At the beginning of last week I posted an article about not comparing games together in the midst of playing them. That article was inspired by the fact that I was just starting Wargroove and having a hard time loving it because I kept comparing it to Into the Breach, another indie tactical RPG that I had just finished up. In the beginning I attributed this comparison to playing them so close together, and I figured that once I played deep enough into Wargroove to really experience its mechanisms that these feelings would be easy to set aside as I got more excited about the new game. Now, though, I’ve had nearly two weeks with Wargroove and I’m still thinking about Into the Breach’s design.
To me, this feels like more than just comparing the two games because of playing them in close proximity. It is more even than comparing them simply because they share a genre. When I started playing Into the Breach, planning to put in just an hour or so before going to bed one evening, I found myself sucked in and didn’t put the game down for nearly five hours until I finished my first playthrough. Every night I played I found myself staying up too late because I was so wrapped up in the game. I mentioned on Twitter that I couldn’t remember the last time a game got its claws in me to that degree. Playing Wargroove – a game that makes me drowsy if I play it after 9 PM – so soon after paints a stark picture of just how compelled I was by the design of Into the Breach. Instead of being excited about my shiny new toy, I’m still trying to comprehend how the old toy impacted me so deeply.
I’m not an expert in game design, but it’s something that I want to gain a better understanding of. For me, even if I never have any intent of making a game of my own, comprehending how design works gives me a stronger appreciation for the games I enjoy. It gives me a greater respect for the minds behind the work, particularly for all the effort it took for them to create the product in the first place. So while my own understanding is quite limited, I want to use this article as an opportunity to sit down and slowly work my way through some of the elements of Into the Breach’s design.
Let’s look first at the structure of the game. Into the Breach is a mission-based tactical RPG featuring four corporate islands. Each island has seven different missions, of which you will only get to complete four in any one run of the game. After you’ve done those four missions, the island headquarters will come under attack and you have one last battle to fight. At the end of these five missions, you are rewarded for your successes on the island and can purchase upgrades before moving on. The first time you play the game, you must complete the islands in a specific order – after that, you can choose to play them in any order you might like.
The final mission of the game takes place at a fifth location, the Vek hive on a volcanic island separate from the others. It is a two-phase battle which can be played between islands after you’ve completed two. This allows you to beat the final mission and complete the game after either two, three, or four corporate islands, and the difficulty of the final mission scales with your progress. Because of that, a “full game” of Into the Breach can vary in length based on how many islands you want to complete with a particular squad of mechs.
I think the magic formula in the game’s structure ultimately lies in the length of the missions themselves. Any given mission can easily be completed in a matter of minutes – in fact, there’s an achievement for the Blitzkrieg mech squad for finishing two corporate islands (that’s ten missions total) in under half an hour. The shortness of these missions makes it an easy pick-up-and-play game, particularly on the Switch where it also has the advantage of being portable. It also makes it really easy to feel like you can play “just one more mission.” To continue the comparison to Wargroove for a moment, the length of those missions often serves as a de-motivating factor for me. I feel that I don’t really have time to finish an entire map, so instead I put the game down and end up playing a lot less of it in one sitting.
Focusing in on the structure of the missions themselves, the picture above gives you an idea of why they might be so short. Each mission takes place on a map made up of 64 tiles, an 8×8 grid where some of the space is taken up by buildings or mountains in addition to your mech units and the Vek units. This makes the space tight and guarantees that combat will always be close and personal. If you look at the top right of the image, you can also see the number of turns that pass – just four rounds of you placing your units and enduring attacks from the enemy. Finally, the number of units make a difference. Your side of the battlefield will, at most, have four units to manage – more often than not you only have your three primary mechs. The Vek forces may have a larger number than that depending on your difficulty setting and the types of enemies on the field, but with less than twenty characters to move around on any given turn, very little time passes while you wait on the enemy to take their actions and your own actions can pass somewhat quickly unless you spend a lengthy amount of time planning. These quick, contained battles force you to make difficult choices, which we’ll discuss in more detail in our next section.
The final thing I want to point out about the game’s structure is how saving, restarting, beating the game, and losing the game work. Into the Breach has a narrative which features time travel extensively, and it uses time travel to justify a number of the mechanisms within the game. It also uses time travel to inform the structure of the game. When you stop in the middle of an Into the Breach mission, that doesn’t give you a reset and allow you to start the turn over. The game always remembers where you left off – once you make a mistake, you’re stuck with it unless you use the official reset power built into the game. When you fail a mission, you are not forced to double back and replay the exact same match again. Instead, you game over – an entire timeline falls to the Vek, but you can try and get them next time. In this way, you fail forward; losing is still progress because it means you’ve finished a timeline and can move onto the next one. Of course, beating the final mission is the preferred way of moving forward, but losing isn’t as discouraging because it means the opportunity for a brand new start. This isn’t possible in a game which is driven heavily by a narrative – you have to complete a specific chapter in order to move the narrative along.
So then, how does the structure of Into the Breach keep you coming back for more? The short levels make it easy to pick up the game for a quick session while also making it easier to rationalize playing one or two more. Having the choice to play the final mission at any point after beating two islands means that you can invest as much or as little as you want into a particular timeline. Failing a mission doesn’t force you to retread old ground; instead, the game ends and you start over fresh, giving you a new opportunity to succeed and constantly pushing the game forward.
Now that we’ve seen how the structure of the game helps you to get sucked in, let’s focus on the gameplay itself. On Monday I posted an article discussing the use of randomness in tactical RPGs – Into the Breach is a masterclass in not using randomness, giving the player control of more of the battle and thus making the focus of the game truly about tactics. In many strategy games, the trick is how you’re going to handle information you don’t know. Will my attack hit? Will I get a critical? Can my unit survive if the enemy gets a critical? How many enemies are waiting for me on this foggy map? If I leave this building exposed to protect my soldier, will the enemy actually go after it? Into the Breach breaks from that tradition by telling you everything, and then asking you what you’re going to do with that.
When the Vek position themselves on the battlefield, you see the direction of their attack. You know what target the attack will hit and how much damage that attack will do. If the attack will push the target to another tile, or cause the Vek to move from their current position, the game shows you that too. By clicking the right stick, you can see the attack order of enemies and know the exactly when each move will be executed, down to the environmental effects or passive abilities currently active on the field. Cracks in the ground indicate where more Vek are going to rise up to start attacking. Knowing all of that, you have to make a decision about which situations you want to deal with now and which ones you want to save for later. Or, in the worst case scenarios, which consequences you are willing to bear in order to avoid the ones you can’t.
These stakes are what make battles so compelling in Into the Breach. It is very rare to have a turn where nothing happens, and when those turns do come it is because you earned them by outwitting and overwhelming your Vek opposition. Each round of combat is about making tough choices – do I let myself take some grid damage so I can succeed on the mission objectives and aim to get a perfect island? Is pushing this Vek to divert its attack still worth it if it means pushing one of my mechs onto a freeze mine? Will blocking these Vek from emerging make my mechs too vulnerable by whittling down their health? When your choices allow you exit a battle unharmed with a full grid and every objective completed, it’s a satisfying feeling. When they leave you with a dead pilot, two grid power, and a lost time pod, the relief of survival is tinged with the regret of having allowed things to get this bad. Either way, because you were operating with all of the information possible and the game has limited random elements, winning or losing doesn’t feel like a fluke. Whatever happened, you earned it by having good tactics or bad ones.
This idea of the consequence of choice impacts other aspects of the game too. Remember how every island has seven possible missions, but you can only complete four in a single run? The missions you choose will likely depend on a number of factors. Mission rewards include reputation, which is used to purchase weapons or grid power; energy to power your grid or, when your grid is at maximum, increase your grid defense; or reactors to power your mechs and their weapons. Missions with multiple rewards can have higher levels of Vek threat, while those with few rewards may give you a safety net in the form of defensive shields on the battlefield. Depending on the kind of mech squad you are using, certain mission types may be highly impractical. For example, while I deeply enjoy the missions where you protect supply chains, the Blitzkrieg is a terrible squad for them because chain lightning will damage the train along with the enemies. So choosing a mission is a consideration of what rewards you want, which conditions your mechs are best suited for, and how difficult you want the battle to be.
Mission rewards give you another layer of choices to make. When you complete an island perfectly, you are given a single reward for free. You have the choice between a weapon upgrade, a pilot, or two free points of energy (which can also increase your grid defense if your grid is maxed out). You can only choose one, so deciding which is the most valuable to you can be a tricky proposition. Do you fill your grid up so that you can spend all of your reputation points, or get a new pilot that might be replaceable the next time you find a time pod? Extra pilots and weapons can be exchanged for extra reputation to spend but you lose them permanently; what if you part with a capable pilot and then another one dies later? When spending reputation on a corporate island, you’ll have four different weapon options as well as the ability to buy mech reactors and grid power. Since your mechs can only support three subweapons at a time (one each), choosing weapons is always going to be a decision between which you feel will be most beneficial to your strategy. But if you load up on weapons and not reactors, you won’t be able to push your mech or their weapons to the greatest potential. Yet only buying reactors may mean that you lack meaningful alternatives to the core abilities of your mech, boxing them in during battle and limiting their usefulness. With only so much reputation to spend, the key is in finding the balance between the different resources you need to purchase.
When it comes to gameplay, Into the Breach makes battles and rewards compelling by giving you too much and forcing you to make choices between what is most important. Which consequences do you want to suffer? Which risks do you want to take? What rewards will give you the biggest advantage moving forward? The game hides nothing from you and allows you to make informed decisions, but because those decisions are permanent within a given timeline, they feel as if they have significant weight. When every choice means something, it encourages you to keep playing and try different choices on your next go-around; combine that with how easy it is to rationalize “just one more battle” and you’ve got a recipe for a game that can hold your attention for quite some time.
One of the most compelling aspects of Into the Breach is the way that it justifies the metagame using the game’s story. For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, the word meta refers to observing something from outside of itself. The meta of a competitive game like Overwatch, for example, refers to the common tactics that the players use, their character choices and the ways they apply their abilities. In tabletop roleplaying, meta-gaming is the act of making decisions in game using knowledge from outside of the game. The metagame is using awareness of the game’s identity as a game to make decisions within the world of the game itself. Into the Breach justifies this using time travel – the metagame is about every timeline, not just a single timeline.
The metagame influences Into the Breach in a couple of different ways. Perhaps the most obvious one is in the achievements. We’ve discussed the in-universe rewards of Into the Breach: the reputation, the pilots, the weapons, etc. However, there are rewards at the player level in the form of achievements. There are fifty-five possible achievements in Into the Breach, with a wide range of difficulties and time investments. Quite a few of these achievements are tied to the metagame, requiring you to have a certain number of perfect islands or citizens saved over multiple timelines. Some achievements tied to a single timeline are mutually exclusive, meaning that you’ll need to earn them slowly over multiple timelines played (as an example, you can’t both get three perfect islands consecutively while also destroying every time pod you find on those three islands). If you want to earn these achievements, you’ll have to play the game multiple times, giving you more inventive to keep coming back.
Achievements aren’t just about bragging rights. Each achievement comes with a coin, a player-level currency that allows you to purchase new mech squads to use in the game. There are eight purchasable squads in the game, and the only way to get all eight of them is to earn every achievement in the game. But because many of these achievements are tied directly to mech squads (30 of the 55, in fact), you’ll have to purchase squads in order to get access to achievements which will then allow you to purchase more squads, unlocking more achievements so you can then- you get the point. Achievements are a motivating factor in Into the Breach because each one you complete helps you to unlock more game to play, creating a satisfying reward loop.
The metagame impacts more than just gameplay elements, though – it has story implications as well. In fact, the metagame of Into the Breach serves as the crux of the story. There are not cut scenes in this game, no significant dialogue or FMVs. What we learn about this world comes in snippets: brief mission descriptions, the clever quips shared between characters, or the their thoughts spoken aloud as the game begins or comes to an end. Into the Breach is about time-traveling mech pilots who are fighting an endless war against the Vek, battling them again and again across an ever-expanding sea of timelines. Each individual timeline is one chapter of the tale, and the narrative you experience playing the game is the emergent one that arises from the particular situations you find yourself in.
This manifests powerfully in the way I attached to the pilots who moved from timeline to timeline. At the end of each timeline, you can choose a single surviving pilot to carry into the next timeline, following their journey specifically – theoretically, the pilots you do not choose are also traveling to other timelines and fighting their own battles. Who you decide to follow becomes, if you stick with them, the main protagonist of your Into the Breach experience. At least until they die. Losing a pilot who has been with you for a significant number of timelines hurts worse than losing a whole timeline. Individual playthroughs are expendable when the metagame encompasses so many of them, but the characters who travel with you across the metagame – they matter, and sometimes fighting to keep them can become more significant than the other objectives on your map.
Into the Breach is made special by the way in which it acknowledges the metagame and makes it part of the experience. You are encouraged to think not just of a single playthrough but instead to see all of your playthroughs as a single connected experience. You are rewarded for the accomplishments that you make over time and can use the rewards that you earn in order to unlock new possibilities and keep you playing. Meanwhile, the metagame allows you to experience a narrative that is unique to you, and to choose which piece of an individual timeline you want to bring with you to future games. The characters who travel with you the longest, enjoying victories and enduring losses, become significant to you, and their falls are truly tragic because of everything they have experienced.
Into the Breach is a cleverly designed game in many of its building blocks. The short-and-quick mission-based structure makes the game easy to pick up but hard to put down. Giving you all of the information possible so that you can make difficult but informed decisions makes the gameplay compelling, and those choices apply to everything from the risks you take in battle to the rewards you earn afterward. Over time, you tell your own story about the game and the world as you develop your own metagame and earn rewards that give you new reasons to come back and play again. All of these factors work together to make Into the Breach a game to which I will dare to attach the word innovative – it has impacted my thoughts on tactical RPG design to the point of influencing what features I will be looking for in future titles. Twelve timelines in, half of them failures, I still keep coming back to this game. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to step away. For now, though, I’ll strap into my mech and head once more…you know the rest.