Into the Breach

August 5, 2023 by Lucian Mogosanu

Into the Breach is a nice chess game wrapped tightly in a rogue-like role-playing tower defense straitjacket. Now let's macroexpand this sentence term by term.

The reader is probably already familiar with the "rogue-like role-playing tower defense" angle, from earlier games such as Justin Ma and Matthew Davis' FTL: Faster Than Light. It is also no coincidence that Into the Breach was also designed by Ma and Davis, as it shares much of the structure -- random encounters challenging the player to "survival" -- with its older brother.

Into the Breach (ItB) is made up of two fundamental elements to rogue-likes. The player must a. try to keep his virtual characters alive, b. in a procedurally-generated hostile setting. As far as point a is concerned, the main distinction with respect to traditional PC games is that there are no save-reload mechanics in play: you can save the game and continue it, but once you're dead that's it, you need to start again from scratch. As to point b, the "hostile" aspect is taken quite seriously: even on the "normal" difficulty setting and even when the player knows what he's doing, the curve favours the computer-programmed adversary, aka "AI". Thus whether the environment is unfavourable or the enemies are too powerful or too numerous, you'll most likely lose the game. Both these elements, well-implemented, are what make both FTL and ItB not only enjoyable, but quite beautiful experiences indeed.

ItB distinguishes itself from FTL mainly in that while the latter is a real-time game that can be paused when the player wishes to make decisions, the former is a turn-based chess/Heroes of Might and Magic clone -- or at least it shares the "combat" mechanics with both and with the latter also some RPG elements. In ItB the game map is tiled and each tile may contain some type of terrain and maybe a building or a unit that needs to be defended. The enemy always attacks first, but the "attack" (a damage effect spanning one or more tiles) may be countered by either leaving the effected tile if possible, or otherwise moving or if possible destroying the enemy unit. Units have a health point attribute (usually around 2 to 5 units), enhancements/penalties1 and various type-specific characteristics built upon the classical rock-paper-scissors model. The combat mech, for example, is a player-controlled melee unit with good health and decent damage (2 per hit), but its movement, even when expanded through upgrades, is limited by obstacles and enemies, which makes it hard to maneuver on crowded maps. The cannon mech is a tank that projects damage at distance along a straight line, hitting the first object it encounters; the problem being that "the first object" could easily be a friendly unit or a building. The artillery mech projects at any point on the map lying on the same row or column; and in addition to damaging the target tile, its projectile pushes adjacent tiles, which makes it a very good tool for moving enemy units out of the way; its problem is that it will die quickly if it falls into enemy hands, and enemy hands have more or less the same type of units as the player, oftentimes more.

The map terrains are some combination of water, forests, plains, mountains, chasms etc. populated with buildings which must be defended at all costs. Each building contributes to some sort of "energy grid" which in practice is a point counter with an initial value. If you played FTL, you know what I mean: beyond some certain damage to the sustaining element, the counter will go to zero and the game ends. Some map particularities may bring advantages, such as for example the tidal waves which turn tiles into water at every turn; or the air strikes that target areas and, most importantly, will come into effect at the beginning of a turn, before the enemy. The enemy, by the way, spawns before each turn; but the player knows where the next spawning cycle will begin and can stop it by occupying (some of) the associated tiles, which will also deal one point of damage to the unit that occupies the tiles; which is fortunate, because that unit may be an enemy. The player may use these so-called environmental conditions to his advantage or he may fuck it up and get killed himself in the process, because nature is quite neutral from this point of view. Quite lovely, wouldn't you say?

The objective of each map is to survive a number of turns. In the top-level screen, the player is presented with islands -- beginning with only one of them available, to be unlocked after some previous number of islands were "protected" -- each of them with a number of "territories". Each territory corresponds to a randomly-generated map and winning it may earn the player points to the energy grid (gained, say, by defending a coal plant) or reputation (gained by destroying a dam, or by defending some special objective, or, or...). Each island contains a limited number of maps ending in a "boss map", usually containing some special enemy unit that'll most likely involve some extra trouble.

At the end of it all, what remains is the "role-playing" element, which is a longer-term thing. Not only the player can at some key points in the game unlock new units -- by the way, did I mention that you can take only three of them with you in any given run? -- but pilots will gain experience upon destroying an enemy unit, while "mechs" can be upgraded in terms of health, movement points, weapons and who knows what else. This involves longer-term thinking because: if the player is extra careful and doesn't get his units killed in battle, the pilots and the mechs may be preserved among plays, the unfortunate problem being that the AI will also send in units with strengths to match, or even outmatch the player's capabilities.

As far as I can say, the artistic element, whether we're discussing graphics, music or writing, isn't in any way fundamentally different from FTL. It's interesting however that the game text was written by a veteran, Chris Avellone of Fallout and Planescape Torment fame. I'll confess I've mostly ignored all these parts in favour of the superb game design work of Ma and Davis. Even though ItB is a reimagining of an old idea -- yes, FTL, I've poured many hours into that as well -- its masterful execution makes it a rare sight among the so-called indies. I won't even mention most triple-As, I know there are few gems to be found there as well, but those gems are certainly not called Diablo III, which may count at most as a distraction in times of covid. Honestly, I'm not surprised at all that a fifteen-buck game can be vastly superior in quality to some wrecked rehash of an older glory, which also probably explains why Avellone didn't much care about Bethesda this time around.

They don't make 'em like they used to -- except sometimes they do.

  1. An example of an enhancement would be the armour, which reduces all received damage to zero. An example of a penalty would be burning, which reduces health with one point per turn. There are ways to counter both, of course, depending on where you're looking from. 

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2 Responses to “Into the Breach”

  1. #1:
    Cel Mihanie says:


    1. Permadeath/no-save mechanic
    2. Every playthrough is an exercise in masochism at the whims of the vengeful RNG god
    3. Turn-based combat & RPG mechanics

    You sure you're not talking about Nethack? :))

  2. #2:
    spyked says:

    If you like Nethack, then you'd most certainly enjoy ItB. The battle and the "role-playing" mechanics are slightly different, but otherwise the idea is pretty much the same, yeah.

    Which reminds me: ItB, or some variation thereof, would make a *great* board game, for the more socially-inclined among us.

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