Confessions of a Crap Mech Commander

By Rich Stanton on at

I love Into The Breach, the new turn-based RTS from the makers of FTL — and as you can see from our review, I'm far from the only one. There are many touches that make the game what it is, but one especially great aspect is how it blends a fast and streamlined take on what is traditionally a slow-moving genre with an unusual approach to failure. Two things are certain when I'm playing Into The Breach. The first is that I'll execute some amazing moves that leave the crowds gasping for more. The second is that I'll cock it all up by doing something so simple, so stupid, that I have to abandon a timeline in shame and start over.

What keeps me playing is the clever ways in which the game acknowledges we make mistakes, and gives plenty of opportunities to fix them - while also being, overall, an extremely unforgiving experience. It incorporates and encourages the kind of behaviour that (whisper it) players always did anyway in these games. After making a move, you can immediately undo it. I use this option all the time, sometimes just to test layouts but often because I've realised what I just did was dumb. You can do this as many times as you like, though only ever going back one move, and while it's not new it's a lovely touch that — perhaps counter-intuitively — keeps the action quite pacey.

Even better is the 'reset turn' option, which you can use once per match to, well, you know. Where undo turn is a localised and regular tool, this is your onetime cure for a disastrous move. And I'm the kinda commander that makes them. The design here is all about simple principles that can combine in a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious ways, and a great pleasure is gradually realising how flexible the capabilities of the various mech teams are. The game also emphasises, generally, controlling your opponents over outright destroying them: on some levels there are simply too many bugs, and few of the mech teams are built around straight-up combat. It's all about moving pieces on a board.

Or in my case, executing an artillery shot that kills a tiny bug but also pushes a max level time-travelling pilot's mech into a ravine. That's an automatic reset turn. Now that he's back, I celebrate by rushing him into the baddies and doling out a megapunch - and the next turn they, very casually, web him up and rip him apart.

It just goes to show: life is a precious thing.

He's not the only one. Farewell and adieu to my time-travelling babies, squished against mountains, left surrounded by scorpions, and standing about like lemons next to rocket launch sites - whereupon the blast, of course, incinerates them. I will always remember you, mech that punched an enemy rigged to explode. Never mind the little floating mech that sacrificed itself in self-destructive glory and accidentally wiped out multiple skyscrapers. Yeah, about that...

*disappears into a new timeline*

My classic mistake is to accidentally go into Godzilla mode. The first major realisation any player needs with Into the Breach is that 'grid energy' is the most important thing. Mechs and pilots will come and go, but once the grid's power is gone it's game over and another timeline. I've just about stopped punching monsters into the scenery, and patting myself on the back as 100 civilians die and my grid dips. But I keep on whacking them in with artillery or charge pushbacks, letting them get ensconced in tight wee corners where property damage is inevitable, and even paying tribute to our American friends with a bit of friendly fire. Undo turn will save your ass sometimes but, when you're not thinking ahead, it's all too easy to end up in what I like to call collateral situations.

Here's the beauty of it. The game gives you these little get-outs, the undo turns and the reset turn, but ultimately bad moves have to be swallowed. It's rarely worth hopping into another timeline for one mistake, and even when you've made a few your mindset shifts into learning mode. This is how I gradually became more adept at not destroying what I'm supposed to protect, and now my mistakes are of a higher calibre - failing to factor artillery pushback into my placements, leaving mechs unrepaired when a move's spare, failing to notice the occasional bonus unit until it's destroyed, letting the Vek crush a pod I'll never see again. A legacy of failure in this game feels like, eventually, it might lead to something.

Thing is, Into the Breach keeps control of your save, and for very good reason. What I mean by that is we've all started a game of XCOM, looked at our list of 90 quicksaves, and wondered which was which — because when you go through a consequential campaign where bad moves cost, of course you want an insurance policy. Like XCOM's Ironman mode, which takes control of the save away from the player, Into the Breach will only let you save and quit to come back to the same point. It's why you keep playing after minor mistakes, and even smiling as you commit to the major ones that, every single time, will damn that particular version of Earth.

Sometimes, of course, a bad turn is just too much of a bitter pill.

What I love most about Into The Breach is that it serves up all of this in such small chunks of time. These arcs are familiar to me, they're the kind of thing I've enjoyed in many other turn-based and RTS games. But when I was going to sit down with a Fire Emblem or an XCOM, it always felt like I was in for the long haul - a session of at least a few hours. Into the Breach concentrates the kind of situations that this genre excels in, and has you making what feel like hugely consequential decisions every minute - I'd go so far as to say every single move feels important. This is not one of those games where you spend five minutes re-arranging your squad's position, or slowly moving forwards over three turns.

Into The Breach, and I suppose the clue's in the title, gets you straight in there. That's why mistakes are forgiven, some of the time, and every failure becomes its own little lesson. If something like this ever does happen to Earth, you'd hope it would be this much fun. Just pray the commander doesn't look like me.

If you are also a crap mech commander, I salute you, and recommend Jason Schreier's excellent tips for improving.