The past few weeks have involved me playing an inordinate amount of Subset Games’ Into The Breach, a laser-focused tactical mech combat game where you are tasked with ridding a climate-devastated earth of giant monsters known as the Vek.
Like Subset’s previous title FTL, Into The Breach is a marvel of simplicity. Games are played out on an eight-by-eight grid, with only three mech units against waves of Vek. A typical match regularly includes being overwhelmed by superior numbers, and through my time with the game, I found that it’s less of a tactics game and more of a puzzle game disguised as a tactical one.
My first few runs I found myself frustrated, banging my head against my tactics-game-instincts to crush each and every opponent one by one. Over time, the game teaches you the better and more efficient tactical flow that it is trying to encourage—not attack, but defense, flowing from each turn to turn and keeping the Vek under control, if not underground.
While dealing damage to the Vek is certainly one way to limit their advance toward the human cities in each scenario, even more important is to avoid damage being dealt to those cities in the first place. You quickly learn that while mechs have health bars of their own, their automatic repairs after each mission mean that they are expendable in a way the global health bar (harmed whenever a city takes damage) is not.
Battles, then, become a dance of pushes and pulls, with mech units tugging the Vek around until their attacks land harmlessly on empty tiles or into other Vek. The flow resembles checkers far more than it resembles XCOM, with painfully slow moments of decision before each maneuver.
It’s in this that Into The Breach transcends its peers in the tactics field—by focusing so deeply, so narrow-mindedly, on a system of positioning and movement more than randomization, the game forces players to think on their feet, rarely more than one move ahead. Paradoxically, by slowing down and making each decision necessarily deliberate, the game feels faster, closer to the scrappy, desperate feel of the last fighting force on earth facing off against endless waves of foes.
The metastructure of the game further supports this. Each time you begin a run, you are being sent back in time to try and rescue another timeline from Vek annihilation. There is infinite time between actions in Into The Breach. But on the battlefield, there is a sense of immediacy. Strategies are evaluated and re-evaluated constantly, and each turn is a flurry of harm reduction and harm avoidance, sacrificing mech health points in order to keep precious civilians safe.
And even in the moment of complete loss, there is always another run.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.