Into the Breach

Live, Blast Kaiju, Repeat

As someone who’s eyes light up at the sight of a grid-based battlefield populated with adorable 2D combatants, I was predisposed to give Into the Breach a chance. If you’re not like me, and don’t instantly fall in love with anything that bears even a passing resemblance to Shining Force III or Final Fantasy Tactics, you might glance at the relatively small battlefields and limited number of units on show and decide to give this one a miss. I’m here to politely request that you reconsider that decision, as you’re missing out on a gem! A bastard-hard and thoroughly depressing gem, but a gem nonetheless.

Despite this guy’s confidence, you won’t be able to save everyone.

This indie-developed, mech-on-kaiju strategy game has been around since 2018, but I recently picked up the physical copy on Switch, and have found myself thoroughly absorbed into its time-bending, apocalyptic world. Your job in Into the Breach is to command a small squad of mechs as they attempt to defend the world’s population and infrastructure from an onslaught of giant bugs known as the Vek. Already on its last legs due to various natural catastrophes, civilisation has been brought to the brink of destruction by the marauding kaiju, and humanity’s last hope comes in the form of a group of time-hopping mech pilots.

The main aim of the game is to protect buildings and facilities from monster attacks, as these locations provide power to your power grid, and if your power grid fails, the timeline you’re in is fucked and it’s time to bail out. If this happens, your pilots will use their timey-wimey powers to zap themselves to a different timeline and try again. Each pilot is scattered across different timelines, too, so you can only keep one of them, and if you mess up and one of your mechs gets destroyed, the pilot is (usually) gone for good. Just don’t get too attached to these guys, okay?

While Into the Breach has a lot of the gameplay and strategy you’d expect from comparable modern retro tactical games like Triangle Strategy and Wargroove, there are a few mechanics that handily set it apart. One is the previously-mentioned timeline shenanigans, which lends itself to roguelike-style progression where repeated failures result in you being slightly better-equipped to take on the next timeline. Another mechanic that sets Into the Breach apart is the fact that it will clearly tell you exactly what the monstrous Vek are planning to do in the next turn, and will allow you to plan and manipulate them appropriately.

Chemical pools and conveyor belts are just a couple of the environmental hazards you’ll be dealing with. Oh, and see that knobbly squid thing in the bottom row? Take that out first.

It may sound like being able to accurately predict the AI’s every move would make a game like this pretty easy, but this is not the case. In fact, it’s this mechanic that takes Into the Breach further into board game or puzzle game territory. This removal of random chance or behind-the-scenes calculations makes Into the Breach pure strategy, akin to Chess, and will lead to difficult decisions aplenty. Expect to find yourself staring at the screen for minutes on end, sighing and rubbing your chin as you attempt to run through sequences of moves in your head to get out of a seemingly impossible situation you’ve found yourself in. You’ll often find yourself played into a corner where you’re forced to sacrifice something, and making the difficult choice between the mission objective or one of your experienced pilots is sure to produce lots of curse words and require a cup of tea or two. You’ll need a strong stomach, thick skin, and a really, really big brain to master this one.

The final goal of the game is to defeat the Vek at their hive, which is an area that opens up after liberating two of the four available islands. The difficulty scales as you progress through the islands, so taking the Vek hive out after island number two is your easiest option, but successfully completing a four-island run is a much more difficult goal. It’s a tough ask, and only letting you take one pilot with you to the next timeline feels harsh to the point of being insurmountable. Perseverance, experimentation, and the ability to stay calm and look for options under pressure are your best weapons to get there.

It’s often better to let your mech take a hit, rather than lose some of your power grid. Even if a pilot is killed, the mech’s AI will bring it back for the next mission. You’ll probably feel bad, though.

Once you’re up and running, understanding and upgrading your mech’s abilities, manipulating the Vek into harming each other, and successfully shielding civilians from kaiju attack becomes extremely satisfying. You’ll feel like a legendary commander when you pull it off, and you’ll become more confident as you start to understand the game’s way of thinking. However, Into the Breach is always capable of surprising you, and a power grid failure that results in hordes of titanic bugs burrowing out of the Earth’s crust to overwhelm the planet’s last defenders is always only a mistake away.

As alluded to earlier, Into the Breach can initially seem limited. The maps are small, you’re usually in charge of only three units at a time, and there are only five different environment types to do battle in. However, its difficulty, ingenious mechanics, variety of environmental effects and open-ended nature make for an incredibly deep experience that will keep throwing up new problems for as long as you’re willing to solve them.

The game does its best to make you remember that there are lives at stake. Try to focus on the mission, okay?

Tough, tense, and hugely atmospheric, Into the Breach is a strategy game for big time players. Great pixel art and some fantastically appropriate musical pieces all add to a high quality strategy experience, with unlockable mech squads and pilots, and additional, advanced options allowing experienced players to tweak gameplay to their heart’s content.

Climb into your mech, steel yourself for the horrors you’re about to witness, and give this strategy gem the chance it deserves. After all, you can always abandon this timeline and jump to the next if things don’t work out.

Donald in Maui Mallard – Retro Review

A Duck Pretending to be a Duck Pretending to be Another Duck

This is the second and last review I wrote for Sega Mania Issue 8, and as such is written from a 90’s perspective. This one had a couple of boxouts as well, which I’ve presented as best I can with any knowledge as to how to do layout properly.

Donald’s back, put possibly not quite how you remember him. Eschewing his usual, fashionably questionable sailor outfit, he’s arrived for his next action-packed platformer in a much more agreeable Hawaiian shirt and cap ensemble. That’s right, this is Maui Mallard, Donald Duck’s medium-boiled, crime-fighting alter-ego. The identity swapping doesn’t stop there, either. Maui Mallard has an alter-ego of his own. Cold Shadow is a black-clad ninja, a master of bo staff combat, and a proponent of nimbly leaping up narrow shafts. This explains the confusing situation of the game’s alternative title, Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow. Really, if we’re being accurate here, the game should be called Donald Duck in Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow, but I guess they would have run out of space on the spine. Whichever way you look at it, you’re going three-deep in Donald Duck personalities during the ninja sections, which is an experience in itself regardless of how good the game actually is.

Luckily, the game is really good. Donald in Maui Mallard is a platformer in the same vein as the cantankerous mallard’s previous Mega Drive escapades. However, Donald seems to have been doing some cross-fit training since the QuackShot days, as he has a much sleeker sprite, moves much faster, and controls a little bit looser. Where QuackShot (and indeed the Illusion series of Disney platformers) had a very considered pace with tight controls and forgiving platforming. Donald in Maui Mallard has a much more frantic feel, with enemies coming from all angles, more haphazard jumping controls, and platforms whose edges aren’t always clearly identifiable.

This screams Aladdin to me. You know, apart from with a ninja duck. There were no ninja ducks in Aladdin. Just an angry parrot.

In this way, it feels like it inhabits the lane between the “traditional” Disney platformers like the Illusion series, and the more modern Disney platformers based on the big, box office movies such as Aladdin and Lion King. This crossover can be seen in the art-style and the gameplay, as well as the mild jump in difficulty, and it could well be exactly what many Mega Drive owners are looking for.

Leaving his plunger gun at home, Donald as Maui is armed with a bug-launcher that fires insects that can be collected throughout the stages. The basic ammo has a fairly short range and takes a few shots to defeat most enemies, but upgraded invertebrates can be collected and even combined to form powerful, boss-bothering bullets or handy homing projectiles. The enemy designs are imaginative and in-fitting with the tropical, voodoo vibe, ranging from juicy-looking spiders to wild natives to zombie ducks. Maui has plenty of health to survive numerous enemy encounters, and there is a generous sprinkling of health-restoring power-ups to be found throughout the stages, but this generosity is offset by some devious level design and a fair few tricky platforming sections suspended over instant-death drops.

From the second stage onwards, Donald as Maui can take on the form of Cold Shadow. This feathered ninja warrior can take out most enemies with one thwack of his stick, and is a lot more manoeuvrable with a plethora of staff-based options to traverse the expansive levels in interesting ways. He can attach himself to various outcroppings and swing to higher platforms, and can wedge his stick in narrow shafts to gain the leverage he needs to leap higher. For the most part, you’ll want to play as Cold Shadow as much as you can, but there are times when Maui Mallard’s ranged attacks and bungee jumping abilities are preferable (or even necessary). In order to stay in his Cold Shadow form, Donald must collect symbols to stop a meter from ticking down. Luckily, these collectibles tend to respawn near tricky jumps that require Cold Shadow’s specific skills to negotiate, so you’ll never find yourself in a situation where you’re unable to progress, even if it can occasionally feel that way.

Both the Maui and Cold Shadow sprites are smooth and full of character, and have plenty of amusing idle animations to entertain you while you’re having a breather. The environment graphics are top notch, too, with sinister voodoo mansions, clandestine ninja hideouts and savage, moonlit savannahs all looking suitably atmospheric. The game has a dark and mysterious ambience, with later levels even taking on a bit of a Lovecraftian vibe, consisting of maddening death-worlds with bizarre architecture and gigantic, floating eyeballs. It’s not the kind of location you’d expect to be exploring in a Disney title, but I guess kids have to face up to the concept of hell dimensions at some point.

That’s right children, it’s always watching.

The music befits the tropical and occasionally occult vibe, usually taking the form of ambient accompaniment in lieu of catchy tunes that you’ll be whistling while you take the dog for a walk. Most of the tracks feature a pleasing and thematic beat to match the game’s quick and occasionally frantic pace, and you’ll probably find that your toes are tapping throughout. You’ll also hear plenty of sampled martial arts cries and grunts, artfully representing Donald’s new-found ninja skills.

As a platforming experience, Donald in Maui Mallard gets the basics right, and then takes you on a weird and wild journey of new ideas and unusual themes. Donald’s two distinct personalities offer different gameplay styles, and the levels that allow you to jump between the ninja and detective personas give you the freedom to take on enemies and obstacles however you please. The boss fights provide another layer of variety. Whether you’re unloading special bug ammo into the metallic spider boss of the first stage, or battering a floating lava-duck head around with your bo staff in the volcano level, the bosses are wacky, unique and appropriately challenging.

Remember Darkwing Duck? What about Count Duckula? Hey, remember that penguin from Wallace and Gromit?

The game isn’t without its frustrations. Platforming sections can occasionally be fiddly and unsatisfying, and there are moments when the way forward is unclear, but on the whole the challenge is well balanced between being accessible to kids and newbies and giving platforming pros and gaming veterans something to think about for a week or so. Donald in Maui Mallard feels like a modern Disney game. Whereas QuackShot was like playing an episode of Duck Tales and The Lucky Dime Caper was reminiscent of classic Donald cartoons or comic strips, the animation style and dark undertones on offer here exude that new and edgy ’90s style. It’s not quite as comfortable as the previous Disney mascot titles, but it’s not trying to be. This one is trying to get your heart pounding and act as your gateway to the concepts of dark magic, the risen dead and tribal sacrificial practices, rather than take you on a wistfully whimsical journey through wistful whimsy.

Donald in Maui Mallard is a glimpse into Disney’s darker side, but more importantly, it’s a very competent platformer with loads of personality. It won’t replace the likes of QuackShot and World of Illusion in my heart, but it will definitely sit proudly alongside them on my shelf. I suggest you find a place for it on yours.

Donald, P.I.

I mentioned in the main part of the review that Donald in Maui Mallard is a very modern-feeling Disney title, but there’s a hefty dose of the 1980s mixed in that makes that claim come across as a little tenuous. Maui Mallard, self-described “medium boiled” detective, is this game’s take on Tom Selleck’s Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV, the lead character in ’80s detective thriller series Magnum, P.I.

The similarities are plain to see – both are pistol-toting, Hawaiian-shirted heroes with action star qualities and effortless cool. Donald doesn’t have a well-groomed, bristly decoration on his upper lip, though, and I haven’t seen much evidence of him being a Vietnam vet either. Still, at least he can turn into a ninja at a moment’s notice and start cracking skulls with his bo staff. I don’t believe Mr. Selleck ever donned a headband and started performing ninjutsu techniques throughout the tropical beaches and bamboo forests of Hawaii. At least, I don’t think he did, but maybe I missed a few episodes.

Tick, Tick, Shabuhm

So what’s Donald got himself involved with this time?” I hear you ask. Well, there’s a witchdoctor, you see, and he’s stolen the idol of Shabuhm Shabuhm from a tropical island. This idol is considered to be the island’s guardian spirit, and Donald as Maui as (occasionally) Cold Shadow needs to get it back. Our hero must track the nefarious shaman through the various locales of the island while winning over the natives and even taking a trip to the underworld, before coming face to face with the masked meddler and engaging in a climactic showdown.

The thing is, when you do finally meet the witchdoctor and find out what’s going on under that creepy tribal mask, it’s only going to cause more questions. I won’t completely spoil it, but let’s just say that this guy epitomises the term “air-headed”. That’s some bad mojo right there.

I hope you enjoyed this little look into what might have been if Sega Mania Magazine had kept going. I did actually start writing one more review, but I never finished it. It was on a Sega Saturn game called Robotica Cybernation Revolt, but I only wrote a snazzy, cyberpunk-style intro and never got into the review proper, mainly because I hadn’t played the game yet! Maybe I will one day…


Aero the Acro-Bat – Retro Review

Bother in the Big Top

This review was written for Issue 8 of the sadly now defunct Sega Mania Magazine, as such it is written from a ’90s perspective.

Does anyone actually like the circus? I mean, I’m sure they were great in the olden times, when the only other forms of entertainment were gathering around the wireless or playing with a hoop and a stick, but do we really need them here in the futuristic ’90s? We have television, spectator sports and video games, bars and nightclubs, Pogs and Slinkies. I for one think that it’s time for circuses to go. The animals don’t want to be there, I question the motives and mental capacity of anyone who chooses to be a clown, and acrobats can use their impressive suppleness and contortionist abilities elsewhere. Maybe they can perform elaborate robberies or something.

Aero the Acro-bat for the Mega Drive has an unavoidable big top vibe, with the titular Aero being the game’s protagonist and the star of the in-game show. A villainous industrialist named Edgar Ektor has sabotaged the World of Amusement Circus and Funpark, and has kidnapped all of its performers, replacing them with nefarious, evil clowns and other such appropriately-themed bad guys. It’s fallen upon Aero to use his high-flying skills and acrobatic feats to save the day, rescue his girlfriend Aeriel, and put a stop to Ektor’s machinations. This includes taking care of Ektor’s lead henchman, a certain Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel.

Aero is contemplating the tiny, one-hit-kill spikes that infest every stage. Can you see it?

If you’ve seen Aero the Acro-bat before, you’ll know that he represents yet another developer having a dip into the “critters with ‘tude” well. This time it’s Sunsoft who have their straws out, attempting to slurp up some of Sonic’s lucrative success water. Have they backed a winner with this Chiropteran tumbler? I’m not so sure. The designers doubled down on the mean and cool attitude and forgot to add any charm or charisma. Also, he’s a circus performer, which means I immediately question his moral and social ideals.

Initial impressions paint Aero the Acro-bat as a fairly standard platformer, and it feels a little dated compared to some of the platformers that have appeared in recent years. Aero himself is somewhat stiff to control, and he commits that platformer hero sin of not being able to stop quickly, which can result in some aggravating slides into certain doom. The stages, while colourful, seem fairly lifeless, with levels that don’t evolve as you progress and forgettable enemy designs. There is some stage variety later on, with a few cool gimmicks that are mostly based on fairground rides, but nothing really stands out or sticks with you. Visually, this is closer to James Pond or Krusty’s Super Fun House than it is to Ristar or our iconic hedgehog pal.

A bat in a barrel, rolling past featureless trees and hills.

Mechanically, the level design philosophy seems frustratingly centred on catching the player out with traps that they could not have foreseen. The admittedly-large levels are littered with spikes, and said spikes are small and inconspicuous, and are often found in the most annoying of places. For example, some of the levels ask you to jump on certain platforms, which causes them to disintegrate, and you can be darned sure there are going to be spike pits underneath all of them. There’s a particular spiked pit during act two that you get dumped into immediately after a unicycle tightrope ride, the likes of which have thus far given you no reason to think they’re going to end in certain, spiky doom. This would all be fine if the spikes just made you lose some health, but these barbed bad boys are insta-death, baby.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, have oodles of time to spare, and enjoy memorising massive levels using a process of trial and error that involves lots and lots of dead bat, then you might get a lot of enjoyment out of Aero the Acro-bat, as there is satisfying gameplay to be found once you’ve mastered Aero’s initially-awkward dive attacks and formed your mental map of the levels. It’s a heck of a slog to get there though, and with its forgettable mascot, uninspiring visuals, small sprites and irritating, circus-themed music, you might not want to go through the trouble.

The rollercoaster section is just another memory test.

I can’t help but feel that the game doesn’t want you to have fun. Did you know that bats are the only mammal capable of true, full flight, and are even more nimble and agile when airborne than most birds? Not this one. He can hover for a bit, and can only fly temporarily after collecting a certain power-up. He’s also able to fire star projectiles, but they’re extremely limited, he starts with none, and the pick-ups are located in fiddly places to get to. Enemies are positioned specifically to catch you out, which you could say about your average Sonic the Hedgehog level, but Sonic’s zones are mostly focussed on fun, spectacle, exploration and a satisfying challenge, rather than just aggravating schmuck bait.

The Mega Drive is absolutely stuffed with top quality mascot platformers, and Aero, despite all of his impressive acro-bat-ics, struggles to even trouble the top 20. Perhaps he should go back to shooting soundwaves at unsuspecting moths or sucking blood out of horses. You know, all that bat stuff that real bats do.

I hope this was an enjoyable little extra for any Sega Mania fans out there. I wrote one more review for Issue 8 which I will be posting at a later date, and I may also be uploading some of my favourite reviews from throughout the mag’s seven issue run, so stay tuned!