"It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness. That is life.” That nugget of wisdom comes not from Confucius or Machiavelli, but from Star Trek: The Next Generation's Captain Jean-Luc Picard. It’s difficult to think of a game that exemplifies this sentiment better than Into The Breach. This tough-as-nails strategy game isn’t so much about winning as it is about mitigating loss in the hopes of eventually reaching a positive outcome; it’s a game of pyrrhic victories at best and crushing defeats at worst.
The story of Into The Breach is a simple one, somewhat echoing the plot of Pacific Rim. A species of subterranean Kaiju bug monsters called Vek are threatening humanity, and the resistance responds by deploying giant mech units to repel them, sending back a pilot to an earlier point in time if failure is imminent. As far as narrative elements go, there isn’t a whole lot in terms of characterization or development, but this simple and stripped-back approach works well for this sort of game. Pilots may not have a whole lot of personality and there may not be much of a storyline to follow, but it provides sufficient context for the constant monster punching action that you’ll be involved in.
Gameplay takes the shape of a turn-based SRPG, with you commanding a team of three which fight the near-limitless waves of Vek on an 8x8 grid. Several spaces on each grid are populated by cities, which are the Vek’s primary target. If a city gets hit, a bar is taken off of your grid gauge, which acts as a meta-health bar that carries over between battles. If your grid gauge runs out, or if all your mechs get destroyed in a battle, or if you fail to reach certain objectives on a map, you lose - but you are given the opportunity to send back in time one surviving pilot to start a new game.
The main hook of gameplay is found in how every enemy attack is telegraphed in advance, giving a sort of puzzle game feeling to proceedings. You’re given all the information as to what is going to happen once your turn is over, and it’s up to you to decide how to best tweak that outcome in your favour. Many attacks, for example, are capable of pushing or pulling the units they hit, allowing you the chance to push Vek into the ocean or into the line of fire of another Vek. Considering that there can sometimes be twice as many Vek on the field as there are mech units, it often feels like there’s too much to deal with at once, and this is where the element of loss factors into things.
Into The Breach seems to revel in forcing the player to make devastating decisions, creating many scenarios where there are no 'winning' moves to play. It may very well be that the only way to block that Vek’s attack on a nearby city is by having a pilot take the hit, killing them and removing their mech from the battle. Or perhaps you may have to fire a shot on one of your own cities, in order to push adjacent Vek out of the way and to their deaths. More often than not, the player is made to think about what matters most in the long run, often sacrificing whatever doesn’t immediately fit into that.
Even so, Into The Breach is rarely unfair, making every victory and defeat feel rightfully earned. All actionable information is laid bare for the player to see, meaning that every decision you make is fully informed; you’re told exactly where Vek are going to attack, in what order, and how any environmental factors are going to affect things. There is almost no element of randomness except for the grid defence factor: a 25 percent chance that a city struck by a Vek will suffer no damage. You’re able to undo any unit movement during your turn, but once an action is made, that unit is locked in, with one notable exception. Once per battle, you can use time travel to reset all actions made that turn, allowing some minor leeway in terms of experimenting with different strategies. Into The Breach strikes a commendable balance, then, keeping RNG elements to a bare minimum while still offering a brutal difficulty.
Progression takes place over the course of four themed islands, with a separate ‘final boss’ island being unlocked after conquering two islands. Each of the main four are divided into seven regions, with each one representing a battle, and after four battles, seismic activity will trigger which destroys the remaining three regions and unlocks the boss fight for that island. Much like in battles, choices made on the map will heavily affect the outcome of your run, due to the effect of sub-objectives found in each mission.
Though defending cities and keeping mechs alive is your main focus, each battle will have a couple optional side-activities that reward you in some fashion - such as killing a certain number of Vek or keeping them from destroying a power plant. Fulfilling these objectives grants you boons like extra bars in your grid gauge or stars that can be spent on new weapons in a shop that appears after beating a boss. Individually, these sub-objectives don’t make a ton of difference, but it’s diligently going after them that will grant you a greater cushion as the run continues.
There’s a mild bit of character progression, too, in the form of levelling-up pilots. Each Vek kill will net the pilot some XP, and each one can be levelled-up twice, granting benefits like more health or stronger attacks. If a pilot is killed, their mech can still be used in battles going forward, but no more XP will be acquired and all level benefits will disappear. Into The Breach is very much a game where the experience comes in the meta form of players becoming better decision makers, but these progression elements are still added in to make each run feel a bit different.
For those of you looking for replayability, you’ll be pleased to know there’s plenty of bang for your buck here. Into The Breach features roguelike elements, meaning each map, island, and shop will be different each run, giving you a nearly limitless number of ways to play. More importantly, there’s an in-game achievement system tied to completing tasks and pulling off certain feats, with each achievement netting you a coin. Collect enough coins, and you can unlock a new team of mechs, each of which plays and feels radically different than the last one.
Though it absolutely nails its gameplay and balance, one notable way in which Into The Breach stumbles is its presentation, which is forgettable at best. Graphics are presented in a rather basic, sprite-based look that does a fine job of communicating information to the player but lacks that 'wow' factor. Granted, not every game has to be a system showcase, but having a weak art direction does make a game less appealing, especially when you’re spending as many hours with it as you will with Into The Breach. Similarly, the soundtrack is a quiet, atmospheric collection of tunes that do little to enhance the experience; the music is mostly just here to avoid the awkwardness of silence.
Into The Breach is a brutal, uncompromising game of making hard decisions and living with your mistakes, but the short length of battles and endless variety of playthroughs makes for an extremely addictive experience. Though the graphics are nothing special, the gameplay is some of the very best you’ll find in the strategy genre on the Switch, and we can easily recommend this to anybody who’s looking for an in-depth game that’ll make you think. Into The Breach feels right at home on the Switch, and whether you play more at home or on the go, you’re more than likely to get plenty of value out of this release.