Broken Lines (PC) REVIEW – Hopelessness and Desperation
World War II is a historical setting ripe for character-driven narratives and stories. The rise of turn-based strategy-RPG hybrid games in the wake of XCOM’s success provides the perfect opportunity for interesting tactical gameplay with great stories. Broken Lines is one such small game that does a solid job of focusing the gameplay experience on the desperate conditions of a squad of soldiers, as well as presenting an effective representation of military fireteam tactics.
Broken Lines is set in an alternate history version of WWII with the story following a squad of eight British soldiers crash-landing in an unknown neutral country with the goal of completing their mission or attempting to escape back to friendly territory. Each soldier has a distinct visual design and character with each having a short biography defining them and their relationships to the other squadmates. The dialogue and relationships between these soldiers form the emotional core of the story.
A heavily-accented narrator provides light context and mood setting to help players understand the emotional state of the soldiers as well as the strategic stakes. The writing for both the narrator and soldier dialogue is well done. There is an odd design choice regarding voice acting in that the soldiers do have some voiced lines during combat, yet all the dialogue is text-based aside for a few grunts and sighs. The voice actors the developers at PortaPlay chose for each soldier sounded pretty good and could have aided in establishing the characters if their voices were more widely incorporated into their personality.
None of the characters are ground-breaking or extensive, but each is characterized enough and given some detail to make them endearing and sympathetic to their situation. The best moments with Broken Lines’ squad is the dialogue during events or campfires where the player can have a hand in developing relationships between soldiers or even defining their backstories. The faces of the soldiers are also quite expressive during dialogue sections, helping the player understand their emotional state, which is a big part of the management aspect of the campaign.
Broken Lines has only one mode, the story campaign, played over a series of missions. After the first three prologue missions where players will become familiar with their squad, the campaign opens up and each in-game day players can choose one mission from up to three to complete, each with their own objectives and story revelations. Players cannot go back to play the other missions they chose to avoid, adding replayability to the campaign as there are unique story revelations and rewards for completing different missions.
Between each mission at the campfire, players can engage in character events and conversations and equip their soldiers with weapons, abilities, and other useful items like grenades, bandages, and adrenaline shots. During these moments of respite, the squad can purchase items from the locals and explore points of interest that usually lead to some character development or a small item reward. This break between missions gives the most amount of control over squad composition and tactical planning as players prepare their soldiers for the next mission.
Throughout the campaign, players will have to manage the morale or “composure” of their squad and individual squadmates. If composure reaches zero, soldiers will desert the squad and won’t be available for further use. In addition, players can restart missions altogether or from mission checkpoints, but they will lose squad composure the more they do it, thus incentivising good planning, preparation, and living with difficult decisions.
The missions are the tactical core gameplay loop of the game where most of the challenging decision-making and tactical planning pays off. For each mission, players can bring up to roughly half the squad. Each mission is played over a series of turns where players program their orders for soldiers and then let the turn play out over eight second sections. The overall goal in each mission is to reach an objective marker all while eliminating enemies along the way. If a soldier squad either detects or eliminates enemy troops, the turn will immediately end and orders can be modified. Soldiers will automatically shoot at the nearest or easiest to hit target.
Soldier orders can range from staying still for a modifiable duration, activating abilities, throwing grenades, healing, and moving. Taking cover with soldiers reduces enemy accuracy, but players need to be careful with their positioning as enemies can flank or charge soldiers, negating cover bonuses. The sheer amount of orders and the flexibility of placement and control of the squad is executed well and gives players a lot of variables and tools to consider and use to best eliminate the enemy and reach their objective. Though the gameplay loop is conceptually simple, the pacing of combat, length of missions, and terrain from level design keeps gameplay fun and it never overstays its welcome.
Health and suppression are the main statistical bars of both friendly and enemy soldiers. If a soldier’s health reaches zero, they will be downed and can be revived by a friend. However, if a soldier gets downed too many times, they will reach a wounded state where if they are downed once again they will die. Because of this it is important to keep soldiers alive during firefights so that they last as long as possible during the campaign.
The suppression bar indicates the level of panic a soldier is suffering from being under fire. As suppression increases, accuracy will go down and if the suppression bar reaches maximum, the soldier will panic. In a panicked state, they will cease all orders, won’t fire, and will occasionally move to a random bit of cover to avoid further suppression. This mechanic is necessary to master to find success as players can crowd control enemies and buy themselves ample time to flank and eliminate the enemy.
The suppression mechanic is generally executed well, but can lead to some annoyances. Each soldier has a courage rating that denotes how much suppression they can take before panicking, but unlike health, which is easy to read due to its color-coding, there is no easy way to tell how much courage a soldier actually has. Probably the most annoying element of the suppression mechanic is the unfairly unpredictable behavior of friendly soldiers when they are panicking.
I noticed two behaviors: either soldiers stay put if in cover, or they will move to try to find cover, though they won’t run to the closest bit of cover but an apparently randomly selected one. This puts the panicking soldier in further danger, as the player loses control of their behavior, and will often just die from continued enemy fire. Seems like the panic AI behavior of player-controlled soldiers needs some tweaking and improvement.
Players can equip their soldiers with three main weapon classes: submachine guns (SMGs), rifles, and shotguns. Each weapon class has a unique weapon ability and each weapon has its own statline and tactical purpose (e.g. SMGs good at medium range engagements, rifles for long range, and shotguns for short range). For each weapon class, players can purchase new weapons from the local shop with salvage they find or receive during missions.
The clearly-defined weapon roles, associated abilities, and flexibility of equipping soldiers with any weapons gives a lot of room for careful planning, synergizing, and experimentation with different tactics, approaches, and squad compositions. There does seem to be a balance issue from the stats of the weapons as well as the overall level design of the maps.
SMGs appear to be the most useful weapon, because of their high rate of fire, innate suppression, and mobility. Furthermore, because of the level design and choice to make firefight ranges quite short, SMGs benefit significantly from these decisions. The other two weapon classes do have their uses, but the SMG overperforms and seems to be the clear weapon of choice, especially in a game where suppression, flanking, speed, and squad mobility are key. It seems that the SMG is too flexible of a weapon.
The level design for each mission is varied and vibrant with different map layouts allowing for different paths and routes for reaching an objective. Each map also usually has a unique setting, like a village, farmland, forest, supply depot, or crash site, which defines what kinds of cover a player can expect. One minor oddity is that there are some maps that clearly have side paths or nooks and crannies that almost imply exploration for hidden items or salvage, but these side locations end up being utilized solely as aesthetic elements to the map.
Enemies abide by the same rules as the player’s soldiers, using the same weapons and having unique soldier classes, like shotgunners, riflemen, SMGers, and medics. Usually at the end of mission there will be a miniboss enemy like a grenadier, a heavy machine gunner, or a sniper rifleman that adds a bit of enemy variety. The enemy AI is quite good with their troops using weapon abilities to suppress player soldiers, with shotgunners being the only oddity as they try to get close to use their weapons but sometimes walk straight into enemy fire and die.
Ironically, enemy panic AI is actually effective in that enemy soldiers will usually retreat away from the source of suppression to find cover, unlike player soldiers. The AI’s general competence ties into another strength of Broken Lines, which is its difficulty and that, especially on Hard, it is critical to rely on good tactics to keep soldiers alive. Moreover, the options menu includes an entire section on difficulty customization giving players control over their gameplay experience.
Overall, the tactical element is structured well with an emphasis on careful tactical planning, precise timing, and good positioning to maximize success. Friendly fire is active and cover forces players to be cognizant of soldier movement and positioning to minimize damage. Firefights themselves also have a good pace and usually don’t get bogged down into long, drawn out slugfests.
Graphically, Broken Lines looks nice with each level having its own unique color palette and distinct feel. The artstyle of the cutscenes and characters is great and makes the game standout in that regard. Nighttime missions with a lot of plant-based dark green cover can make it hard to see some cover. Sound design is good for the weapons and soldiers responses with the music creating a relentlessly hopeless, desperate, and creepy tone, though it can get repetitive.
I didn’t encounter any significant frame drops or crashes during gameplay and the game ran smoothly throughout my experience (on a i9-9900K CPU and RTX 2080 Ti GPU). I also didn’t encounter any significant graphical bugs or glitches. I did witness some annoying gameplay wonkiness and bugginess that could do with some tweaking. Soldier pathfinding, especially when vaulting over cover, can get a bit weird as soldiers move to another part of cover to vault over instead of whatever is right in front of them, which wastes precious milliseconds.
Soldiers also sometimes get stuck on cover, which requires some fiddly ordering to get them out of that stuck state, and occasionally squadmates might follow their own order even when not suppressed or under fire. None of these bugs and issues are game breaking or hugely frustrating. One minor worldbuilding issue I have is that since the game is very much set in WWII there seems to be a lack of explicit reference to the war itself. I understand that the game is supposed to be a self-contained story of desperation and survival, but the game’s aesthetic and characters are very much driven and influenced by the events of WWII. It seems that the developers could have done a bit more with tying this alternate history small-scale story to the greater context of WWII more clearly without making the game a mass of historical exposition.
As strategy-RPG hybrid games go, Broken Lines does a great job in presenting its characters and integrating their unique traits and abilities into the tactical gameplay. The fireteam-based small-scale combat is snappy and fun, requiring careful planning and a good understanding of positioning. I can wholeheartedly recommend this game to both strategy and RPG fans.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Broken Lines is a solid turn-based strategy-RPG hybrid with endearing characters, strong tactical gameplay that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and an alternate history WWII survival-mystery story filled with desperation, hopelessness, and dread.
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