Into the Breach and Star Renegades

Into the Breach and Star Renegades are two very different games from two completely different developers, but they have a number of things in common I thought worth analyzing.

The premise of both games is identical: Alien invaders are attacking, and you must defend humanity by traveling across timelines and passing on your knowledge and technology every time. Both games have no true ending: After the end of every run, win or lose, there is always another timeline under threat that you must jump to.

What’s interesting is that despite this similarity, their execution of story elements is diametrically opposite, and both left me unsatisfied in different ways.

I played Into the Breach first, which is helpful for this writeup because it’s the most minimal. A key component of the metagame in Into the Breach is that there are a large number of time travellers who can pilot the mechs you use to fight the aliens, and each is a unique character with a name, backstory, gameplay benefit, and in-battle barks. These characters were written by none other than the writer of Planescape: Torment, a game we previously reviewed for its fantastic storytelling.

You would think this would mean the game has a heavy story and character focus. You would be wrong.

You see, those backstories exist only in the writer’s head, and have only been revealed picemeal through interviews. The characters’ random barks are the only insight we get into the personalities and the deep lore behind them. There’s no in-game bio, the characters never talk to one another, and we never get their opinion on this nightmarish loop they’re trapped in and if they believe there’s a permanent solution. This information does exist! The writer has given us some very detailed fanfiction explaining all of this stuff in interviews. It’s just not in the game.

This baffling decision quickly made me lose interest in Into the Breach. The gameplay just wasn’t good enough to keep me invested without lore and story hooks. Despite how interested I was in the characters and their situation, the game would never give me anything more.

Enter Star Renegades, a game that does exactly what I thought Into the Breach should have done with its characters… and yet still fails colossally.

Star Renegades does have conversations between characters, you see! It also has interactive objects that give lovely worldbuilding flavor text. There is even a main character and a plot, sort of. Passing on your technology to future timelines is also an actual mechanic, instead of only implied flavor as it is in Into the Breach.

The problem is that it’s all flat as cardboard. The characters only ever display one emotion, their dialogue is incredibly stilted and obviously modular, and the worldbuilding is completely incomprehensible. (I got the same feeling I got from HEARTBEAT, that there was some other work in this setting that actually explained things that the game assumed I was familiar with.) The story has quantity, but not quality. As such, I have zero interest in continuing the metagame; even finishing a single run felt like a chore.

I’m not sure I really have a conclusion here. It just struck me what a perfect contrast these two were, and how badly they missed the mark in such different ways. A game with the quantity of Star Renegades and the quality of Into the Breach would have been lovely, but alas, ’twas not to be.

8 Comments

  1. Nerem says:

    I liked both a lot gameplay-wise, but you aren’t wrong about the writing. I mean, these kind of games usually have a plot that boils down to a very thin excuse for the gameplay. I kind of feel like that is what happened with Into The Breach. They wrote a lot, but decided that it couldn’t be IN the game because a Roguelike with plot? No one would buy that! So they excised it entirely.

    1. a Roguelike with plot? No one would buy that!

      Cut to Hades staring directly into the camera.

      The real question is why they hired such a prolific writer to write so much if they weren’t going to use any of it? They say they ended up cutting a lot of content, so I can’t help but wonder if they intended for there to be more plot but changed their minds later.

      I didn’t discuss the gameplay here, but I think they also provide an interesting contrast in that aspect. I actually found Star Renegades very boring and repetitive, probably because it does what Into the Breach does not: have truly perfect information. Because you know everything that’s going to happen in a turn, you always know the optimal solution. My strategy barely changed throughout my entire run. Despite having a lot more components than Into the Breach, it was a much easier game to solve.

      1. Nerem says:

        I think Griftlands is a lot better example of a Roguelike with plot, since honestly I couldn’t tell you a single thing about Hades’s plot.

        If I remember correctly, the original version of the game was a lot more expansive and wasn’t just a very very very simple puzzle game with some roguelike elements. The characters were going to be characters and there was an element on improving the islands and preparing them for the battle but then late in development they cut literally everything but the very basics of the gameplay and released that.

        It’s struck me as the biggest of missed opportunities.

  2. Roarke says:

    Into the Breach was also a disappointment to me, but I did like the gameplay to an extent; it just wasn’t as replayable as the devs thought it would be. That said, more games need to have the ability to rewind decisions instead of restarting chapters.

    Speaking of somewhat disappointing turn-based roguelikes, there’s a fantasy roguelite out now called The Last Spell, which is literally Metaprogression: The Turn-Based Tactics Game. It also has the time-travel-to-prevent-disaster conceit, with the bulk of the exposition and characterization given to two opposing goddesses named… Schaden and freude. These are the two metaprogression vendors: one takes metaprogression currency, and the other unlocks/achievements.

    The Last Spell is notable to me for having *incredible* gameplay, I mean just awesome turn-based combat, gated behind hours of bullshit metaprogression. This is a game that doesn’t even give you the tools to succeed until you’re several failed runs in. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a game with such incredible design trip at the starting line like this. If I’d known about the metaprogression going in, I wouldn’t have bought the game. I felt it worth mentioning here for that.

    1. Nerem says:

      Weirdly the older version of Into The Breach that had heavy story and stuff apparently had a lot more replayability and sounded way cooler. I’m still not sure why they decided to just axe everything for a solid but not very lasting puzzle game.

      To be fair, the metaprogression, at least with the bad aspects of needing so much in order to win at all, might not stay. The game’s still basically in beta-testing and is trying to figure out how to manage those aspects. To be fair to it, it’s not really that long to unlock the stuff required to win. It’s just that they should start off being unlocked or unlock after the tutorial run. The rest’s fine.

      The gameplay otherwise rules, too.

      Speaking of disappointment, Slipways is the king of this. Its advertising bills it as a super streamlined 4X where everything is stripped away but the Important Decisions and Everything Matters but it turned out to be a straight puzzle game where nothing matters. No 4X aspects at all. It was just a lie.

      1. Roarke says:

        “To be fair to it, it’s not really that long to unlock the stuff required to win. It’s just that they should start off being unlocked or unlock after the tutorial run. The rest’s fine.”

        I’m hoping they reduce the metaprogression for future players, but given that they created the two goddess characters to gate and comment on said progression, I still wouldn’t bet on it. I will say, in fairness, that when I picked the game up, it had a bug that made the progress towards a critical unlock (The Seer) reset every time you closed the game. This had a serious effect on my opinion, since it was the difference between like, five runs before I could realistically win, and fifteen. It’s maybe not just to judge the game by that bug, but my underlying criticism of the metaprogression remains sound imo.

        It feels like designers are having a hard time balancing minimalism with fun. The best game I’ve played that seemed to achieve this balance is Bad North, which is like a mini-RTS game where you control up to four little squads of Vikings to defend a series of islands from encroaching invaders. That game is absolutely awesome and minimalist in everything from the gameplay to the art. I give that a big, unreserved rec, where I’d definitely caution someone getting into The Last Spell.

  3. Nerem says:

    I mean you can get your first win the moment you unlock the Seer, which is about three runs in which honestly in a game like this is about the minimum it should take, even if metaprogression wasn’t enforcing it.

    Unrelated, but Super Robot Wars 30 is out and it rules hard.

    1. Roarke says:

      It might have been three runs if I didn’t have a bug resetting the progress every time I closed the game. Then there were the other buffs you really need, like action point increases for the heroes, that only really start helping on your next run. I know you don’t need to unlock everything, but it was definitely enough to feel annoying.

      I still think it’s a great game and I’ve sunk dozens of hours into it, but it has the feeling of a game gated by a time investment that doesn’t need to be there.

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