By Julie Muncy
There are just three giant robots standing between a posse of massive bugs and the end of the world. At my command, my flagship mech, a brawler, zooms forward, punching one of the massive creatures in its ugly face, sending it careening into the sea. Then more bugs show up, and before I can figure out a clever tactical response I’m swamped with monsters, surrounded by dead civilians and burning forests. It’s time to pull the plug.
Or the breach, I guess. Into the Breach, developed by the team behind the well-loved spaceflight-desperation simulator FTL, is a game about going back in time to correct your mistakes. Your mechs, or the pilots that control them, have a secret weapon: time travel. Each defeat in the game is met with a retreat back to the beginning of the cataclysm, just before everything started going downhill.
It’s not clear what that cataclysm is, or where exactly the bugs come from. But they’re advancing on mankind’s last strongholds, a series of isolated islands, and it’s up to your time-travelling brigade to stop them. The miracle of time travel means you have as many opportunities to stop them as you want, though each failure comes with costs: dead pilots, ruined machines, and an entire abandoned timeline of apocalyptic destruction.
Mechanically, this conflict expresses itself as something like a cross between Pacific Rim and a heated game of chess. Each island is a grid of installations to protect, with your pawns and your enemy’s trading assaults and taking spaces to reach your goals. It also channels a very particular genre of videogame, one that I’m usually not at all interested in: the roguelike.
Roguelike games are about cost. Based on the classic dungeon crawler Rogue, roguelikes don’t let you save your progress. When you die, you start from the beginning, losing nearly everything you gained along the way. Into the Breach, and many other roguelikes, allow certain resources to be taken back to the beginning, leading to a sense of slow but hard-won growth. But still, every death in a game like Into the Breach is a devastating, time-consuming setback.
Normally, this infuriates me. Losing so much time, and gaining so little, usually sours me on a game very quickly. They often lack narrative coherence or satisfaction, and there’s less of a sense of presence in these games than there is a sense of desperation. I can see the appeal of that, but it rarely grabs me.
Not Into the Breach, though. Instead, something about the alchemy of its setting and the style of its play instantly feels arresting. The simple act of making failure not just a setback for the player but a desperate, last-ditch effort to salvage everything from its characters changes things somehow. Each defeat feels satisfying, a building block in a larger, desperate story about determined heroes and awful sacrifices, about slow growth and the final salvation of everything.
I’m still not very good at Into the Breach. The end is a long way away. But I’ll keep turning the clock back again, and again. And one day, those bugs will pay for everything they’ve taken from me. I’m looking forward to it.
More WIRED Culture