To anyone who suggests that video games need to be lavish productions with infinitely complex systems, bleeding edge graphics, and cinematic stories, I suggest taking a look at Subset Games' Into the Breach. This follow-up to the wildly successful FTL is, like chess, a seemingly simple little strategy game that hides a fantastic amount of thoughtful gameplay that is as addictive and challenging as it is spare.
At its core, Into the Breach places three player-controlled units on an 8x8 battlefield grid, facing off against an equal number of alien Kaiju. Like chess pieces, each player unit (a soldier, a mech, and a tank to start with) has a limited set of options: move and then repair, buff, or attack. Likewise the enemy clearly telegraphs its intentions in the next round. The goal: destroy the enemy before it can destroy your buildings, which represent people and the power grid (i.e. health). Lose enough of these and it's game over and that means -- in classic roguelike fashion -- a humble trip back to the start of the game. Survive the round and you can spend points earned on a wide variety of upgrades for your units, including a number of truly game-altering changes to the battlefield itself.
At first it seems simple enough, but as the game progresses and the player unlocks additional pilots, mechs, and upgrades, and each little battlefield starts to become a more complex environment with landmines, sandstorms, burning forests, and special units to protect or capture, Into the Breach grows into a series of truly diabolical strategic puzzles. And while you can plan your campaign and pick your squad appropriate to each of the game's four island environments, the randomized placement of enemies and bosses mean a lot of on-the-fly re-strategizing.
Into the Breach doesn't present a story as much as provide a situation and a few narrative details and a bit of radio chatter dialogue, but the tense, strategic gameplay contains enough built-in drama that a more fleshed out story is hardly missed. The game's pixel-art contains enough character and detail that for once, I didn't feel cheated by visuals that seemed too self-satisfied with nostalgia. Both visually and sonically, Into the Breach seems in balance with its ambitions and aesthetic.
Like other strategic roguelikes, Into the Breach can feel arbitrarily difficult and even unfair, with it not being uncommon for a run to end early due to a few initial missteps or poor planning. And while every game feels essentially similar, there is enough variety in builds and enemy placement that tactical decisions are never the same from round to round.
Unlike many games that have big ambitions and big budgets, only to falter at the most fundamental level, Into the Breach under-promises and over-delivers. Its modest look and surface simplicity belie an addictive and really satisfying gameplay loop that is deep without being overly complicated and rewarding in perfect, bite size moments.