Broken Lines Early Access Impressions
Several otherworldly soldiers are closing in, each wearing a gas mask to hide their expression. Your squad is on their last legs, outgunned and resource-depleted, holed up in a small house in a remote village. You're surrounded, and it doesn't look like you'll make it out of this one. What sequence of orders will help you claim victory and make it out of the mission alive?
These are the situations when Broken Lines is at its best. And all you wanted were some extra supplies.
Broken Lines is a squad strategy game with an interesting take on turn-based management. It's also set in a bizarre, alternate-history World War 2 and focuses heavily on making you care about your squad of soldiers - not the randomized grunts of games like Darkest Dungeon or XCOM, but a group of preset characters with personalities and tendencies already in place when you begin.
Broken Lines is currently in Early Access, but it's in pretty decent shape already. Here's how it's coming together.
Don't let the look of it fool you: Broken Lines is not an XCOM clone. Many of the strategies are similar, but the way you issue orders and move your troops around the map make for a much different feel. Instead of moving one at a time, you'll assign actions to each troop. These actions (including the enemy actions) will occur simultaneously once you are all set up and you've hit the play button.
Rounds are eight seconds long, and each action you select takes a set amount of that time. Firing is not an action; it is done automatically as characters go through their movement. However, accuracy is affected by things like cover, movement speed, and elevation.
This leads to a lot of interesting tactical decisions. You can take one soldier out of a fight for a few rounds, sending them towards elevated ground with a long range rifle. If your group holds out until then, enemy soldiers will be easy pickings. You could sprint forward with shotguns ready, hoping to overwhelm your enemies and pummel them into submission. Because all actions happen simultaneously, you'll often start something and quickly realize you've made a terrible mistake. The next round will be all about scrambling to correct that mistake.
All of this strategy plays out with a squad of soldiers on a top secret mission during World War II. Their plane is downed over enemy territory, and they encounter a group of enemy soldiers wearing gas masks and a mysterious experiment going on. As the story unfolds, things get stranger and stranger - your team continually tries to piece together what's happening and if there was more to their mission than they were originally told.
Your jolly band of misfits is a fairly cliched group of soldier archetypes, but Broken Lines wisely mixes up your squad with a few rookie greenhorns and a few salty veterans. The choice to make set characters instead of the random troops works well in the confines of the story - it allows the story to move to some unexpected places and have a bit more narrative than games with procedurally generated units would.
Really, the mystery of the story is what drives Broken Lines along. We'll get to the shortcomings here in a moment, but it weaves an interesting story that keeps your attention. The over the top narrator doesn't have the same vocal presence as the narrator of Darkest Dungeon, but the mysterious Russian voice will keep you clicking through missions to see where everything is leading.
The story itself is a positive in Broken Lines, but there are a few issues in the way its told. The tone of the game is strange, to say the least. On one hand, it is telling a serious yarn about war crimes and bizarre experimentation during World War II. On the other hand, it carries a very light and breezy presentation style.
The caricatures of each of your soldiers are over the top and cartoonish, and their giant eyes and bizarre expressions are unintentionally (I think?) funny. Dialogue is text on the screen as opposed to voiced, but characters make a strange sound each time they say a new line.
It's odd and sort of off-putting. Since the story is pretty much played straight, it never became clear if the writers were going for levity to make the story less dark and depressing or if they weren't buying into the story they were telling.
The only other aspect that gave me pause about Broken Lines was how difficult it was to truly assess what was happening. Since each of your squad members and all the enemies carry out their orders simultaneously, it can be really difficult to determine what's working and what isn't.
If I have three members of a team focusing fire on one dangerous enemy, which are hitting and which aren't? Broken Lines gives you percentage values for accuracy, but it can be frustrating and disheartening to watch your soldiers repeatedly miss an enemy that is standing out in the open, lobbing grenades at the group.
You learn by experimenting with different setups and abilities - finding what works for your playstyle and what doesn't. Your squad individually levels up as they move through missions, and some light RPG elements let you customize a bit. I found myself gravitating more towards the personalities I liked, which may have led to some of the early game frustrations that I found in Broken Lines.
Call for Backup
Broken Lines won't hold your hand for long. After the first few training missions, you'll need to utilize every tool at your disposal to overcome the odds that the enemies throw at you. Your squad is more than capable of defeating an equal number of enemies, but you'll rarely face fair odds.
Because of this high (but certainly not unfair) difficulty, every success gives you that rush that good strategy games have. Each mission is filled with those little moments of glory, where all your orders are executed well and your squad tears through the enemy. You keep working towards the objective, keeping an eye on escape routes, strategic cover, and possible ambush spots. By the time you reach the goal, you'll feel like a genius for outsmarting the AI.
There are definitely still some wrinkles to iron out, but it does feel like Broken Lines is headed in the right direction. If you love squad-based tactics and want to try a slightly different approach to the genre, Broken Lines could be just what you're looking for. That said, you may want to wait a bit longer through its Early Access period to see if the developers continue to polish it and give it the support it needs to really become great.