“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” is perhaps the most mimicked line from Shakespeare’s Henry V—many of King Henry’s speeches in the same play have been cribbed in the pre-battle speeches of sci-fi melodrama like Independence Day and Starship Troopers. Forgotten, usually, is the second line of the “once more” rally, in which King Henry suggests that his men “close up the wall with our English dead.” This couplet is oddly fitting as I consider Into the Breach, the sophomore outing from Subset Games, creators of the acclaimed space simulation roguelike FTL. As was the case with Into the Breach‘s predecessor, the game does something novel with well-worn sci-fi tropes. Also, you will die—a lot.
But Into the Breach, like FTL before it, builds on death. Each failed run teaches you how to react to the uncertainty of the next, allowing you to progress a bit further. In fact, the solid foundations of FTL are observable everywhere here, answering perhaps the most pressing question fans of this developer’s first game have about Into the Breach. Both create compelling systems and mechanics from seemingly exhausted genres—if FTL attempted to see just how far you could push the space exploration tropes of Star Trek, Into the Breach does the same for kaiju films like Godzilla or, more recently, Pacific Rim.
There is also parity between Into the Breach and FTL‘s user interfaces and in the randomization of shops, encounters, and environmental conditions. Thinking about these similarities makes me want for Apple II-style boxes for these games that I could place side by side on a shelf—it’s the sort of likeness that communicates confidence in design rather than leaning too heavily on a previous success.
Into the Breach differentiates itself in combat. Where FTL‘s battle sequences are frantic, testing reflex and adaptability, Into the Breach requires the intentional, planned actions of a typical tactics game. You take control of a squad of time-traveling giant robot pilots against a sky-scraper sized insect threat called the Vek. The epic scale of the combatants, however, is a bit at odds with the game’s presentation. The micro-pixel art style of FTL returns and battles take place on an 8×8 square grid. The battle maps of similar tactical games, such as the X-COM or Fire Emblem series, are sprawling by comparison. The micro-battles ensure that it has nearly endless replayability.
The result of these seemingly cramped maps, however, is a tight tactics game built around the idea that non-combatant casualties and collateral damage are unacceptable calculations in any engagement. If you allow a Vek to attack a building or, worse, you hit a building with one of your unit’s attacks, you are instantly informed of the casualty count and lose some amount of the region’s power grid. If the integrity of the power grid reaches zero, humanity will be helpless against the Vek, and the timeline will end in apocalypse. At this point, you can select just one pilot to travel back through the eponymous breach to an earlier time for another crack at humanity’s salvation.
Other games deal more substantively with the lives of non-combatants caught in the middle of conflict (This War of Mine comes to mind), but I’m hard-pressed to think of a tactics title that makes them as central to the game’s success or failure conditions the way Into the Breach does. The Vek favor attacking infrastructure rather than your units, so often turning the tide of battle means putting your men and women in harm’s way, strategically taking a hit so you can save lives and invaluable infrastructure. Such actions can result in the tragic deaths of human pilots, which are more adept than the AI counterparts you can control. Humanity underscores much of the game, including Ben Prunty’s soundtrack, which pivots from the subtle synths of FTL to energetic string and guitar arrangements.
The ways Into the Breach tackles human sacrifice, however, are subtle and impressionistic. Strategy games tend to either deal with the human element of war in deep, Civilization-style sub-menus or the sometimes overwrought relationship-management systems of games like Fire Emblem or Valkyria Chronicles. The former relegates human beings to spreadsheets while the latter tends to lead to favoritism when threats emerge.
Into the Breach also allows you to name your pilots, which adds a nice sense of emergent narrative to the proceedings, much in the same vein as the recent X-COM reboots and, of course, FTL. That pilot loss is going to hurt even more if you name them after a friend or loved one.
I won’t say that Into the Breach necessarily earns the Shakespearean allusion of its title. It is still a game about giant robots fighting colossal bugs. But by borrowing confidently from the best characteristics of FTL, and crafting an aggressively scoped tactics game built around avoiding collateral damage, Subset Games approach the sense of sacrifice invoked in King Henry’s rallying cry.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was provided by Subset Games.
Into the Breach borrows confidently from FTL's successes, but differentiates itself as a tight, highly replayable tactics game built around avoiding non-combatant casualties and collateral damage.