The Virtual Life – Into The Breach And The Sanctity Of Life
The artillery is a smouldering heap, devastated by giant kaiju's claw swipe. The pilot inside, a good soldier, is gone. But the loss wasn't for nothing. I watch as the round timer at the top of the screen hits zero, and the giant bugs terrorizing humanity, known as the Vek, descend back into the earth once more, leaving these vulnerable cities untouched. A breeze of relief blows through my chest.
We did it. No civilians died.
The relief is my only celebration. I click the exit battle button and move onto the next mission, trying hard not to think about the loss of my pilot.
Into The Breach is a game that combines the mech vs kaiju battlegrounds of Pacific Rim and Neon Evangelion Genesis with chess. And like most strategy games, Into The Breach is constantly forcing you to weigh the scales when it comes to the tactical value of units around the map. Is it worthwhile for you to throw your mech and its pilot in harm's way to protect a city (essentially a unit of health for you, the tactician) or a possible upgrade that's just landed on the battlefield in the form of a pod, or should you preserve your unit's health to help against the overwhelming enemy force that's popping up all over the map? On paper, this does not sound particularly special. Most turn-based strategy games function on this foundation of making value choices that affect how many strategies are open to you each turn, with each choice you make having one of the following consequences:
1. You lose strategic options and your enemy gains some
2. You gain strategic options and your enemy loses some
3. Nobody loses anything, both sides gain options
4. You win
5. You lose
So if all tactics game more or less play out this way, what is it that makes Into The Breach so satisfying and interesting? For me, it's how developer Subset Games uses the theme of collateral damage to make your losses hit harder than in other strategy games. Every time one of your cities takes a hit in Into The Breach, not only do you lose a chunk of your game's health bar, but you're also told precisely how many civilians die from that monster's attack with an explosion of numbers. It makes a crushing blow that much worse, especially as little text blurbs erupt from the cities around the map as the match begins with cries of, "The Rift Walkers will help us!" and, "We're doomed."
All tactics games eventually boil down to a simple question: What losses are bearable? Into The Breach suffuses that with emotional depth, prompting you not to take the fight to the enemy in typical fisticuffs style but instead make you think in terms of diversion and enemy placement. Your goals aren't about destroying your enemy but instead about keeping them at bay and protecting countless innocents that are depending on you. These goals eventually return to that universal question I brought up earlier. What sacrifices are you willing to make to protect those people? Your mechs and the pilots inside them? The valuable upgrades inside the pods that land on the battlefield? Do you sacrifice completing an optional objective that could give you powerful weaponry far down the road so you can protect a few hundred lives?
Decisions, large and small, have consequences that reverberate throughout the entire game. The leaders of the islands you're trying to protect will pop up every now and then to remind you of your successes and failures, like how a train transporting supplies was destroyed so now people will starve as a result of your failure. On the other hand, saving that train might have meant sacrificing something more valuable, so there's no single correct answer, really.
Into The Breach becomes not just a game about tactical dilemmas but one of ethical dilemmas, one that's made even more heartwrenching by the slowly-dripping realization that you can't save everyone. There will be moments that happen on the battlefield where you will have to choose between one city or the other, and there's no reason for it. It won't be because you made a bad choice. It'll happen because of luck of the draw. Some players may find that frustrating and deeply unfair (luckily Into The Breach is structured in such a way you can make health back relatively easy) but I find it makes my position as a tactician more interesting. I'm not some all-powerful demigod who can save the day Ender's Game style 100% of the time. Those bad luck instances really drive home the desperation of these battles, making them feel more vivid and emotionally engaging.
Into The Breach diverts its gaze from the typical power fantasy of dominating enemies on a map that comes along with the genre, and instead puts its stake in preventing as much collateral damage as possible. It's a wise gambit, one that makes Into The Breach stand out in a genre that's filled with brilliant games. I can't wait to see what comes next from Subset Games, a developer that's building a name for tinkering and mutating genres to make bold and exciting experiences.