2214.9. That’s how many hours I have in my steam save of Into the Breach, Subset Games’ brilliant 2018 tactics title. I have another 100 or so on the Switch version, and I’m such a fan that, for my last birthday, my partner had custom grappling spats made for me with official .pngs of my favorite unit from the game (the rocket mech!). Whether it’s fair or not, every tactics game I play will remind me of, and probably be compared to, my GOTY from 2018.
Zachtronics’ latest game, Möbius Front 83, is not Into the Breach. Though it plays in a similar space. It’s a 2D turn-based tactics game, set in somewhat more grounded territory than ITB’s mecha time traveling action, but only just. Möbius Front instead takes place in an alternate history US in 1983, with a story campaign concerning a kind of civil war and different timelines, though, at eight hours in (of a campaign that spans 15-40), I’m nowhere near the end of the tale.
I’m deep enough, however, to have experienced some of the feelings ITB stirs in me. It’s a game that requires you to manage far more variables — instead of minding three mechs, you have a tiny army of units at your disposal — and enemy intentions don’t show up in convenient lines. All you can make are educated guesses. Different units have different travel speeds, offensive abilities, and weaknesses, and your guns always have a little dice roll built in — something that, while far more realistic, drove me up a wall my first few battles.
It’s a tough game. I made it through a few missions on normal, but I’ve long since given in and played most of the rest on the “relaxed” setting, something I never did in ITB. A true armchair general, I am not.
Yet, whenever I get frustrated and close the game down, I find that familiar itch quickly returns. I start thinking about the little battles in my head — the quirks of movement and speed and types of weaponry that do well against other units. I think about how soldier units move painfully slowly, but are the most versatile, and how they do so well in camouflage, skirting the edges of forests on the battlefield with their anti-tank rockets and smaller machine guns. I hear the sound effects, especially the pleasant little ding when I capture a control point.
But most of all, I think about how neatly every major design decision comes down to an earnest desire to understand this time period and its bizarre quirks.
Early on, you unlock a set of PDFs: real military training handbooks from the 70s and 80s, hundreds of pages long, with practical tips on how to best use camouflage and move on the battlefield. I found myself poring over them, fascinated by the material and its positively wild language. The 1984 infantry handbook, as is pointed out by the in-game text, has a staggering number of custom illustrations showing every concept. I kept having to remind myself this wasn’t a piece of lore from a game, but an actual military resource from the year I was born. It’s the genuine article from a time when Reagan ran the country on pugnacious bluster and bullshit.
I don’t feel like I can really comment on the game’s politics yet. I want to finish the story to get an actual handle on that. So far, though, the game’s cutscenes are focused on confused soldiers seeing what appear to be other Americans on the battlefield, with one paranoid gentleman (a grizzled Vietnam vet) expressing Cold War appropriate anti-Russian sentiments every now and then. But this remains my biggest question with Mobius Front — it seems very important to the game that it depicts this era — its soldiers, and its equipment — with a degree of accuracy. I wonder how much of that is fascination, and how much contends with the uncomfortable realities of military policy at the time.
I haven’t put more than 2,000 hours into this one (yet), but I do feel itch to keep playing, whether I fail the first few times or not.