Into the Breach is a seamless game, which is to say, every design decision in it serves the greater whole. Everything in this puzzle-strategy hybrid exists for a reason. Subset Games has cut away any mechanisms that could be exploited to game its systems, forcing players to dedicate all of their attention to learning and mastering its rules.
That isn’t to suggest Into the Breach is a joyless or bleak experience. It has a playful, cartoonish art style, and while its writing isn’t the centerpiece of the game, it sets a mood without bogging down the action.
My team of mechs and I have gone back in time to try and save the world, which is represented by four major islands, from giant monsters known as the Vek. There are no dominating victories, but there are half a dozen little fronts across each island where I scrape out wins. If I play at maximum speed, I can get through a battle in two minutes, no sweat. If I take my time and agonize over every decision, it feels longer, but a single run rarely exceeds a half-hour window.
GOTY #7: INTO THE BREACH
For our 2018 guide to the best games of the year, Polygon has been counting down our top 10 each weekday, ending with our top choice — hello! — as well as the full list of our top 50 favorites from 2018. And throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises!
Both in style and execution, Into the Breach has a lot in common with the Advance Wars series. But it goes a step beyond its puzzle/strategy game contemporary by incorporating a brilliant time traveling mechanic.
High-difficulty games can often feel unfair, like the computer is brute-forcing its way ahead, but that isn’t the case here. The time traveling system adds a layer of strategy that actually benefits the player, rather than further impeding them. Every enemy movement is precisely choreographed ahead of time, and I can test mech layouts and weapons before deploying them. Once per battle, I can reset my entire turn with a little temporal hokey-pokey, reverting my position to where it was at the start of a turn and taking another shot at solving the same problem. At any point, I can abandon the timeline and bring my star mech pilot back. For its genre, Into the Breach is unusually forgiving.
As long as they don’t die in a mission, a pilot will survive timeline after timeline, becoming progressively stronger until they’re significantly more capable than when they began their quest to save the world. Or, that pilot may die. Or, I might switch to one with a special ability that I find more useful. There’s a natural up-and-down-and-up-again flow through the journey. The sense of progress and continuity that comes with seeing a star character progress and eventually rise above the rest to save the world is satisfying because I got attached to so many other pilots that failed along the way.
The Vek, the game’s alien force, are worthy foes. They relentlessly attack civilian cities, which lower the power grid when they fall. The grid serves as a life meter; when it drops to zero, the entire run ends in failure. Each map has unique terrain — a train crossing the grid, bombs that need to be protected, power plants, AI mechs, corporate HQs. They must all be defended just as well as individual mechs, causing me to regularly prioritize and re-prioritize what needs to be saved and when.
Achievements and successes lead to unlocks: new abilities, new pilots, new mech squads. Gradually, a game that initially feels quite straightforward and completable expands into something big, surprising and endlessly replayable. For such an elegant, stripped-down game, there’s a refreshing amount of variations of enemy types, complications, battlefields, and mech and pilot combinations. The replay value is immense, and I can easily sink dozens of hours into the game ... but it continues to push and challenge me, always offering a new rung to reach.
Into the Breach’s greatest reward is the electric sensation of “I am a strategic mastermind.” When I make the right call and send one Vek hurtling into the drink, another back a tile where it dies, explodes and takes out his foe in the blast, and save a power plant in the process, I feel like a genius, and I want nothing more than to show it to everyone I know until they give my tactics the praise they deserve. Failure, on the other hand, is so punishing because I know it’s my fault. It’s enough to lie down in the dirt and weep over; my foolish, heavy hands had led to the deaths of thousands of fictional space people!
Wrap all of the above up in a delicious visual shell heavily reminiscent of Pacific Rim and ’80s anime, along with a sci-fi plot to match. The characters are two-dimensional, literally and figuratively: the nerd, the hardass, the action hero ... but that’s fine; that’s all they need to be for such a stark, simple scenario. They quip, boast and congratulate each other when things are going well. When things go poorly, the island leaders scold me or mourn their lost people. My pilots marvel at the broken islands they encounter, and wonder what, exactly, drives the Vek and how to stop them.
I have played countless games that become a matter of routine, something that’s on while I kill time. There’s nothing wrong with these games, but they’re a comforting hum of light and noise. Into the Breach defies that. Yes, there’s the difficulty curve, which is satisfying to climb and master ... but there’s also the cost of every decision I make.
Early on, I learned to roll with the punches. Ah, yes, a city got leveled, and that was unfortunate ... but did you notice that incredibly sweet combo that I pulled off along the way? I can buy more grid energy later; that’s not a big deal. Man, this Jessica Kern loves to degrade me on this R.S.T. island. What’s her problem?
Subset Games’ first title, 2012’s FTL: Faster Than Light, was fun, novel, replayable and bursting with variety that occasionally led to frustrating dead ends or moments that felt ancillary and unnecessary. With Into the Breach, the studio homed on the game’s thesis statement. The further I dig into its world, the stronger its sense of self, the more there is to learn.
I learned that the R.S.T. live on a barren hellscape intentionally, to starve the Vek out and keep the island together after their tunneling. I learned that I foolishly, in all my hubris, pulled off that combo that destroyed that city for absolutely nothing. Had I used the Old World artillery better, I could have avoided that. That point of grid energy could have been a power core that granted me access to a weapon that would have saved a run. The numbers on my pilot’s profile keep growing: timelines played, 13; worlds saved, one.
The temporal breach only brings one pilot forward, I realize anew, and that means I left my allies behind to die in that last timeline. I’ve let so many people die. Billions dead, across hundreds of worlds.
The crushing, cumulative defeat that comes across so many lessons from so many playthroughs is what’s stuck with me the most, months after beginning Into the Breach. Instead of auto-running through the game, I’ve been treated to the weight of my mistakes, the human cost driven home again and again. Of course Jessica Kern is on my ass for every objective I fail. I’ve left her to die in Vek and fire a hundred times, just like I left my teammates behind again and again.
What else is there to do?
Even in the face of such a horrifying takeaway, Subset Games has crafted an experience that continues to lift me back up, re-instilling that intoxicating feeling of genius, once I outsmart the Vek next time. Billions may be dead, but each world I win saves billions more. I vindicate myself, using the experience from multiple time streams to solve the problems the right way. More and more timelines are saved, because of course they are. There’s no other choice but to earn that redemption. Once more, into the breach, and avenge the fallen.
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.