Into the Breach is a game where towering mechs fight to defend cities against giant bugs, and where I can master my anxiety, at least for a little bit.
In Subset Games’ new release Into the Breach, the effects of all of your potential actions are clearly and cleanly communicated to you. It’s up to you to parse the information given to you, and solve the puzzle. Since I started playing Into the Breach, I’ve started to look at life’s little challenges as a puzzle to untangle. Maybe there isn’t a perfect solution obvious to me, but there are a combination of moves that will alleviate the pain.
As a person with social anxiety, I agonize over what I assume are trivial interactions to most people. Every interaction is an opportunity to make a mess of things, to embarrass myself. I have to decide what combination of words and tone will extricate me from the situation with my dignity (and the other person’s opinion of me) intact. The effects of my decisions are ambiguous, and I will obsessively imagine every outcome, and try to convince myself that the worst possible imagined outcome hasn’t come to pass. ITB strips away all that uncertainty.
The game tasks you with controlling a time-travelling squad of three mechs as they fight to save the last of humanity from a monster bug onslaught. The game is spread across four islands operated by individual corporations, each with its own biome and unique set of challenges. Each battle drops you on an 8×8 isometric grid map populated by buildings full of frightened civilians to protect, and the enemy, named Vek, to destroy. The key conceit of the gameplay is that at the start of each turn, the Vek will each take a move, and the game will indicate which tile or tiles they will be attacking. You are then given the opportunity to move your own units, using your weapons and abilities to damage and move the enemy, hopefully foiling their plans. By breaking up the turn phases, developer Subset has been able to subtly subvert the turn-based tactical combat genre. Gone are the chance to hit percentages of games like XCOM. When you commit to a move, you know exactly what’s going to happen. If you’ve left a unit in the path of an attack, that unit will absolutely take the hit.
The game adheres to a “rogue-lite” structure similar to its predecessor FTL: Faster Than Light. Early on, it’s likely you will fail repeatedly while you get acquainted with the game’s logic. This happens when your “grid power” reaches zero. Grid power functions as a health meter, and every time you allow a building to be destroyed you lose a bar of power. The status of your grid power is persistent and carries over between battles. As long as you have one pilot left alive after a defeat, you can save them by sending them back in time to start a new run. This time though, you’ll have the slight advantage of any experience points and bonuses they gained on the last attempt. The pilots themselves all have unique traits, and you have the opportunity to unlock new pilots by completing various objectives. While initially punishing in its difficulty, I came to love the way the game opened up over the course of multiple play sessions.
ITB feels familiar and comforting, a game I might have dreamed of as child in the early 90s. In fact, technologically, there’s no reason this game couldn’t have existed then. The graphics are sparse and retro. Only a few sprite animations add real movement, and yet there is a tangible sense of momentum to a few well-executed turns. Ben Prunty’s soundtrack is gentle and rhythmic. The synthesizer music adds to the feeling of nostalgia, while being better (in my opinion) than most of the older games whose aesthetic the game pays homage to. These elements come together to create an environment that helps me to relax and focus.
Generally, the longer I spend thinking about a problem, the more effective my anxiety is at sabotaging me. ITB, however, rewards a slow, obsessive thought process. In this little game world, if I think about it long enough, the solution will appear. Things will get better, not worse, by staring at the problem. I can be calm and calculating as I figure out how to make the bugs go splat, boom or sizzle. As a single player game, I don’t have to worry about frustrating an opponent with my excessive turn lengths. In fact, the game uses so few computing resources that I often leave it running in the background, returning to a difficult battle after a break with a fresh perspective.
The game’s clever use of achievement points to unlock new mech squads gives it a solid hook. A victory with a squad is just the start of a career. How about that achievement for winning with four different squads? Hard mode? I found myself going back into the breach over and over attempting to meet specific conditions: get that next gold coin, get that next squad, that next victory. I always want to be a completionist, but this is the first game that might actually get me to complete 100% of its achievements.
Like in real life, previous game decisions may leave me with no perfect solutions. Looking back I may bemoan, “If only I had done this or that, I wouldn’t be in this situation now.” Sometimes the best turn I can manage means the loss of some civilians, or a precious mech pilot. Unlike real life though, I will know exactly what I’m trading for. The loss will be on my own terms.
Into the Breach doesn’t cure my anxiety. It satisfies it for a short time. The game drip-feeds me the unambiguous, concrete information my brain craves. It’s a medicine that soothes while it flatters my intelligence. Other games do this, but none as effectively. It’s entirely possible that my nervous obsessive worrying is actually an asset when I’m playing this game. This game goes a small way towards encouraging me to look past the fear, and try to find best possible outcomes. Into the Breach’s universe is one of exact logic, and I want to spend more time there.