One part pint-sized Pacific Rim simulator, one part fiendish, chess-like puzzle fight, Subset Games’ latest, Into The Breach, is all about the pleasures of defusing a crisis. Like the studio’s 2012 hit, the starship strategy game FTL: Faster Than Light, Breach delights in dropping players into starkly unfair situations, providing them with tools, information, and obstacles, and then giving them as much time as they need to think their way through the chaos.
Painted with an appealingly simple pixel-art style, the game’s world is bracingly bleak: In the distant future, the oceans have risen, leaving humanity confined to a few corporate-owned islands and left to the un-tender mercies of a force of giant, insect-like kaiju called the Vek. Meager hope arrives in the form of a team of time-traveling mecha, sent back from an even-more-ruined future in order to give the human race a last-ditch chance of survival. The storytelling here is minimalist but evocative and mostly delivered through mid-battle commentary, as corporate CEOs grill players about the origins of their futuristic tech, or battle-weary pilots despair at the terrible odds arrayed against them. It’s just enough to keep you fighting, but never enough to serve as a distraction from the complicated battles that serve as the game’s actual central draw.
The formula for said fights—which play out on a turn-based grid system, as your team of pilots struggle to keep the planet’s last few survivors safe from the ever-increasing hordes—is simple and simply genius: Every turn, various Vek move around the grid, choose their fragile targets (power plants, apartment buildings, or your own troops), and then, just before attacking, they politely pause in place. In that moment, with a complete picture of what your enemies are about to do, the player is tasked with preventing a series of tiny disasters before they actually occur.
The tools available to do so are numerous. Some mechs are direct damage dealers, but most are built around the ability to debilitate their enemies or manipulate the Vek’s placement on the “board.” Push a building-sized hornet away from the structure it was about to crush, and it’ll complete its pre-planned attack by swiping harmlessly at the empty air or, if you’re really in the swing of things, into the skull of one of its comrades, delicately manipulated into the line of fire. Nothing is random (save for the occasional grace note allowing a building to survive a hit that should have brought it down), and it’s that lack of randomness combined with the varied powers of the “pieces” on both sides that makes Into The Breach feel like the most gung-ho, action-movie chess variant ever designed. Full of tricky maneuvering problems and a constant push to make the most of your limited tool set, the brainteasers the game trades in are only a few steps removed from ones you might find published in a book of chess puzzles, albeit with a higher-than-average number of acid-spewing worms.
And like chess, the learning curve can be brutal. One or two bad rounds can slash huge gouges out of your power reserves, which serves as the decidedly stingy health bar for your entire campaign, and while a rewind feature is included, it can only be used once per fight. Most of the difficulty and replayability comes in figuring out how to avoid those no-win situations, largely by learning how your individual mechs work together to manipulate the battlefield for success.
The starting team, the Rift Walkers, are appropriately simple, a mixture of straightforward punches and pushes that introduce players to the game’s mechanics. Victory earns medals that unlock other team compositions, and some of these can be absolute nightmares to grasp on the initial brush; one squad relies on choking enemies in passive, attack canceling-smoke, for instance, while another wields an electric whip that’s just as likely to fry the rest of their team as it is to fight off a crowd of slavering Vek. One (or, more likely, two) wrong turns later, and you might find yourself jamming the “Abandon Timeline” button yet again, sending one of your better-upgraded pilots back through the time-stream to look for an Earth that’s not quite so obviously fucked. It’s an unforgiving education, but also a rewarding one. By the time you’re taking out whole armies of murderous bugs with a few deft attacks, tricking them into destroying each other without even breaking a sweat, the satisfaction of learning a new team’s unique strategies is hard to overstate.
Success begets success, too, so you’re likely to find yourself stuck in a “just one more battle” loop, taking on varied objectives—protect a train, blow up some mountains, keep a particular pesky Vek alive—and building your team into unstoppable killing machines. The thrill here isn’t power but the growing breadth of the options that power opens up. Like Zachtronics’ Opus Magnum or SpaceChem, Into The Breach thrives on the pleasure of being played well, of finding elegant solutions for seemingly impossible problems. Every round of every battle is a new puzzle waiting to be solved, and for players on the hunt for serial epiphanies, it serves them up readily by forcing a repeated effort to turn certain catastrophe into perfect success.
Subset also deserves credit for the game’s deliberately limited, laser-focused scope. Every aspect of Into The Breach’s design—the gorgeous soundtrack, the bleak storytelling, even the way characters quip about the in-game reset button—contributes to making the player’s battles feel like a life-or-death, “We’re canceling the apocalypse” moment. There’s nothing wasted here, no unnecessary cutscenes or overblown drama to detract from the places where the game’s purest pleasures lie, whether that’s in pushing your team to the limits to keep their charges safe or just tinkering in the menus, using a precious, hard-won reactor core to unlock a new ability on your favorite mech. Even the game’s frustrations feel designed and deliberate, “That’s not fair!” moments that ultimately only work to highlight the pleasures of a good crisis averted with aplomb.