Into The Breach: Advance Wars meets Chess
Occasionally I find a game that seems targeted directly at me. I can say with some certainty that Into The Breach, the latest game by Subset Games, is one of them. This game places you in command of an elite mech unit tasked with defending the planet against an in-progress alien invasion. This isn’t a heroic fight to eliminate an alien menace, it’s an all-hands defense of what remains of your home. The battles are tense and, for lack of a better word, dirty—anything you can walk away from is a victory. But before I spend the entire article gushing about how much I love this game, let me give you an overview of what the game is and how it’s played.
The game map is split into four islands plus an additional one for the climactic final battle. The islands are unlocked in sequence, but when you start a new playthrough you can tackle the unlocked ones in any order. Each island has a theme, for example the first two are desert and ice, and contains eight individual mission areas with terrain, and sometimes objectives, based around that theme.
The missions themselves are turn-based and take place on a map consisting of a grid of eight squares on each side, the same size as a chess board. Compared to the expansive playing areas of most modern games this seems limiting at first, but the board never felt like it prevented me from manoeuvring the way I wanted to. In fact, if anything, the size of the board caused me to focus better on the most effective positioning of my mechs and meant that I never felt like one was too far away from the action to be useful.
Keeping your mechs in the thick of it is important as you always have only three in your unit. No more, no less. When a mech is “destroyed” the pilot is killed but the mech itself survives, ready to be piloted by an AI in the next battle. This doesn’t present any immediate disadvantages, but the AI cannot gain experience and level up like a human pilot. Occasionally you will find a pilot that can take over control of a mech, but this isn’t a certainty. The pilots also participate in the new game mechanic of Into The Breach—if you fail to stop the alien invasion then one of your surviving pilots can be sent back in time to try again with experience and abilities intact, giving you a starting advantage.
Likely contrary to your expectations, you don’t fail a run of Into The Breach by losing all your mechs. As I noted above, your mechs stay with you for an entire run. The failure condition, instead, is based on the planet’s power grid. You have, at most, 7 units of power grid stability. Each mission area contains a number of cities, with damage to the cities directly translating to the power grid losing stability. Once it reaches zero the aliens swarm in en masse and your run is over.
So back to why I love this game. Let’s start with the “three mechs always” rule. With this in place and combined with free repairs between missions you can effectively treat mech health as another resource to use in defending the cities. Sometimes the best way to stop an alien attack striking a city is for one of your mechs to stand in the way and take the hit. It also means that you can’t acquire additional mechs mid-run and gradually become an unstoppable juggernaut. There’s a fixed limit on the number of things you can do each turn, so you have to make them count. Into The Breach is a game focused on making you think through the synergies and consequences of your moves.
Many of your mechs’ attacks and abilities can move aliens around, either as their primary function or as a side-effect. Combine this with the aliens’ next attacks being explicitly stated on your turn and a lot of thought goes into determining the best way to push aliens around to make their attacks miss cities or even hit each other. Slam aliens into each other and both parties lose a point of health. Landing a mech fist in an alien face and using the resulting pushback to also kill the alien behind it is a special type of satisfying. Importantly, telegraphing the alien attacks means you can commit to a plan without having to hedge your bets and play safe, an approach that would see you quickly overwhelmed.
Sometimes, though, you have to sacrifice a city, and take the hit to power grid stability, either because you’ve been overwhelmed by a particularly vicious set of alien attacks or so that you can get your mechs in position to do better next turn. Occasionally a city will resist the attack, but this is rare enough that you should never rely on it happening. When it does happen though, especially at a critical time in a battle, it can be hard not to hiss “yes!” through your teeth.
These game mechanics, and others that I don’t have the space to go into, mesh together incredibly well to make Into The Breach one of the most tactical games I’ve played in recent memory. This, of course, was due to the developers iterating many times over their ideas, with more traditional concepts (such as mech health/destruction being more permanent) being discarded. Alex Wiltshire interviewed the developers for a Gamasutra article on how they arrived at the final mechanics and I would definitely recommend giving it a read once you’ve finished here.
I could go on about how you’re almost always getting through by the skin of your teeth and how the game makes you constantly choose between outcomes that may not be ideal. Instead I’ll direct you to a tweet that I think sums up exactly the transformation in my thought process when I started the game versus when I got into the flow of the game:
First run of Into The Breach: Oh no, I gotta save all the people and take no damage, why is the game not letting me do that?
Second run: *taps mic, low voice* hello welcome to giant robo-wrestling. we're getting dirty with some aliens for you capitalist hellscape punks.
— Moth Friend Amber (@SilverChangling) March 1, 2018
If my discussion of the game has grabbed your interest then I would absolutely recommend you try it out. Into The Breach is a tactical, tense, and ultimately rewarding experience that relies as much on the foward thinking and ingenuity of the player as it does the capabilities of the mechs and this means you can celebrate that little bit harder for each victory.