Broken Lines Review: Squad-Based Stalemate
Broken Lines is a fascinating strategy game. On one hand, it features demanding, high-stakes tactical combat. It makes you care about your characters, who are prewritten and not randomized like other roguelites. And it even forces you to make decisions that shape them as you progress.
On the other hand, Broken Lines has some serious issues, many of which could have been ironed out with further polish and optimization. Its gameplay, too, has an odd habit of slowing to a slog more often than it should, shining a light on its most glaring flaws.
Though this strategy game can still be worth your time, it's wise to tread lightly.
Broken Lines Review: Squad-Based Stalemate
For better or worse, not much of Broken Lines has changed since we got our hands on an Early Access build back in December. But here are the basics of how it handles.
It may look like XCOM at first glance, but Broken Lines actually plays much closer to Frozen Synapse or Door Kickers. Instead of assigning individual units orders one at a time, you'll assign every unit orders during an eight-second round, and all actions play out simultaneously. This includes your enemies.
After the eight-second round is up, the game will pause, and you'll have another opportunity to order your units and (hopefully) fix whatever terrible mistake you made in the previous round.
Shooting is not an action. Your soldiers automatically shoot as they move. You'll want to move them behind cover, set up ambushes and pincer movements, and utilize their special abilities and equipment to take out enemies as quickly as possible. But shooting is not up to you.
In theory, that's ... OK, but in practice, the AI doesn't always work as you intend it to work.
For example, let's say you have three soldiers in your squad. You may tell the one with the machine gun to lay down suppressing fire for your shotgun-wielding grunt. A quick blast from the shotty knocks one foe down, and enemies scramble to avoid the high-damage, close-range foe. Luckily, you placed a sniper on a ridge not far behind, who quickly makes short work of the routed enemies.
At least, that's how it works in your head. More likely, your shotgun trooper will cross the visibility of the suppressing trooper, causing her to stop laying down cover. The enemies then open fire on your completely exposed soldier. Your sniper keeps missing, and you have to start the mission over because everyone is dead.
The main course of Broken Lines is its tactical gameplay, but it also has some light RPG aspects that act as a tasty side dish.
As you progress through the game, your soldiers will level up, and you'll gain access to new equipment and perks. You'll also occasionally encounter optional missions or unique choices that permanently change a trooper. These sometimes come as conversations where characters reveal their past, or as choices you make during other conversations that will add a trait to a character.
It's a small wrinkle, but it does add a bit to the game's story, which involves a steam-punky spooky yarn with a Russian-accented narrator spewing pulpy goodness. These little traits don't change characters too much — it's doubtful you'll create a supersoldier that can overcome poor tactics — but it is a nice touch nonetheless.
Although it's likely to keep you invested, the story is the first indication that Broken Lines lacks the polish you might expect from this type of game. While the story itself is dark, carrying hints of otherworldly horror alongside the very real horror of the Second World War, its presentation has a knack for goofiness.
Character portraits are big, silly caricatures with over-the-top expressions. The dialog comes as text on the screen, but each new line is accompanied by an odd noise or bark from the character that's speaking.
It doesn't help that the cartoonish look hides an insidiously tough game. If you don't pay attention to the mechanics early, you're going to die a lot. If you don't utilize every ability in your playbook, you're going to die a lot. And, unfortunately, if you don't take your time moving forward in missions, you're going to die a lot.
Aside from the strange juxtaposition of its setting and dialog, that was the toughest part of Broken Lines to stomach. Tactical games are all about tactics. The eight-second rounds work great when you're locked in a frenetic firefight, issuing new orders, seeking cover, and trying to flush out entrenched enemies.
When out of combat, you need to carefully move forward, and the eight-second rounds lead to a lot of wasted time as you scout ahead and figure out the best strategy. Ideally, I would have preferred real-time movement between encounters.
Broken Lines Review — The Bottom Line
- Interesting story
- Tactical gameplay will keep you on your toes
- Light RPG elements make you invest in characters a bit more
- Presentation is at odds with story and gameplay
- Lots of wasted time
Broken Lines has a lot of good going for it, especially if you like alternate history World War 2. Everything about this game is... almost there.
Unfrotunately, the lack of polish and a few strange design choices keep it from getting a wholehearted recommendation. It also feels like Broken Lines could do with an optimization update. It might not be the case for everyone, but the game pushed my system far more than it should have — even if it is visually amazing. Hopefully, this will get fixed in a later update.
Tactics fans would do well to check it out, but those who don't play a ton of different genre games or are looking for "the best" of the genre should look elsewhere first.
[Note: A copy of Broken Lines was provided by PortaPlay for the purpose of this review.]