Ralph Karlsson has seen some shit. At least, the last version of him did. Or was that three Ralphs ago? When your pilots are constantly jumping through timelines in a futile effort to stop the rising tide of giant alien bugs, it can be hard to keep track of who escaped to witness the horrors of the next universe over and whose burnt corpses pocked the bed of the volcano insect hive.
Into the Breach is a sci-fi strategy roguelike that has been called "Pacific Rim meets Advance Wars," but that flattering descriptor might be underselling the game. Subset Games' follow-up to FTL: Faster Than Light carries over the depth of the now-classic, but Into the Breach separates itself from its predecessor with exciting turn-based mechanics and a surprisingly affecting narrative hook.
When your three-mech squad first airdrops onto that battlefield grid, one thing becomes clear: They've been here before. These pilots are war-hardened veterans of alternate universes, and this is not the first new reality they've leaped into. Just as there are an infinite amount of possible runs in a roguelike, there are also infinite timelines in which the world is threatened by the evil insectoid Vek. Whenever you lose -- and you will lose -- you have no choice but to leave a doomed planet behind and hope to improve upon complete annihilation during the next mission. Good luck with that.
This fascinating contextualization of the roguelike adds weight to a game already heavy with despair. There's always that inevitable shimmer of hope shining through, but here it serves to highlight the thick cloud of desperation hanging just above ground level. Speech bubbles from local cities might cheer on the mechs upon their arrival, but the citizens aren't aware of the litany of dead worlds the pilots stepped over to land at this spot. Time Pods will occasionally streak across the plane, offering much-needed power-ups, but the seasoned pilots remark that each such capsule is a reminder that yet another timeline has fallen.
Even the menu doesn't let up -- when you botch a mission and feel like ragequitting, the button that would normally say "Restart From Beginning" instead reads "ABANDON TIMELINE."
Somber details like these help ground a game that is cold and methodical in the moment-to-moment. Comparisons to handheld strategy games are apt when it comes to describing the small playfield of squares and the limited number of combatants, but at its best Into the Breach feels like the world's most stressful puzzle game. Missions aren't as simple as "squish every bug on the screen," as that's not always possible on a given turn. The Vek may have positioned themselves in such a way that would require you to also damage a power plant if you wanted to take a shot at them (losing valuable grid power in the process), or they might be tying up your artillery unit with webs. Depending on your mech loadout, you will likely have multiple ways of repositioning your squad and your enemies to turn the situation to your favor, whether it be with long-range fire, teleportation or just an old-fashioned giant robot punch. Perform the correct maneuvers and the Vek will whiff their attacks and maybe even block their own units from spawning in the process. Better still, getting the enemies to kill each other is immensely satisfying.
For their part, the Vek mostly play fair. You always know what the bad guys are going to do, and what order they're going to do it in, during any given round. And unlike XCOM, the hits are always 100% guaranteed. There's one exception and it's in the player's favor: The civilian buildings which have an upgradable resistance chance that, when triggered, will restore a few of the years of your life that the game saps from you on a daily basis.
If each mission is a puzzle, a series of hypothetical perfect moves make up the solution. When you mess up -- and you will mess up -- it's up to you to stop your mistakes from snowballing into a fiery boulder of bad decisions. You might nudge a mega-scorpion so that a building is out of harm's way, but that projectile might now be headed for another innocent target. If early on you lose a substantial amount of grid power (the game's life meter) by allowing civilian structures to be destroyed, you could be screwing your chances for tougher missions down the line. With a downcast atmosphere emphasizing the importance of every move, Into the Breach never lets you forget its sizable stakes. You care about the outcome of these battles. It's easy to strain your eyes while you spend several minutes staring at the same screen, racking your brain and mentally exhausting every single option, all in effort of finding that one foolproof solution.
Most of the time, you won't find those perfect moves. Into the Breach is not about achieving a flawless victory, but instead doing everything in your power to mitigate your losses and salvage what's left. On each of the game's four islands, the game will stop you short of completing every mission branch and rush you to a boss battle. Those unfinished parts of the map are lost, like the infested realities you left behind. You can't save everyone. All that remains lies in the path forward.
Whereas the road to beating FTL was always roughly the same length, Into the Breach is a little more flexible. The final battle becomes available once two or more islands are liberated, and the game even scales the difficulty to match your progression. In addition, the islands can be completed in any order once unlocked. This is a welcome change that mutes the drawback of many roguelikes that otherwise feel like Sisyphian journeys to an unknowable endgame.
By removing some of those gates to completion, Into the Breach often becomes more about repeating runs to get achievements, which grant currency that unlocks new squads. Each group of mechs offer new playstyles that will drastically alter your approach to combat scenarios. However, after accomplishing several of the feats that come naturally by playing, Dope Mech Coins grow harder to come by. Hunting for some of the more obscure achievements often requires ignoring the vital stakes that Into the Breach goes through such pains to portray. Setting 12 tiles on fire while also winning the battle can be a fun exercise, but it can be tough to continue caring about saving countless civilizations when you just sacrificed an entire world of people to pop one cheevo.
It's a shame to sully that dense atmosphere, especially when it's supported by such stellar music. Ben Prunty returns from his memorable stint on FTL to deliver a guitar-laden score that is contemplative and dramatic exactly when it needs to be. It's the perfect soundtrack to keep you alert during a tense mission or if you're say, writing on deadline.
By most available metrics, if you got this far down the page you probably were just scrolling to read the last paragraph of the review to get the overall gist. So let's do that.
I would say that in conclusion, Into the Breach is a land of contrasts, but that's not really true. This is a fantastic game, and I'd venture to say it's a tighter and more approachable experience than FTL. The only hiccup is the achievement-based progression system, which undercuts the unique and valuable tone the game sets from the tutorial onward. However, the terrific aesthetic, tense encounters and wonderful music are more than enough to push Into the Breach well through "accidentally losing hours of sleep" territory. Just one more timeline, I promise.
Into the Breach will be available February 27 on Steam, GOG and Humble for $14.99.