As much as I love Advance Wars, I understand why the series has laid dormant for over a decade. At a root level, the franchise’s game mechanics simply weren’t built for the long haul. Fighting with replenishable nameless and faceless units led to levels that could drag while also lacking emotional weight.
Advance Wars and Fire Emblem are both turn-based strategy games made by the same company, but the latter’s focus on individual characters with names, faces, skills that develop over time, and the threat of a shortened lifespan makes for an easier-to-renew franchise with each set of fresh faces to care about. Eventually, fighting with the same tanks and planes got stale, to the point where Nintendo disastrously attempted to resuscitate Advance Wars with a gritty reboot that sank the whole franchise to this day.
When I first saw Into the Breach, I came into it with expectations of it playing like Nintendo’s wartime strategy franchise. Even with the latter’s design faults, it’s been so long that I’d be okay with it as long as I got to manage units on a battlefield again. What it ends up being is a really clever twist on the formula that breathes new live into a formerly-stale concept.
Into the Breach puts players in the position of commanding only three units on an 8×8 grid. Each level is pretty short too, as they usually feature short turn limits and can be completed in 5-15 minute chunks. Don’t be fooled by the scale of the battlefield or the size of your infantry though, as there’s a lot going on within and outside of the front lines.
Unlike Advance Wars, you’re not fighting with static and faceless units. While these characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out as Fire Emblem, you will run through the campaign with a set of pilots that will improve with experience. Being able to improve your units gives you that extra level of investment, as you’ll watch them grow over time and you really don’t want to see them die.
Furthermore, this game has a heavy dose of Roguelike elements injected into it. While each of the game’s major islands remains the same, the maps for each level and their objectives are randomly-generated. You’re essentially playing a new game each time you attempt a run. Two, while the campaign in theory could be beaten in two hours or less, the likelihood of you being able to do it is virtually impossible. You will die a lot, and that’s just part of the process.
The saving grace here is that you don’t have to restart empty-handed. Instead, you can send one of your pilots back through time with all of their updated stats intact. Any sort of achievements you accrued during that campaign run will also reward you with coins, which give you access to new squads with new unit types and abilities. Eventually, you will build the ultimate three-unit squadron that will end the threat once and for all.
These structural changes work wonders. The character progression gives you a deeper sense of investment as you’re constantly trying to develop them for future battles. Each level is small enough that you can quickly finish a level in a short sitting, or hunker down for a binge session featuring multiple campaign runs. Also, since the levels are randomly generated each time and the game features multiple difficulty settings, its replay value is incredibly high.
A number of smart changes have also been implemented to the tried-and-true combat mechanics. Losing all of your units will end the game, but enemies destroying buildings or other landmarks will do the same. Each time an enemy destroys a building, your orange power grid bar decreases. This bar is persistent throughout your campaign, meaning you have very little wiggle room to work with. Some missions will help you refuel it, but they’re few and far between and sometimes you might not be able to complete the objective that unlocks that perk.
With this in mind, you now face a new persistent dilemma. The enemies will attack both you and the buildings, constantly putting you in a position of weighing out the benefits of dispatching of the enemies, while protecting your own units, while also minimizing damage to the buildings, while also keeping in mind the specific mission objectives and any other environmental hazards that may arise. Oftentimes, you’re not going to have an answer that checks off all of the above, so you’ll need to weigh the risks and rewards carefully.
What does make the process a bit more manageable and fair is that unlike titles like Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, and X-COM, randomness is kept to a minimum. On the enemy’s turn, they will move and telegraph exactly what they’re going to attack before they do it. Also, with the exception of buildings sometimes resisting damage, you will know exactly how much each attack will inflict. Knowing exactly what’s going to happen should you leave things alone, it’s up to you to disrupt their plans by any means necessary.
Oftentimes, this is done by dealing direct damage to your enemies with attacks. Additionally, displacing enemy units becomes a big part of your offense. The mech’s punch will move a unit one space to the side, but if they’re pinned between a wall, they take an extra hit of damage. If they’re pinned between another enemy, both enemies take hits. You can even push enemies into the water or into other environmental hazards. This element of combat is crucial to protecting your buildings, as you oftentimes need to sacrifice dealing damage to an opponent in order to move them just enough so that their attack whiffs on its intended target. For such a bitesized game, there is so much strategic bite to it.
Into the Breach is not Advance Wars, and that’s actually great news. By forging its own path in the realm of turn-based strategy, it brings so many fresh ideas to the table in a package that can be played in short bursts or played forever with new challenges every time you attempt to save the world. I can see myself coming back to this for a very long time, but you should absolutely make the effort to try this one out at least once.