44 Into The Breach
FTL’s makers return to terra firma to face a new alien threat
Most clichés have at least a little truth in them. ‘Difficult second album’ is one. How does a band follow up on a tremendously successful first release? What creative pressures does that bring? How are they overcome? How does that shape what comes next? Or, to put it another way, how does a developer like Subset Games follow up on a breakout smash hit such as FTL? The strategic spaceship sim has sold several million copies since its release on PC, its theme capturing the almost-universal appeal of being a starship captain, handling boardings and fires and prevailing against the odds with Kirkian guile. It’s won design awards and spearheaded a mini subgenre of realtime, Roguelike disaster-management games while also expanding expectations for the creative ingenuity of indie developers. FTL is, in short, a big deal. So how has Subset Games, which remains just two-people strong, gone about producing its new game?
“We came to accept that FTL was probably the best thing we’ll ever do, or at least that’s what the public would think,” programmer and co-designer Matthew Davis tells us. Through acceptance came freedom, once he and his development partner, artist and co-designer
Justin Ma, had taken a breather after they finally finished working on FTL’s port to iPad and an expansion, Advanced Edition, in spring 2014. “We were burned out after working on FTL for so long,” Ma says. “We wanted to spend some time having fun with development again. So we made a couple of small prototypes and messed around with some ideas. We didn’t want to feel the pressure of calling a project our next big game that we were going to put years into.” From this tinkering has emerged Into The
Breach, a tight, rigorously contained microstrategy game about mechs saving cities from rampaging bug aliens. It’s not FTL. While FTL hinges on taking a journey through hostile space, weighty decisions coming back to haunt you as you engage in realtime combat, Into The
Breach is turn-based, its levels taking place in eight-square-by-eight arenas of mountains, seashores and settlements. Rather than Star Trek wish fulfilment, it takes some of the spirit of Advance Wars, and mixes in a little XCOM and pure Roguelikes such as Shiren The
Wanderer. It’s still powered by FTL’s sense of high tension. Disaster hangs in the balance and one mistake can see the end of a campaign run, in which you command three mechs against an alien incursion across several randomly generated levels in each of the game’s four geographically themed islands. As you complete them, you’ll get to upgrade your mechs, honing their pilots’ traits, buying new weaponry and improving their abilities.
In each level, you’ll battle enemies which erupt from the ground over the course of just five turns. If you don’t cull their numbers, your mechs will be overwhelmed. If you lose a unit, you’ll also lose its pilot and its invaluable upgrades. If you fail to achieve a given level’s objectives, such as defending a moving train or destroying a mountain harbouring more bugs, you won’t be able to buy better weapons and equipment later on. And if you lose a city, the real problems set in. For every destroyed city, your Power Grid counts down by one point. There are ways of recouping it, but when it reaches zero, your run is over.
Into The Breach keeps all its stats low: mechs start with just two or three hit points, and hit for only one or two damage. The difference between full health and death for any unit can be a single turn. But on your side is Into The Breach’s defining property: every move and attack in Ma and Davis’ game is deterministic, and you always know what the bugs are about to do. You’ll see that the leaping bug will, unless you can stop it, jump on that city next turn. Another bug will charge your damaged mech and deal exactly two points of damage. Another city will fall to a flying bug spitting goo at it. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in trying to reduce randomness after the number of complaints that FTL had about it,” Davis says. Much of the tension in FTL is down to the problems that come when the dice rolls go against you.
Into The Breach instead hinges on careful deliberation as you consider the precise effects your weapons will have on the bugs to maximise your disruption of their plans.
The mechs’ weapons are not only destructive, but can also cause secondary effects. Some can push bugs away, relocating their attacks to save a city, or shunting one bug into another, a mountain or even one of your own mechs, which will inflict more damage. Some weapons and terrain types can cause local effects, such as dust storms which prevent any unit inside them from attacking. And each mech has a very different loadout. Artillery shots don’t require line of sight but do little damage, while hard-hitting melee attacks require close range. “Once we removed chance from the player actions, it became pretty clear that having a wide array of mechanics and systems that interplay with each other is the absolute most interesting part of the game,” Ma says. “It became pretty important to make sure every single weapon has multiple uses, so the grappling hook for the Brute mech class can pull an enemy to save a building or be used to pull an ally. There are lots of ways that it can be used.”
It’s a profoundly layered game, with many different mechanics working together, influencing and playing off each other. Though levels are short, you’ll pore over your tactical choices for many minutes, thinking through their intricate, dynamically set puzzles in which moving and attacking in the optimal order will wrest you from defeat to victory. “It’s the most enjoyable type of game to develop, because even years after working on it I can still enjoy it, encountering new strategies and getting surprised once in a while,” Ma says.
“We still come across interactions between mechanics where we don’t have a solid design for how they should combine,” Davis adds. “Every day we have design discussions about what should happen if the enemy is frozen and they have acid and they’re pushed into water. It’s gotten to the point that we’ve had to stop making new mechanics. They now have to act with ten, 15 others, and it’s just too difficult.”
It’s taken a long time for this fabulously intricate game to find its deterministically driven focus, which didn’t become apparent until two years into development. And even then Ma and Davis knew it lacked a hook as powerful as FTL’s. “It doesn’t have that really easy thing to grab on to and have fun with, but as that became apparent, we didn’t shy away from it,” says Davis. “It isn’t something that has to be in every game we make. It was more about what works best for the game we’re making.” The sheer nuance and depth of Into
The Breach is a testament of what comes from not trying to live up to all past successes, and letting new work stand on its own.
“We wanted to spend some time having fun with development again”
Justin Ma (top) and Matthew Davis resisted increasing the size of the team, despite FTL’s huge financial success
Each map consists of a randomly generated 8x8-grid battleground