44 Into The Breach

FTL’s mak­ers re­turn to terra firma to face a new alien threat

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper/pub­lisher For­mat Ori­gin Re­lease Sub­set Games PC UK, US 2018


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

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