'Into the Breach' Turns Mech Combat Into a Tactical Dance
The follow up to 'FTL' isn't the game you might have expected. But it's still a must play.
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From BattleTech to Mobile Suit Gundam, our most popular mech stories don’t really focus on part alignment or radar types or laser variations. Mechanical particulars are either minimized or, if present in any major way, largely aestheticized.
We know enough about the internal functions of these mechs to worry when our heroine’s laser cannon begins to overheat, or to gasp in awe as the enemy ace switches between their stolen machine’s special modes with an impossible smoothness. Servos and vents are drawn or described with pleasing detail, but these are flourishes to a balletic structure of character development, political backstabbing, and thematic evocation.
And what a ballet: War machines slide in formation across a devastated wasteland. Metallic angels, light-as-air and glowing with energy, clash against each other in the sky. Gigantic figures charge down city streets, expressionless, yet glowering at a monsterous foe.
Yet most mech games—from the BattleTech board game to Heavy Gear to the Armored Core series—care more about the fantasy of the engineer than the fictional pilot. You spend hours comparing damage values, gear weight, heatsink qualities. You test your builds. You paint and repaint and decal your machines. You spend as much time in front of spreadsheets as you do in the cockpit (and the latter is sometimes even more fun than the former).
Here is the most important thing you need to know about Into the Breach, the new tactical RPG from FTL developer Subset Games: It understands that mechs aren’t about the parts they’re made of, but about the steps of their dance. And, while some games—Virtual On, Zone of the Enders, Galak-Z, Gundam Vs—put you in the position of principal dancer, what makes Into the Breach so special is that it makes you not only performer, but choreographer.
Into the Breach offers a limited, but potent premise: You’re a time traveling mech squad caught in an Edge of Tomorrow-style loop, constantly repeating the final days of humanity as the Vek—a swarm of giant, insectoid creatures—devours us.
At the top of each FTL-style run, you choose a pilot (each of whom have unique abilities) and a squad of mechs, the details of which I’ll get to in a second. Once deployed, your defensive efforts take you across four islands. Each is tied to a futuristic mega corporation, a unique biome, and set of mission types—all of which tell a subtle story of humanity’s ecological failings. (And Into the Breach isn’t particularly optimistic about our chances: If you hold the Vek back long enough, the game tells you, maybe humanity can develop a weapon powerful enough to stop them permanently. Cool. More bombs.)
Your mechs each have health, of course, but what really matters is the “Power Grid,” a health bar that carries over between combat encounters and which is damaged whenever civilian structures are harmed. Fail to keep the power grid up, and the bugs emerge en masse, forcing you to send your best (living) pilot back in time to try to halt the horde again.
This might sound sprawling, but Into the Breach shows incredible focus. Your squad is made up of three vehicles, no more, no less, and though you can recruit the occasional extra pilot (via randomly appearing “time pods”), you’ll never have the multi-page roster of Fire Emblem or XCOM to manage. Each combat encounter plays out over five turns on an isometric, chess-style grid, filled with a mix of civilian structures, special objective tiles, and a collection of environmental hazards.
Best of all, combat is transparent. At the top of a turn, enemies set up to attack, their intentions and turn order entirely spelled out for you. As heroic mech pilots, you then need to react before the turn ends and their planned actions devastate the area. There are no hit percentages here, no range of damages. The only randomness is that there’s a small chance that buildings will be resistant to damage, but that chance is too low ever count on (which means that when a structure does shield itself after you failed to, a wave of relief washes over you.)
Despite that transparency, you’ll make mistakes. But even then, transparency and openness are key: You can undo moves before committing, and even after you commit, you get a once-per-fight reset that lets you dial things back a turn. This is a game that honestly wants you to engage with its organically emerging spatial puzzles. It never wants you to feel screwed over. It’s simple and clean, but that’s not to say there isn’t depth.
It goes like this: You’ve just started a new game as Blitzkrieg, one of the eight squads you unlock by completing special challenges tied to each previous squad and a list of more general achievements, like saving 100,000 citizens across all of your games. The tooltip says that the Blitzkrieg unit is designed “around the mass destruction capabilities of harnessed lightning." Cool.
But once you drop in, you start to think it’s an odd descriptor. The only mech with any sort of electrical ability is the aptly named Lightning Mech, an upright “Prime” class unit that wields a charged whip that can chain lightning damage between adjacent enemy units. As far as you can tell, the other two mechs in your squad—a tank with a grappling hook and a spider-legged bruiser who throws giant rocks—have nothing at all to do with electricity.
You advance as normal, scourging giant mantises with your charged lash, yanking oversized ants away from their targets (and into lakes), and crushing massive hornets under, uh, even-more-massive rocks. You clear the bugs off of the first island, and then the second, but it feels like something is wrong. With previous squads, you were clearing enemies more quickly, doing more direct damage to more targets per turn. And it’s starting to show: You’ve been winning, but your power grid has started taking hits under the increased pressure from the bug army.
Finally, in the icy fields of the third island—where you have to contend not only with the Vek, but also with the cold that risks freezing your mechs in place, and with enemy mechs piloted by rampant AI—you fear you’ve met your match.
It’s the final turn, but the power grid is down to 2 HP, and things look bad. Though you’ve done some damage to them, you haven’t managed to whittle down the enemy force quick enough. Now you’re just plainly outnumbered, three to five, and there’s no combination of rock-crushing, grapple-tricking, and electro-whipping that can… wait a second.
It becomes very clear, all at once: The value of the big rock isn’t that it crushes things, it’s that the force of the boulder landing pushes everything around it back one tile. Between that and the grappling hook… you make a few clicks, and suddenly the group of five enemies slides together into an L shaped clump. You sprint down the field in your Prime, wrap the nearest one in the whip’s electrified barbs, and let the charge go. They light up all at once, then drop. The mass destruction capabilities of harnessed lightning.
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Moments like this aren’t one-off anecdotes, they’re the core of the game’s design. Each mech is some combination of damage dealer, buffer/debuffer, and relocator, and both the Vek units and general combat flow are designed to force you to learn how to use all those abilities in dynamic ways.
There’s more to love here, unsurprisingly: The special challenges that let you unlock new squads are all fun puzzles to work out across length of a run. The game communicates a great deal of character from the tiniest of moments—civilians yell out in joy when you drop down from orbit to save the day, a pilot passingly wonders if her step-father lives in this version of the timeline. The pilots and mechs and weapons are genuinely cool, and even after 18 hours I’m still unlocking new things to be surprised by. But all of these are secondary to the dance.
Into the Breach doesn’t let me tinker in a giant robot laboratory. It doesn’t want to. Instead, it brings me back to the kinetic spectacle of my favorite mech stories. A pilot cowers under a giant spider, their vehicle’s treads covered in debilitating webbing, but manages to blast the creature back and into the waiting fist of their wingman. An ace sacrifices themselves and their jet in order to stop an attack from devastating a city block. A mech dashes across the desert and slams one enemy into another, doing little damage, but grinning as the dunes explode into a dust storm that prevents their true foe from attacking. Pinned to a wall and surrounded by bugs, you turn your rail cannon behind you… if you can blow up this dam, maybe you can sweep them all away in the flood.
These stories go on and on and on, and each time I play, I find myself telling micro-narratives just like this. These stories aren’t necessarily like the ones from FTL, which made me love the little cartoon characters who crewed my ship’s stations. But just as FTL got to the heart of space opera—the experimental ship, the camaraderie of a ragtag crew, the spiraling of crises—Subset Games has found the core of the mech fantasy with Into the Breach.
It isn’t about the particulars of parts, it isn’t about the abstraction of stats, it isn't even really about weapons or power. Mech stories, more often than not, are about aspiration. Heroes, villains, and pilots of all sorts have dreams: They want to save the people they love, or overthrow the political status quo, or pay down their debt. And the way they set out to achieve those goals is to climb into gross slabs of metal, machines that at once mock the human form yet also stand in as idealized bodies—cold, powerful extensions of a pilot’s will. These things should never move at all, let alone with the grace and beauty with which they do.
Into the Breach doesn’t put you in direct control the way Virtual On or Zone of the Enders does, it doesn’t ask you to extend your own will into pristine motions. In fact, as it zooms out into a commander’s view, it joyously dares you into missteps, into spinning your way into a corner. But then you take a breath and look at the entire ballroom floor: A forest ready to be turned into a blazing shield, a lake shaped into your sword, the long range blast of your enemy waiting to be used for your own purpose. The rhythm builds in your head, your foot taps along. And you start dancing.