Into the Breach, more so than any SRPG that I can think of, requires you to understand the tradeoffs and consequences of your decisions. Moreover, Subset Games equips the player with the tools to plan around enemy actions on a per turn basis. The depth of the planning possibilities and the variety of the scenarios generated have led me to obsess over this game since it’s release.
Further deviating from standard SRPG fare, Justin Ma - one of the game’s designers - notes that players who attempts to follow the strategy of beating the enemy before they beat you will lose. Once you hit the late game, I’m not sure this design goal holds up as I was often clearing the board by the end of the round. At first I thought I should be rewarded for doing so, but came to appreciate that it would only encourage players to subvert their strategy from Into the Breach’s main focus - damage mitigation.
Into the Breach keeps itself fresh by abandoning another SRPG norm. Most games in the genre stick to the standard victory condition of defeat all enemies. In Subset’s game, your current primary objective is almost never the same be it between different fights or even between different rounds on the same map. Ostensibly, your primary objective is protecting the buildings which are a part of your overall health bar that carries over from level to level. Maybe you have 5 vek who decided a 1 power building would make a tasty snack but you have 2 Vek threatening the threatening the train. It’s smarter to take the hit. Or maybe your secondary objective is to break the dam, so you let the Vek build up to a threatening mass so that when you blow the dam it sweeps them away in one fell swoop.
Not every squad is well equipped to take on every map type. You must complete all but three of the maps in order to unlock the island’s final boss. The chain whip wielding mech of the Blitzkrieg squad has the awe inspiring ability to chain attacks through enemies and buildings. But it’s almost always a liability on the train maps. And sometimes that train map is between you and your completion goal, so your heavy hitter becomes a paper weight and you’re stuck making do with a rock chucker and a weird grappling hook mech because you really need the bonuses from that perfect island. Other squads have similar situational weaknesses which were a clever way for Into the Breach to prevent the player from brute forcing solutions.
There is a lot more depth to uncover from there in wrapping your head around Into the Breach’s language. Do you understand your squad’s and/or pilots’ abilities and how to chain them into combos? Do you know which upgrades and weapons (which I largely ignored) best fit your play style and the strengths of your squad? Do you know how the enemy types you’re facing for this round impact your initial troop placement (something many SRPGs don’t even bother with)?
Like most rogue-likes, players will spend their first few hours dying a lot in order to understand Into the Breach’s specific idiosyncrasies. But with 8 squads - not counting the secret squad I haven’t unlocked yet - to choose from (and the ability to roll a custom squad), everyone should be able to find a team that makes sense to them. For me, I fell in love with the Rusting Hulks ability to disrupt enemy attacks and better control the flow of the battlefield.
Pilot selection is an essential part of your strategy as well. I made a huge breakthrough once I unlocked Gana and understood his implications. With a 1 power upgrade, he can deploy anywhere on the map on the first turn. This can dramatically change the battle flow in your favor because you can trick the AI into attacking him instead of the building. Putting him in the plane, which can hop away, you basically get this advantage without cost. Not all pilots have uses that are immediately apparent. Ralph Karlsson - who gains an extra 2 experience for every kill - seems designed for beginners to help them through the early learning curve and isn’t particularly useful later on.
As an embarrassing admission, unlocking Isaac Jones - who increased the reset turn features - clued me into the fact that there was such a feature. I played 18 hours without even noticing it.
In other reviews and elsewhere online, I have seen players bemoan the stark difficulty of the game. I did not immediately face this particular problem; I think in large part due to my history with SRPGs. Indeed, I clicked pretty early with my squad of choice and got my first victory just shy of 8 hours and went on to collect the all-island and hard mode challenges. Later on, when trying the Blitzkreig squad I quickly joined the camp of players unsure of what to do with the tools they are given.
This left me wondering what the game could have done to help players better access its systems’ language. Toward that end, I do wish Into the Breach had a series of fixed challenge missions that could both help onboard players new to the genre and challenge players looking to test their mastery of the game similar to the arcade cabinet challenges in Catherine.
One other aspect of Into Breach missed the mark a bit for me. I am drawn to SRPGs for the engrossing stories that reward players for digging into the details and side missions. I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that this just wasn’t designed to scratch that particular itch. But the game would make it up to me in other ways. Even though I prefer emergent games with a strong narrative to anchor them, Into the Breach has been a wonderful anecdote generator that I’ve used to pester my friends with. Chris Avellone - of Fallout and Divinity (and others!) fame - made a lot of smart decisions in the minimalist storytelling. And what narrative is there, backed by Ben Prunty’s lovingly crafted soundtrack, does serve well in establishing this game world’s dire situation (for more, see Cameron Kunzelman’s excellent piece over at Waypoint).
But I am left wondering how a bunch of time traveling mechs need to operate near an antiquated power grid. Or how the head of corporate office running said antiquated grid doesn’t believe the whole “time travel thing” when a bunch of otherwise advanced mechs pop up out of nowhere. But like the cantankerous Jessica Kern, I was willing to ignore my incredulity and minor quibbles to get down to the sweet squishy business of eradicating the Vek.