I’ve only just started playing Into the Breach – completed three islands, of four, after a few attempts – but already I can tell that it’s something pretty special: a roguelike that I actually want to play, and play again.
In a sense that’s no surprise. After all, it’s the latest game from Subset, the creators of FTL, the only other roguelike I’ve ever been able to get my head around – and it’s a turn-based sci-fi strategy game. My deep and abiding love for XCOM has already been documented on this site, and Into the Breach seemed the perfect way to distract myself from sinking too much money into the mess of XCOM 2 expansions I’ve been studiously resisting for the last year or so.
But again: a roguelike. It’s a bit of a dirty word for me. What tends to keep me going in games is progression – be that in narrative, character, gameplay, or just dumb little collectibles – and this is exactly what the roguelike genre resists. You play, you die, you start again – in a procedurally generated game that’s different every time, robbing you even of the simple satisfaction of knowing that you got a little further this time than you did last time, because each attempt is too dissimilar to fairly compare.
“It’s a hook that’s only rarely worked for me in online games, and even less often offline.”
There’s nothing wrong with roguelikes in and of themselves, and in an abstract sense I sort of get the appeal – the endless variety, letting you apply the same skills to an entirely different problem set each time. In a way it’s a similar hook to most big online multiplayer games, in which no two matches will ever be the same. But equally it’s a hook that’s only rarely worked for me in online games, and even less often offline. It’s not you, it’s me.
To some extent, Into the Breach is more of the same. It throws you through a procedurally generated set of battles, designed around the assumption that you will die and restart and die and restart and die and restart and just sort of keep going forever like that.
But in another sense Into the Breach – so far – feels different. Yes, when you die you’re thrown back to the beginning to try again. But unlike most roguelikes, you don’t have nothing at all to show for it. You get to pick one of your surviving characters – assuming you have any left – and take them back with you, experience points and progression intact, to give you an edge the next time around. That’s possible thanks to the game’s specific narrative hook: you’re controlling a group of time-travelling soldiers fending off an alien invasion of Earth. Each time you fail, you pick someone to be your very own Kyle Reese and head back in time, hoping to learn from humanity’s mistakes and get it right next time.
That may just sound like a narrative gimmick together with one small gameplay tweak, but together they add up to a fundamental shift in the way I can approach the game. It’s no longer a series of disconnected playthroughs, but one ongoing narrative, an open story of one attempt to save the world over infinite timelines. Dying is no longer going back to the beginning of the game – in a sense it’s a progression to the next part, priming me for another playthrough with a powered up pilot, new mechs, and a deeper understanding of the peculiar tactical twists required for ultimate victory.
“I get to feel like a tactical genius because I won the mode balanced for eight-year-olds, you get to hurl yourself futilely at impossible challenges.”
There’s a welcome shift to that victory too, in that you no longer need to complete the game to, well, complete the game. The campaign is split up into four islands, but the final stage will unlock after you complete any two of them. You can complete the game right then and there, or keep going through more islands for bigger rewards, a higher score, and a more challenging final fight.
As a card-carrying terrible gamer, I of course opted to go for the finale at the earliest (and easiest) chance I got. If you are less embarrassingly bad than me you may opt for a greater challenge, and one of the strengths of Into the Breach is that the game is more than ready to adjust its difficulty to suit that. I get to feel like a tactical genius because I won the mode balanced for eight-year-olds, you get to hurl yourself futilely at impossible challenges that no-one in their right mind would ever attempt. Everyone’s happy.
If all this sounds facetious, it shouldn’t – well, maybe a little. But there’s a real point in here somewhere. For me, and I suspect many others, the roguelike is a bit of an unwelcoming genre, one where games are often marketed purely by the virtue of their punishing difficulty, where obsessive commitment and stubborn determination are prerequisites to having fun.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that, but Into the Breach is a welcome reminder that there’s another way too – that a roguelike can be welcome, allow players to set their own pace and challenge, and use narrative rather than doggedness to drive replayability. Experienced roguelike players will no doubt see Into the Breach as just another – albeit excellent – entry in the genre. But for the rest of us, the breach might finally be a way in.