You can go your drone way.
Near the beginning of Breached, while sitting in front of a dismal screen and feverishly typing out your latest log entry, the game offers a bleakly concise description of what it entails.
There’s not much time: Send a drone. Gather resources. Fix the shelter.
There are two rather pressing concerns upon awakening from a four-year-long hibernation: after a devastating breach of the shelter (there’s one for all the title relevancy connoisseurs out there), the oxygen generator is damaged and the reactor has suffered a critical leak. Our job is to find the resources to fix the generator and the minerals to synthesise a new batch of pure fuel. It’s time to load up our helpful drone friend.
After booting into the drone, a pixelated, distorted view of the world gradually comes into focus. Once the required resources have been collected – this being an introductory level, not all that much of a challenge – you return the drone back to the initial ‘relay point’ for the extraction process. One close encounter with an apparent ball of energy later, you awaken back in the dimly-lit command centre and the game begins in earnest.And that’s the set up. We have our protagonist. We have our motive. We have our world, or at least the cindered ruins thereof. What about the actual game? There are two key aspects of Breached to discuss: The drone-based exploration, and the command centre. Let’s begin with the former.
The drone’s control scheme, which uses only the mouse, is a success in that it gives the feeling of slight disconnect between user and machine. Controlling the drone always feels like a utility rather than escapism; it keeps you grounded as the beleaguered person sitting behind a screen as opposed to a merry little anthropomorphised robot whizzing down a dune. That’s not to say that drone control isn’t fun; there’s a greater sense of speed here than in many racing games, and jumping down sheer cliff faces is absolutely exhilarating.
From exploring the world, it’s clear that Breached constitutes a tremendous aesthetic achievement – not just in the tawdry manner of a lot of games where, with access to powerful engines and detailed textures, lots of beautiful assets can be lumped together with no regard to coherent world-building – but in a manner which feels authentically desolate. Sparse clusters of corroded structures peak above the surface, having been all but buried as a result of whatever calamity plunged these lands into post-apocalyptic ruin. It is map design which asks questions and withholds answers.
Similarly, the log entries also play their part in this ambiguous story-telling. The actual writing is highly variable with a fair few grammatical errors thrown in, but the manner in which you explore the entries manages to convey an uneasy account of events, with the non-linear nature of the exposition further complicating the real motives of this unreliable narrator.
Drone exploration isn’t without its flaws. It can be an uphill struggle, often quite literally, to find the resources you need. A metre on the right indicates the distance to the nearest place of interest but with no indication as to what that place of interest contains. When attempting to seek out a particular mineral or just capsules, this is particularly unhelpful.Also, in areas such as ‘Canyon’, one of a few possible locations to which you can send your drone, the design of the level is such that you can find yourself in an area with no resources of any interest and with no obvious way of getting back up to the places where all of the important stuff is. What follows is a parade of Sisyphean struggles: desperately trying to fit the drone through narrow pathways up hills and cliffs, missing the proper way to go because the level is so expansive and the actual paths are so sparse.
The enemies, floating balls of energy called ‘EM anomalies’, could also use a little work. While adequately creepy, the distortion effects when getting too close being a nice touch, the ‘attack’ of the anomalies is entirely unimpressive. They draw you in with a magnetic attraction, leading all too often to a war of attrition as you attempt to drive the drone away but repeatedly get yanked back. Occasionally you are able to flee from the malevolent energy via some spirited zig-zagging; other times you aren’t so lucky, leading to resignation and surrender as opposed to any kind of well-fought defeat.
While these are all notable misgivings, drone exploration far and away surpasses the confused mess of the command centre.
Breached is a game which somewhat forces replayability as opposed to encouraging it. There are certain details, secret log entries for example, which reward runs through the game and therefore act as an enticement to continue once more. Over and above this, though, is the convoluted, ill-explained and very often irksome manner in which you are asked to complete objectives.
Let’s begin with fuel synthesis, which involves finding the correct mix of three constituent minerals: alpha, beta and gamma. A process of trial and error must be applied in order to incrementally get closer to the perfect, entirely pure concoction. Each time you try a mix – depleting not only your stocks of minerals, but also your amount of time left for other actions in the day – you receive a percentage purity of fuel. The idea is to use these percentages to improve the fuel. Unfortunately this system is deeply flawed, flying in the face of both logic and fairness.Moves that instinctively seem like they’d increase the percentage often don’t, offering no other feedback as to what’s happened. A graph shows each previous purity result, and, by mousing over each point, also displays the mineral composition for each attempt. Sometimes. On other occasions you’re shown nothing; therefore, unless you’ve a fine memory or have jotted down all previous mixes in a notepad, that attempt has taught you nothing.
If that seems like tedious futility, then you’ll hate capsule requisition. While the standard equipment is fairly easy to collect, the generator also needs a micro-filter to work. Apparently, you may as well have one of those little novelty fans embedded in the wall for all the good a micro-filterless generator will do you, so vital is it to the whole operation. How do you get your hands on this remarkable little doodad? They’re in capsules, just like all the other thingamajigs, but they work very differently. This whatchamacallit actually has a percentage chance of being located in any given capsule.
Okay… It’s a bit risky to leave a vital, game-deciding item entirely to chance, but it could work! As long as the chance is high enough to make its acquisition a near certainty with enough persistence, of course. What exactly is the usual percentage chance for a capsule to contain a micro-filter?
Time after damnable time, capsule after damnable capsule, there would be absolutely no chance of getting a micro-filter. Once there was a capsule with a nine percent chance of getting a micro-filter, which was a joyous moment indeed. It didn’t have a micro-filter. There may have been a couple of two percenters, but it’s honestly hard to recall amongst the great swathe of zeros.Combine all of this with the fact that each action, each fruitless opening of a capsule and each unsuccessful batch of fuel with too much gamma or not enough beta or who the hell even knows, has a time cost. You are hurtled towards the end of day eight and a failed run at a rate of knots, with nothing but ire, missed opportunities and several hundred worthless microchips to show for it.
While fuel synthesis can be excused as an involved and challenging experience, there’s absolutely no defending this. This isn’t an obfuscation of the winning parameter, it’s an outright refusal to give the player a chance of victory without finding some micro-filter holy grail.
Breached is plagued by a litany of errors and missteps, some of which strike at heart of its gameplay in a manner that may render it inadmissably flawed for some. It’s testament, then, to the stunning world design, the mystique of the story-telling and the strength of the conceit that I found Breached, in its better moments at least, not only enjoyable but gripping. This is a tricky recommendation, a recommendation that comes swamped with caveats, but a recommendation nonetheless for a uniquely intriguing, bewildering game.