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Game Review

When you stop to think about it, a lot of video games have some slight tendril ties back to the classic games of chess and checkers. They challenge you to match your strategic wits and weapons against a foe's opposing resources, while you both strive to win the battle at hand. Of course, in this age of amazing graphic detail and virtual world-building, those gaming challenges can sometimes be sprawling, perhaps a bit complicated and often more than a little messy.

That said, there are still some video games out there that rely more on strategic basics than digitalized bloodbaths. The recently released Into the Breach is a fun example.

Mechs, Vecs and Battle Specs

This little turn-based tactical battler takes place in a future where mankind is on the ropes. The planet, we learn, is being overrun by gigantic, insect-like invaders called the Vec. They come burrowing up out of the ground to destroy anything that surface-dwelling humans have created. And humanity is fighting back valiantly with giant mechs designed to counter those beasties' moves and attacks. (You might think in terms of, say, Pacific Rim, only as seen from a bird's-eye view and on an eight-by-eight grid battlefield.)

You're initially given charge of a team of three Rift Walker mechs with different skills. That trio is composed of a melee bot with a withering punch that damages foes and forces them back a space; a ranged-attack tank with a damaging knockback shot; and an artillery bot that can shell a distant square, damaging its occupant and tossing back anything in the adjacent squares. If you survive, more bots can be acquired to build a team of your own design. But these three are your first set of defenders.

As you zoom down to look at a patch of landscape on one of the last few island refuges of humanity, you must assess the bombing, slashing, webbing and lava-belching attack skills of the game's marauding kaiju critters. Then you have to figure out how to push, pull and bash them away from their death-dealing intentions through the course of a five-turn battle.

Now that may sound easy-peasy, but it's not. Each turn unleashes more spawning creatures, environmental disasters (such as floods, lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions) and other stumbling blocks in the procedurally generated challenges. And as you start out, I promise you, your mechs will be roundly bested and overrun. Fortunately, mankind has also mastered a bit of time traveling. So, if your team gets crushed, you can jump into a time rift and give the battles another go.

Strategically Satisfying

When, on the other hand, you start getting the hang of how to strategically plot out effective chess-like moves, two things begin to happen: The Vec challenges become even more difficult, and you acquire more pilot skills and bot upgrades to work with. Grappling hooks, grab-and-throw abilities, force fields, repair drops—the boost list stretches on and on.

Each new skill makes your tactical choices a bit more option-filled and personally rewarding. But, of course, you'll want to hold on to those improvements, so you'd better keep winning. Otherwise you lose it all in permadeath and must begin again.

The real positive here is that with all of that battling and destruction there's nothing truly messy or foul for younger tacticians to encounter. The images are all kept to a simple, pixelized minimum. And onscreen death is little more than an insectoid foe falling and melting away, or a mech slumping sideways and going black and lifeless.

Into the Breach relies solely on the joy of thoughtful moves and brain-churning strategy to keep things puzzling, satisfying and replayable. And that's a chess-like gaming pleasure that's hard to beat.

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February 27, 2018

On Video

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Bob Hoose

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