Among the slew of indie games dropping on the Nintendo Switch, Into the Breach rises to the top. Adam Goodall reviews.
When you fire up Into The Breach, a pint-sized turn-based strategy game developed by Subset Games, the team behind FTL: Faster Than Light, you might be surprised at how cute it is. The good guys are giant mechs, and they’re really cute: the barrel-chested big boy Judo Mech, the rock-cuddling Boulder Mech, the hardcore-Hot Wheels Charge Mech. Moving them around the map feels a bit like playing with action figures.
The bad guys are mutant bugs called The Vek. They’re really cute too. The Psions are little bulbous orbs dotted with translucent gems, their little tentacles dangling underneath. The Fireflies and Scorpions have adorable little knobbly faces and stubby legs. The Leapers are basically stick insects, a thin reed with rounded ends and stiletto pincers. They look like a gust of wind could tip them over.
There’s a lack of gravity to these sweet little sprites, and that lack of gravity makes it easy to get reckless, to screw up and cause unnecessary damage. But that recklessness doesn’t last long.
In Into The Breach, you control a squad of three mechs led by a time traveller. Your job is to protect the remains of humanity from The Vek and wipe those bugs out once for all. To do that, you drop your mechs into a series of cities (8×8 grids randomly populated with skyscrapers, power plants, clinics and more) and face off against The Vek over five turns. It’s a bit like chess with a horde mode – you take your turn and kill a few bugs, the bugs take their turn, then a few new bugs emerge from the earth.
Each individual run is short: there are four islands plus the final island, and a full ‘Four Island’ victory might take two to three hours depending on how seriously you’re playing. But there are infinite timelines, infinite islands to save and plenty to achievements to unlock. When you unlock an achievement, you get a gold coin that you can use to unlock new mech teams. You can also unlock new pilots, each of whom comes with a different bonus, by completing every single one of an island’s objectives or by picking up time pods that crash into the grid during missions.
With all of these variables, Into The Breach develops into a near-endless loop of runs: save the islands, take down the Vek, choose a pilot and a mech team to take with you to the next timeline. (This should be pretty familiar to fans of FTL.) You can randomise or choose which individual mechs are in your squad, if you want, to mix up the skills at your disposal. You can also upgrade your mechs as you go, picking up reactors from time pods, or buying them at the end of each island, so you can give your robot more health or greater mobility or the ability to chain lighting through buildings.
All these variables have the effect of shrinking each run’s stakes and overall significance. After all, you can just try out something new in the next timeline. The unlimited planning time you have for each turn also contributes to that feeling. As long as you don’t take a shot at any Vek, you can move your mechs around and reset them on the board at any time. There are no timers, no limits. You have as much time as you need to visualise your plan of attack, to get it right.
All of this makes it sound like Into The Breach is pretty chill; a low stakes strategy game to kill some commute time. That’s what I thought. But then I lost my first run.
It was a combination of stupid mistakes and not knowing the ropes in the first place. I’d let two of my mech pilots die accidentally (when a pilot dies, they’re replaced by an AI pilot who cannot gain experience – experience that is crucial to upgrading your pilot), and the Power Grid – the persistent health bar for all four islands – had taken a pounding. Then an insect brought down a skyscraper, knocking the final point off the Power Grid, and the map was overrun with Vek. My stomach turned. The city would be levelled; the children in those skyscrapers who’d yelled “Daddy, look! It’s a mech!” at the start of the mission were going to die. I was forced to abandon the timeline, abandoning my AI pilots and forced to try it all again in the next loop
Into The Breach is full of life sketched in the margins of its pages, stories suggested and not fully told. Civilians pray and holler with joy when your mechs drop into a city. When a Vek knocks down a building, the death toll rises up above the debris. Each game, win or lose, ends with a tally of how many people you’ve saved. Your pilots talk to each other and discuss the risks they’re taking – briefly, though, because they can’t afford to lose sight of the what’s in front of them.
Your mechs teams even have grand, mythic names like Rusting Hulks and Frozen Titans, as though they were a pantheon descending from on high to deliver everyone from evil. The achievement system and the mech loadouts encourage you to take risks and try out new techniques, but Subset are constantly reminding that you’re here to save people from an apocalypse at the hands of these grotesque giant bugs. This is a divine battle, archangels clashing with demons.
That sense that you’re stomping around someone else’s backyard, a figure of awe here to save these people from total annihilation, forces you to double-check everything. In particular, it forces you to prioritise the Power Grid above everything else. That’s increasingly difficult as you move through the islands and the encounters get tougher. If a Vek has a clean shot on a building early on, you can typically take them out without too much trouble. Later on, though, you might have to stand your mech in the way of the attack – or you might have to sacrifice a pilot on their last bar of health or a building with fewer civilians inside. These decisions never stop being totally gut-wrenching, no matter how many times you run into them.
That internal contradiction, that provocation to be simultaneously reckless and thoughtful in your play, is the most exciting thing about Into The Breach. It turns your luxuries into curses. That unlimited planning time becomes a period of protracted agonising over the moves you could make, mapping every possibility and accounting for every turn in the right order. That single Reset Turn you get on each map becomes a monkey’s paw, condemning you to groaning, inevitably, when things go south two turns after using it and you can’t stop an even bigger catastrophe.
It’s a remarkable balancing act. It’s easy to fall into fits of recklessness, taking big hits and abandoning timelines, especially if you’re chasing an achievement (like the one you get for completing two islands in under 30 minutes, a fool’s errand if ever I’ve tried one). But you can just as quickly fall back into choice paralysis, consumed by the overpowering fear of potentially fucking it all up. It’s intoxicating.
There are a lot of celebrated indie games coming out for the Nintendo Switch this month – Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter, Toby Fox’s Undertale, Matt Thorson’s TowerFall, Supergiant’s Bastion and Fulbright’s Gone Home and Mini Metro by New Zealand devs Dinosaur Polo Club. It’s a banner month for indies on the Switch, a home console that already feels like it’s elevated the profile of indie ports and made them a part of the Big Release Schedule in a way that Sony and Microsoft haven’t.
Into The Breach is the newest of all of these, having come out on PC earlier this year, but it feels perfectly suited for the Switch in a way those other games don’t. It’s compact and easy to pick up and play (the mouse-based PC controls are perfectly translated to the joycons), for one. But it also feels small, even casual – until it doesn’t, until the wind turns and suddenly you’re on the back foot and towers are crumbling and people are dying and you should abandon the timeline but god, can you bring yourself to do it?
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.