse mech pushes units one tile away in all four cardinal directions, and can be upgraded to shield both itself and also allies and cities.
No squad is complete without top-class pilots. Before beginning a run, one must select a lead pilot who will be accompanied by two generic pilots on their missions. They are literally rift walkers—not to be confused with the squad name; the primary “roguelike” element in Into the Breach is the ability to abandon a timeline (quit the game) while retaining the experience and skills of a single pilot for the next run. This feature is both neat and frustrating. On one hand, I wish I could take all of my pilots, but I know this would break game balance. On the other, I feel that the game allows players to take something along with them so that a poor run does not feel like a critical waste of time.
The reason pilots are important is that each has a game-changing passive in addition to two (randomly assigned?) skills that can be unlocked after enough experience has been gained. The default pilot is Ralph Karlsson, who gives a bonus 2 XP per kill to accelerate leveling up, and thus, his own effectiveness. He is a good starter, but a poor finisher. Other pilots must be found through (bonus) time capsules that randomly appear during battles, or finishing perfect islands. Here are a few examples: Henry Kwan can move through enemy units; Chen Rong can move 1 free tile after attacking (typically, a unit’s turn is over after attacking), but Archimedes’ skill is even better—for the cost of one reactor core, he gains full mobility after an attack; my favorite pilot so far, Camila Vera, is unaffected by smoke or webbing (grabs), granting uninhibited mobility with the jet Rusted Hulk.
The Vek themselves are no slouches. Among them are scorpions grab player mechs so that they cannot escape, and their moderate 3 HP allow them to last typically more than one round; mantises also hold mechs, but with only one HP, they are glass cannons that do three damage. Hornets zip around the field ignoring hazards, units, and buildings, but are relatively easy to dispatch with 2 HP. Fireflies shoot ranged attacks and also have 3HP, making them a nuisance. Beetles shoot over buildings and units, serving as the Vek’s artillery. A weird flying mushroom unit provides buffs to the Vek such as added HP or armor (damage reduction of 1) as long as they are present on the battlefield, creating high-priority targets. As players advance in the game, so do the Vek. Spiders appear, shooting webs that can tie down entire squads. A beetle-like foe charges across the map doing damage to anything in its wake. A bug I cannot even identify fires a blob that will explode, dealing damage to all adjacent tiles if left alone.Enemies that used to hit one tile per attack now possess attacks that do two tiles of damage. Foes that once did two damage now do four. This balance is designed to keep players who think they are overpowered on their toes, for one bad battle can snowball into a situation that may not be salvageable in the final missions.
Upon completing an island, players are able to spend reputation based upon how many objectives had been completed before conquering the last section of an island. Unlike FTL where one may literally salivate at the thought of acquiring a new weapon like the Burst Laser MK II, the preciousness and utility of reactor cores in Into the Breach conversely discourages investing in anything else. After all, new weapons require reactor cores of their own, and they often do not synergize properly with many squads. I am certain that someone will release a FAQ to rank weapon tiers and recommendations, but I am not one to risk a good run through experimentation.
The most reputation one can earn is nine points per island, and it has to be spent on that island; I average eight points, or two reactor cores and two points toward my power grid. Should players manage to meet every objective on an island, including defeating the boss Vek—easier said and done, especially if one wishes to suffer no damage to their power grid—then they will be rewarded with a bonus of choosing between a free weapon, free additional pilot, or free grid power. This is perhaps the fastest way to unlock new pilots; in addition, they are always better than the two generic pilots, making this choice a practical non-starter.
Like FTL, Into the Breach utilizes pixel art that can be scaled to appear look appealing at hight and low resolutions alike; those with 4K displays will find the graphics tolerable, while others anticipating a mobile release like FTL may eventually get their wish due to the simplicity of the artwork. There are a number of quality-of-life features such as scaling or grid demarcations to make streaming or “solve this turn” questions accessible, and every unit is distinguished with unique signifying idle animations and attacks. I am particularly fond of how populations within cities celebrate the arrival of a squad at the beginning of a battle. Features like that go to show developer polish, and love for a project.
Last but not least, Ben Prunty reprises his role as Subset Games’ OST composer, and what he produces here in every way matches if not surpasses his FTL work. Like the music against the final boss in FTL, “Into the Breach” harmoniously captures the game’s core melody illustrating a race with, against, and through time, blended with a tune of tension and determination. “Open a Breach,” featured in the main menu and squad selection screens, portrays the kind of morose reflection onset by the impending destruction of humanity, followed by the emergence of heroes arriving just in…time…to belay death. “Rift Riders” flawlessly depicts this call to heroism up to a crescendo of 3-4 piano simple notes inherited by a guitar that carries this symphic burden in perpetuity. Fans of FTL who do not recognize Prunty’s signature percussion in “Antiquity Row” are charlatans. “Relics” is simply a chill song. I could listen to “Region Secured” in an infinite loop. The southwestern themed “Rusting Hulks” demands that I tap my foot if not also nod my head to the acoustics like Michael Jackson does in “Smooth Criminal.” “Old War Machines,” “Cataclysm,” “Pinnacle Robotics“—okay, now I am just itemizing tracks simply as a petition that readers give them a listen. This is a soundtrack that I would recommend as its own purchase.
Outside of the Zenith squad and the teasing of supplementary weapons when default loadouts can and should suffice, I have very little negative to say about Into the Breach. It is almost predictably outstanding. Those looking to scratch the itch games such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Ogre Battle have left in their wake need to look no further. The balm is called Into the Breach.
Review code generously provided by Subset Games.
The Bottom Line
After the seminal FTL: Faster Than Light, Subset Games eludes the so-called "sophomore slump" by contributing yet another extraordinary touchstone in the gaming industry, Into the Breach.