Into the Breach Review & The Joys of Simple Combat

I got Into the Breach today. It’s a tactical strategy game with roleplaying/roguelite elements. I figured that it would be an especially good case study after yesterday’s article on designing combat systems for games, and I was not disappointed.

The whole game is quite charming, as one would expect from a title from the FTL developers, though I think I enjoy it more than I enjoyed FTL (which I loved certain elements of, but didn’t particularly find replayable or mind-blowing, merely competent and well-designed).

The thing that stands out the most is that Into the Breach has incredibly simple rules. Almost everything in the game has fewer than 8 hit points, and the attacks basically revolve around three main variables:

Push (to move enemies, sometimes radially from a point or linearly)
Damage (dealt directly to HP)
Status (special conditions that usually increase damage received)
Range (how to target and how many units the attack impacts)

This makes for a game with a very simple combat system; there is no random chance, only an opportunity to make tactical decisions. Enemies are mostly ineffective individually, but large numbers are nearly unstoppable as they mess around with the battlefield (I got a deployable tank unit during my first run, which basically helped me cruise to victory, but my second run was quite difficult).

Nonetheless, it is the most satisfying thinking experience I’ve had while playing a game in 2018. It’s generous with undoing actions that the player made by mistake, and even a short-term loss is okay (just make sure you lose the battle but win the war; that power grid is important!).

Artistically and musically, it’s a great experience, and the writing’s solid. I’d recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the genre, and it’s got much better replay potential than FTL or most other tactical games, for that matter.

To get to the crux of the issue, however, its design is perhaps without peer.

Enemies are threats to be resolved, which changes the whole aspect of the game. They will attack your units, but also attack structures that are critical victory (the units are expendable, the structures are not). Combat resolves with players moving and attacking, then the enemies moving and attacking.

This is all pretty similar to any tabletop game, but what’s different?

Well, for one thing, the attacks are very carefully considered to fall into certain categories, and when those categories are satisfied it’s easy to use units with fairly different emergent effects (like, say, lighting tiles on fire to weaken spawning enemies: find one with only a single HP and you get a free kill) to both achieve entirely unique goals (like territory denial or AOE attacks) or basic goals (like dealing damage).

The fact that each weapon has one special rule, or at least a couple variables, is important, and the weapons are allocated into classes based on the four types of unit that you field. Each has its own unique patterns and preferences, though there is plenty of diversity within (for instance, the primarily melee oriented type has one variant with a laser rifle, which still centers around clever maneuvering like the class’s specialty tends to).

As a designer, I appreciate the fact that Into the Breach is self-assured. It sets itself to a few core principles and sticks to them. I’m reminded of D&D 4e’s approach, which didn’t ultimately receive great acclaim but had a few similar ideas: make all the options feel similar, then diversify them out from a common central style.

That’s a bold decision to make, and one that pays off in the simplicity and brutality of the combat. There’s a certain visceral thrill to watching stuff move around, and when things collide with each other they damage each other, or when they are forced into bad terrain they suffer its effects.

It adds a very complex layer of interaction between four simple mechanics.

And that makes for a great combat system that’s so easy a novice can grasp it, but so deep they won’t tire of it quickly.

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