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Into The Breach: The simple power of gameplay over graphics

In 2012, indie developer Subset Games released FTL: Faster Than Light, a rogue-like space ship simulator, which takes its inspiration from the likes of Star Trek, Firefly and Star Wars. It uses procedurally-generated planetary systems and events to make each playthrough wildly unpredictable. FTL quickly become renowned for its addictive resource management and punishing difficulty. Taking their cues from games like Super Meat Boy, the developers designed the game with a mere 10% success rate.

The top-down 2D pixel art gives the game a distinctive, retro feel. But the huge amount of number crunching involved would probably bog down an old 16-bit machine. Its technical requirements are modest (it barely tasks the GPU). However, it still requires a fairly modern machine (with a good processor) to run smoothly.

Subset Games’ follow up to FTL is Into the Breach, a turn-based tactical RPG. With similar pixel art graphics and procedural maps, it shares a lot of its DNA with FTL. But the gameplay is substantially different. Played on an 8×8 isometric grid, each mission sees time-travelling mech pilots take on a group of alien kaiju called the Vek, in what’s been described as Pacific Rim meets Edge of Tomorrow.

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With three mechs at your disposal, your turn-based challenge is to defeat the alien Vek and protect humanity.

At first glance, Into The Breach resembles games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Advance Wars. But its gameplay is more akin to chess. Having seen what the monsters are about to do, you can then decide how best to interrupt their plans, making the most of a bad situation, often sacrificing forces (and innocent civilians) to win the larger war.

In the grand scheme of things, Into The Breach isn’t exactly a watershed moment in PC gaming, but it is indicative of the way the market is changing…

Graphics really don’t matter

The 1990s and 2000s saw a continual drive towards ever more graphically-intense games, leading to incredible levels of realism. But with near-photorealism now the norm, there’s been a distinct trend towards games that rail against convention.

The rise of small indie developers, a resurgence in retro gaming, and the advent of mobile platforms have all combined to popularise 2D pixel art as a valid graphical style, pioneered by the likes of Super Meat Boy, Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery EP, Fez, Papers Please and Shovel Knight.

All of these games could easily possess more sophisticated graphics, but it would have very little impact on the playing experience. The success of these titles, along with FTL and Into the Breach, clearly shows that there’s room for games that sit at both ends of the graphical spectrum.

The influence of board games

Board games and video games have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Many of the first video games were conversions of classic board games, such as chess, draughts, Go, Risk and Monopoly. The board game market underwent a renaissance in the mid-’90s, with the launch of Settlers of Catan, which has since sold in excess of 20 million copies. This inspired a wave of innovative new titles from Europe and the US, employing a mixture of competitive and cooperative play styles.

Board gaming is currently enjoying substantial year-on-year growth, driven by video gamers looking for a different, more social (and sociable) gaming experience. Inexpensive conversions of board games are readily available, which often leads to the purchase of a physical copy. While the addition of videos, blog posts and social media has helped create a buzz around the medium, informing and motivating a new generation of players.

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Like FTL before it, the visual style of Into The Breach uses pixel art to great effect.

The arrival of video games forced board game makers to offer deeper, more complex, yet easily accessible mechanics. But while board games have learned a lot from video games, the reverse is also true: the subtle machinations of modern board games — which include things like resource balancing, strategic planning, economic conflict and the notion of fragile alliances — are informing new ideas in video game development. The designers of FTL, for example, cite Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game and Star Wars: X-Wing as inspirations.

It’s good to try something different

We’re big fans of the work done by the likes of Ubisoft, Bethesda, Capcom et al. But it’s refreshing that the success of FTL didn’t entice Subset Games to churn out a slightly enhanced/bigger/smarter sequel. Naturally it’s easier for indie developers to take some risks — they don’t have board members or stockholders to answer to. But there are enough sequels on the market. It’s great to see not only an entirely new game, but a different take on an existing genre.

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FTL’s spaceship management mechanics and procedural levels made it a ruthlessly difficult game to beat.

Just because ideas are old doesn’t make them bad

You can trace the lineage of Into the Breach back to the very origins of gaming, where play involved counters on grids of various sizes, and it’s probably no coincidence that it uses an 8×8 grid, the same as chess. The isometric viewpoint has been a constant thread in gaming, too, from the 8-bit platform adventures of imagine: Play The Game, through the likes of Populous, Civilization, Syndicate, Fallout, X-COM and so on. With recent game such as Invisible Inc., Lumo and Tokyo 42, it seems to be as popular as ever.

The effect of retro gaming

We’ve talked about the rise of retro gaming and the advancing age of gamers as reasons why they might turn away from the maelstrom of online shooters and MMORPGs for a simpler, more sedate gaming session.

Into the Breach fulfills that remit perfectly with short levels, pausable play and a time-rewind for when thing go pear-shaped. It’s ideal for gamers who want something cerebral, but which doesn’t take hours to complete a single mission. These types of games will only grow in popularity as gamers seek out different experiences and games that tax our CPUs not our GPUs.

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