A few hours in
Longer-time readers of my weekly column — fans, if you will — may over time have noticed a pattern where I tend to end the first page with confident-sounding boasts, only to then backtrack or suddenly reveal ‘unexpected’ failure. These fans, particularly the ones that have more than a passing familiarity wit Into The Breach or with Subset Games’ oeuvre in general, might expect a similar turn here vis-à-vis my ability to clear all four islands and emerge victorious on my first-ever try.
While I’m hardly one to disappoint the fans, though, you’ll be surprised to hear that I did actually beat all four islands on my first try. There were some difficulties on the last island, related to Corporate Towers and the protecting thereof, but then the dust settled the Power Grid was still intact, meaning I technically won.
Now, the final mission, I didn’t actually win on my first time around. I got close, but a wrong move realized too late cost me an early bomb, and sitting through a total of seven turns instead of five proved too much for my beleaguered power grid.
No, it wasn’t until my second try, with a different squad of mechs, that I destroyed the final Vek hive and saved humanity from total bug-related extinction.
It took hard work, luck, and the sacrifice of one brave pilot, but in the end, the Blitzkrieg squad was able to terminate the source of the Vek, protect the islands, and give humanity the much-needed breathing room to recover and regrow. My travelers returned to the future secure in the knowledge that a future worth returning to existed.
Then I picked a different squad and did it again.
You might wonder why I went back again, and again, and yet again, if I technically fulfilled my objective to ‘save humanity from the Vek’ early on. It’s a good question to ask, and one we’ll get to later. It might not be the answer you expect! But then, in many ways Into The Breach is not the game you might expect it to be at first glance. It sells itself on the strength of time traveling mechs fighting giant bug monsters, sort of a Doctor Who meets Pacific Rim situation, but in actuality turns out to be a strategic puzzle game themed around mechs and bugs. It lulls you into safety with a cute colourful art style and relaxed music choice, before casually tossing you into impossible, questionably ethical dilemmas. And for a game ostensibly about traveling through time to save humanity, there’s a surprisingly callous core at the heart of everything. But again, we’ll get to that.
Let’s talk gameplay first, because there are some interesting observations to be made here. Like this starting one: Into The Breach is a puzzle game.
Depending on who you talk to, that statement might be more or less controversial. While Into The Breach dresses itself up with mech battles and bug monsters, I myself pretty quickly started parsing it as a puzzle game, and most people I talked to directly seemed to look at it the same. But I read an interesting article by Waypoint’s Danielle Riendeau, who describes how Into The Breach didn’t really click or work for her until she started looking at it from a triage perspective. The perspective posited is fascinating, but what stuck with me the most is the description of how she played before having that epiphany — essentially as a moment-to-moment strategy game, the mech combat game Into The Breach dresses itself up as.
But Into The Breach is absolutely a puzzle game. Or, more accurately, it’s a long-term survival strategy engine that generates puzzles, one at a time, until either the long run wears you down or you manage to solve that final trick.
In the long run, Into The Breach‘s only mandatory goal is keeping the Power Grid intact while you work your way through the islands. Everything else is valuable, but ancillary: The Power Grid bar is basically your run’s health meter. But in the short run, every map you play throws a variety of conflicting objectives at you. In no particular order, you’ll want to protect the buildings that make up the Power Grid, achieve your objectives, prevent your mechs from getting destroyed, kill as many Vek as you can for experience, and defeat or block the rest to make your mission easier.
In that view, Into The Breach maps quickly become a game of prioritizing. Most of the time, you’ll put ‘protecting the buildings’ at #1, since those tie into the Power Grid and your overall health. ‘Achieving your objectives’ is usually #2, since objectives get you reputation to spend, more power tokens, and other bonuses. ‘Don’t let your mechs die’ is a good #3, unless they’re already AI-controlled, and any non-lethal damage your mechs take is almost always meaningless.
But maybe things are different on this map. If you’re close to completing an island perfectly, completing your last objective might be more valuable than saving a single building, since you’ll get a special reward for hitting all objectives. If one of your objectives is to kill seven Vek, you won’t want to block spawn points — unless you think you can’t make it anyway. If your objective is to take limited mech damage, maybe you’ll refocus from killing Vek to just getting them out the way for long enough. A mission where you defend a moving train is different from a mission where you have to freeze two robots, which is different from a mission where you can’t kill one particular Vek. And so on, and so forth. Every map is both a puzzle on its own, and a piece of the larger island-spanning puzzle of reaching and destroying the Vek hive.
Next to moment-to-moment puzzle solving, there is also the long-term goal of defeating the Vek to think about. You’ll want to make sure your pilots don’t die, and that they gain enough experience to level up: Each pilot can unlock up to three bonuses, including things like ‘extra Reactor Power’, ‘extra HP’, and ‘increased Power Grid defense’. Each run starts with one special time traveler pilot, who all have a given unique skill: Ralph gains extra experience, Abe armors his mech, Archimedes can move again after attacking, and so on. Your other pilots are generic helpers, though you can find more time travelers by opening pods. Generally more important, though, is keeping an eye out (and a wallet ready) for new mech equipment. Each mech has two equipment slots, which you can fill in more-or-less at your leisure with the items you buy or find. Each mech generally has one starting weapons, and some mechs in some squads start with two — but you can change everything as you see fit. Just as long as you have the items, and the Reactor Power.
It’s possible to go for the final mission in any Into The Breach run after completing a minimum of two islands. The difficulty of the final mission (and the later islands) scales with the number of islands you complete, so particularly four-island final mission victories are something of a prestige point. In practice, what you ‘can’ do in any run tends to depend on your luck of the draw in shops and time pods, and the degree of confidence you have in your squad and your abilities. I’ve scored most of my victories in three islands, but there were one or two runs where two islands in I just wasn’t feeling it. And in that case, you might as well take a stab, right? It’s even possible to just scuttle a run wholesale and start over, if you don’t even think a two-island victory is in the cards.
So, ludically, Into The Breach is a collection of procedurally generated puzzles tied together into a variable-length strategic campaign of bug-fighting. It is impressively good at being this. There is way more Into The Breach than there are different puzzles, so expect to see some puzzles over and over: Almost every desert island has a terraformer, there will be some variety of angry robot on every ice island, and wherever you go, there’ll be power plants to guard and Vek spawns to stop and trains to escort. And none of that matters. Each puzzle map is a content delivery mechanism for overlapping, conflicting strategic decision making. It doesn’t matter that the puzzles get similar soon, what matters is that they keep being interesting.
And that’s before you factor in the different mech squads you can play as. While I’m not sure I’m super happy with the achievement-based unlocking system, I can’t deny that the general idea has a solid hook: By achieving certain things, either based on the squad you’re playing or tied to game progress in general, you earn Achievement Coins. You can use these to buy different squads of mechs, each one a set of three totally new mechs with new weapons, new passive abilities, new achievements to unlock, and a fancy theme tying them all together. The Rusting Hulks use electrified smoke. The Flame Behemoths, immune to fire, bathe the battlefield in flames. The Steel Judoka focus on positioning Vek to fight each other. And so on, and so forth. Better still, after unlocking at least one new squad, you also gain the ability to play with randomly-generated squads, or build your own dream squad.
All mechs have different colour schemes, and different models, often reflecting their starting weapons right in the base design…
In general, Into The Breach‘s aesthetic choices are really solid. This game is so neat and colourful, yet easy to read, focusing on crisp colour palettes and clear silhouettes to keep everything distinct in anything but the most smoke-choked game. And the island design is so… nice. Even the corrosive acid-hellzone Detritus, insert Twitter dot com joke here, is neat and inviting to look at. Each island has its own look and feel to the general components, the housing and the tiles and the objectives and whatnot, while each having enough ludic and visual differences to remain unique. I’m fairly sure they each have unique scores, too.
All in all, Into The Breach is just… a really nice, inviting, accessible game, hard to master, but easy to try, and try, and try again, until things click for your particular worldview and you starting defeating bugs and saving humanity like nobody’s business.
Its nihilistic heart of ice is generally only revealed over the course of several hours and a few dozen playthroughs.
Let’s return to the question I posited at the start of this page. Why did I go back in time again after defeating the Vek and saving humanity from extinction?
You could argue that maybe the Rift Walkers are perfectionists. I saved the world on a two-island victory, and even on three, but that still leaves one whole island of people I abandoned. Maybe we want to keep trying over and over until we get it right, until we get it perfect. This is a perfectly cromulent view to hold, but I don’t think it’s the right one. And there’s one major reason I think this:
You don’t actually go back in time. Sure, every breach deposits you at the same point of the human-Vek war. But ‘going back’ implies that you move backwards and forwards on a linear path, the straightforward ‘timeline’. Into The Breach itself tells you fairly explicitly, fairly early on, that that’s not what’s actually happening. What’s happening instead is that every time you breach, you seek out (or maybe create) a divergent timeline. You don’t step back, you step to the side. Into a timeline where the war hasn’t been resolved yet.
The most obvious consequence to see here is that, yes: All the people in the timelines you failed to protect, or that you scuttled over some mistake or other, still exist. And they’re still doomed to die at the hands of the now-unopposed Vek. That’s could be something to think about the next time you want to Abandon Timeline because you made a small mistake after already burning your reset. But not only does this not answer the original question, it almost invalidates the original ‘answer’. Why do we keep going back to try again? At this point, I’m responsible for creating at least six divergent timelines in which humanity survives. Any time traveler wanting to retire would live a good long life in any of those. And across the multiverse, humanity’s existence seems safeguarded. So why do we keep trying? Is it that important to do it ‘right’? As far as I can tell, there’s no hidden ‘true victory’ condition, no set of actions that will ‘destroy the Vek across timelines’ or something in that fashion. We just move from Earth to Earth, blowing up Vek hives in each timeline — or failing and bailing, as appropriate. Why do we keep doing it? And for that matter, if we do find a squad that works well, why don’t we keep employing that same squad, with the same tactics? If the goal is to save as many humans as possible, that sounds like a good approach, right?
But then, you actually know the answer. You know the ‘real’ answer, and Into The Breach knows the real answer as well. It might take some time to internalize it, it did for me, but there’s an obvious explanation, and once you accept that explanation as true it irrevocably starts colouring the game’s once-optimistic tone: The reason you keep sending back squad after squad into timeline after timeline is because you’re playing Into The Breach.
This might sound like a meta-cop-out, but it really isn’t. The only reason Into The Breach doesn’t stop at the first victorious timeline is because Into The Breach wants to keep being Into The Breach. Neither the commander nor the time travelers really care about ‘saving humanity’ as their main motivation, because at this point all of them have done so already. Probably multiple times! But they keep going back in time, to fight Vek again and again, because they want to. Because that’s what they want to do. And it’s what you want, too.
Maybe this wasn’t a surprise for you; maybe you picked up on it immediately. For me, the realization that we’re time-traveling for kicks and giggles did put some stuff into context. Remember how I talked about prioritizing goals earlier? Usually you’ll defend Power Grid buildings over objectives and mech health, but sometimes one of those buildings scores lower in the calculation than defending a train, or keeping a mech alive? It’s easy for us to make those decisions, hardened commanders of dozens and dozens of timelines. And if it was a necessary sacrifice for the good of all mankind, sure. But… Listen, I get that without the mech intervention, all these people would be doomed. But it still feels hard for me to justify. ‘Sorry that building full of your friends and family got rammed by a burning monster beetle. I could have stopped it, but that would have failed my No Mech Damage objective. And I’ll be able to buy back the Power Grid loss with the star I get from that, anyway!’
I mean, I’ll still keep doing it. I just don’t have to feel good about it.
There’s not all that much left to summarize here. If you dig smart puzzles games with an overarching strategic layer, and if you think giant robots and/or giant bugs are coo, you’ll probably have a good time with Into The Breach. It’s incredibly well-designed, providing an endless stream of procedurally-generated puzzles that manage to stay fresh over many hours of repeated play because the emergent gameplay that comes from combining this puzzle with these mech layouts and those enemies spawns is an endless well of variety. It’s easy enough to control, it looks and sounds good, and I actually really dig the writing — both the overt comedy and character building, and the slower deeper hints at the core of callousness underneath. And, as a final note, I really appreciate that the developers are paying attention to the critical reaction and the player base: After Waypoint’s Austin Walker mused that he’d love to see a grid notification system for sharing particular puzzle screens with fans and friends, just such a grid was added as an optional toggle.
If what I’ve detailed here has even slightly piqued your interest, Into The Breach can be bought for fifteen American dollars on Steam, Humble. It would probably still do well at double that asking price.
Now go out and smash some bugs already. Infinite timelines are waiting for you.
Jarenth can’t believe he got stuck in this, a timeline devoid of giant robots and giant bugs — Okay, the latter is actually acceptable. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam to share bug-punching strategies. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?