From the relatively unknown studio Porta Play comes Broken Lines, a visibly low budget tactics experience. Luckily, if there’s one thing indie developers have proven time and time again, it’s not about how much money you have, but what you spend it on. With rough edges abound, can this title impress regardless?
THE STORY – CHOOSE YOUR OWN MISADVENTURE
In an alternate reality World War 2, a small squad of British soldiers find themselves stranded somewhere in Eastern Europe, as their planes are shot down over what was supposed to be neutral territory. Their orders were lost in the crash, the radio is fried, and there’s a thick, toxic fog covering the land as far as the eye can see. The squad has a run-in with soldiers wearing gas masks – the “Faceless” -, who are quick to open fire on our protagonists. The enemies are armed with German guns, but speak a language none of the Brits understand or even recognize (partially because it is a language made up for this game). They quickly notice that the fog is changing them – not only does it irritate their skin and lungs, but it clouds their minds, as well, making them more aggressive as time goes on. Needless to say, they have to get out of this place as quickly as possible. There were several major plot reveals that hit beautifully, but I won’t spoil any of them here.
Meet the Team
Despite featuring permadeath, character customization, and a couple of semi-procedurally generated dialogue moments, your units aren’t randomly generated nobodies. Instead, you will be embarking on your quest with the same eight souls every time. The characters are fairly basic, but generally have one positive and one negative personality trait that effectively defines them both in their dialogue and their preferred fighting style.
Avery is a hot-headed recruit, relishing in violence, but he knows how to channel his destructive energy towards appropriate targets. This translates to him gaining additional courage as well as a damage bonus whenever he’s providing suppressing fire.
King is an ox of a man and sees no problems with abandoning or outright killing innocents to keep the squad alive. Despite this apparent heartlessness, he seems to hate how good he is at what he does. He has increased health and courage by default, making him the toughest and most aggressive member of the team. While everyone else is providing cover fire, he’ll be the one to flank entrenched enemies and finish them off.
I won’t go into every single character here, but the cast is varied enough to make each soldier stand out. That being said, none of them are required for any of the story paths to play out. Which ending you get will entirely depend on the missions you choose to embark on. There’s a set number of encounters to play through on your way to your destination, but you’ll get to choose which of the two or three battles available you want to engage in.
I have to admit that I couldn’t quite figure out how this part of the game functions and Broken Lines is unfortunately not popular enough for there to be extensive research done on it, but here is the impression I got:
The dialogue in-between missions is assigned to random characters each time since there’s no guarantee any of them are still alive. Generally, non-combat events will take place between two soldiers, and will present them with a situation they will disagree on. Say, the medic Hailey wants to offer painkillers to a civilian, while sniper Conner would rather keep the supplies for the squad. You are then asked to choose which decision to go with. It’s not as simple as “Choose which character you want to be happy”, though; going with Hailey’s option will cost resources, but also improve both characters’ mental health. I only experienced this event once, but judging from the results of other conversations, refusing help is likely to worsen the relationship between the two.
Some of these choices can be brutal – you encounter crazed villagers trapped in cages. Both characters agree they can’t just leave them there. Do you free them, or put them out of their misery? The former will put your soldiers in harm’s way, the latter will hurt their psyches. There is never a right answer, and you may be forced to make uncomfortable choices to keep your squad together.
Broken Lines Succeeds Where Pendragon Failed
In my review of Pendragon, I heavily criticized that particular game for having dialogue that’s completely interchangeable between all characters, so I was surprised that Broken Lines actually managed to pull the same kind of text off quite well. There’s a number of reasons for that:
First, a playthrough of Broken Lines takes eight to ten hours, so you won’t cycle through events nearly as quickly as you would in the sub-one-hour Pendragon. This makes repeats far less common and ensures recurrent dialogue isn’t nearly as annoying.
Second, the developers made sure to sprinkle unique bits of dialogue in here and there to make events feel more character-specific. In one instance, Hailey is not just named, but her role as a medic actually plays a part in how others perceive her actions.
And finally, the noxious fog makes for a clever excuse for soldiers to act with needless cruelty; in any other game, a squadmate wanting to kill and rob (in either order) civilians would be considered unrealistically evil, but not here; in those conversations, the aggressor is often depicted with a green rash, representing the influence the mind-altering fumes have on them.
GAMEPLAY – A HIGHLY CUSTOMIZABLE DEATH MARCH
At its core, Broken Lines is a turn-based tactics game. Every eight seconds, the action pauses, and you have the chance to assign orders to each of your units. Once you are happy with your plan, hit Space and everything plays out in real-time. An auto-pause will trigger when you spot an enemy while out of combat, allowing you to adjust your strategy on the fly. Just don’t forget that this doesn’t happen if you’re already in a firefight because that’s a quick way to get your guys killed.
Units will automatically shoot at targets in range unless you specifically order them not to. The three main weapon types – shotgun, submachine gun, and rifle – determine how to most effectively use a soldier. Shotguns deal extremely high damage from a small distance and can be used to knock targets down to incapacitate them briefly. When deployed well, submachine guns cut through multiple foes at medium range quickly, and their Suppression ability is the single best way to cause panic amongst the enemy ranks. Rifles are best used at long range and are the perfect way to take out singular high-risk targets before the battle even starts.
Aside from health, everyone – friend or foe – has a set level of courage, with their bravery depending on their HP, mental health, Skills, and Traits. When bullets are flying past – or into – a unit, they will gradually build up stress. If stress exceeds courage, the character will forget their orders, stop shooting, and run for cover. Luckily, this isn’t XCOM, so your guys won’t start shooting each other, and they’ll quickly regain composure.
Causing panic amongst enemies is crucial for survival, as you’ll get shot to pieces otherwise. Generally, it’s a good idea to have at least two submachine guns on your team, so you can pin down the opposition in a wide area; setting up a kill zone with a pincer attack is always satisfying, and a sure-fire way to obliterate large groups of targets without them even getting a shot off. I love the implementation of the courage and panic system, it’s an absolute highlight of Broken Lines.
Equipment & Skills
Any character will be equally proficient with any weapon you hand them, but the passive abilities your troopers develop are going to add some depth to whom to entrust which gun. Each soldier can be customized in three main ways – Equipment, Skills, and Traits.
Equipment is self-explanatory, a main gun, one primary and one secondary piece of gear. These are different types of grenades, heavy weapons, and buff or healing items. They have limited uses per mission, but refill for free, so go wild! While encounters can be overcome with tactical positioning and well-timed advances, having a smoke bomb, machine gun, or some bandages on hand can turn things around in a pinch. This aspect is unremarkable, but work perfectly fine.
Skills are interesting in their implementation. Certain events and missions will add skills to your inventory; these can then be attached to any soldier. These can both be active skills with limited uses – similar to gear – or significant passive buffs. If you want one of your units to gain the ability to sprint faster, or to become stronger when stressed, or scream so loud your enemies scatter, this is how you do it. Each character can only have three skills, and they can’t be unequipped. If you want to give them a new ability, you have to permanently delete an existing one. I enjoyed this system quite a bit – depending on your play style, you can use skills to cancel out a soldier’s weaknesses, or double down on their strengths.
Lastly, traits are gained through events. Each character has one fixed trait they start with, and the remaining two are largely out of your control. Traits can be positive, negative, or a mix of both. They work the same as Skills, but you don’t get to choose what you get, and one of the acquired ones is replaced at random whenever a soldier gains a fourth. These are the human aspects of a character and are often powerful buffs that come at a cost. A Loner will become more effective when far away from allies, but be easily distracted when too close to the others.
If a soldier is downed once, they are wounded but can be revived. If a wounded character is downed, they are permanently dead. When wounded, they are fully healed after another mission and can survive getting knocked out once again. It’s a straightforward mechanic that ensures that none of your units will ever die out of nowhere.
You’ll have to manage your squad’s composure as well. Any upsetting event will bring a unit closer to snapping, while moments of camaraderie and good deeds will help them keep their cool. If a soldier’s composure reaches zero, they will desert and be lost forever. Chances to recover from trauma are rare, so be sure to jump on those when possible.
Broken Lines is not designed to be a meat grinder. When playing on the medium difficulty, you will likely make it through most of the game without casualties.
That being said, the developers included a variety of options to customize your experience. Enemy numbers, the damage inflicted and received, the number of revives per mission, the penalty for reloading a checkpoint, and even some AI abilities can be adjusted and toggled to your liking.
This is excellent, as it allows for multiple runs with drastically different rules. No matter if you want tactical skirmishes against small groups of especially deadly foes, or a ridiculous Rambo-esque power trip gunning down dozens of Faceless without breaking a sweat – both are equally enjoyable ways to play.
GRAPHICS & SOUND – A SURPRISING SPLASH OF COLOR
I’ll get the audio out of the way first this time. It’s okay. The music is forgettable, for the lack of a better term, “war music”. It does its job, but you’re not going to miss out on anything by listening to something else while playing. Sound effects and the few lines of voice-acted dialogue, too, are serviceable. I wish I had more to say, but Broken Lines is entirely unremarkable in this aspect.
Zooming in on the action on screen will reveal a constant stream of minor animation foibles that pile up quickly. The most common issue is characters switching from the standard walk cycle to the panicked one by motionlessly sliding across the floor for a second. You’ll notice a ton of little problems like this if you’re looking for them, so keep your distance if you don’t want to be taken out of the experience.
I do want to offer one bit of praise here to the person in charge of visual map design. Despite the entire game taking place in the same forested region in Easter Europe, care went into making the maps stand out from one another. From golden fields and lush tree lines to oppressive concrete military bases and entire valleys covered in sickly green fog, they’re each unique. While the environments aren’t exactly impressive on a technical level, they were clearly made with a sense of artistic pride. This variety in colors added a lot to the overall experience, and I’m happy they put the work in here.
THE DEAD AND THE DRUNK – IT’S ALWAYS ZOMBIES
In a recent update, Porta Play added a second campaign, and since this is a video game, of course it had to be zombie-themed. Interestingly, it takes place over the course of a few hours during the original story. It’s kicked off by a minor event in the main game that, at the time, you had no idea actually meant something.
Five soldiers at the camp are offered strong drinks by a friendly local. Once they are sufficiently hammered, they agree to save said local’s family from “The Dead”. This kicks off a linear series of missions revolving around putting an end to the undead threat, though the plot kind of falls apart towards the end. Not that it matters – both the player and the characters just want to kill some zombies.
Unit upkeep works a little differently here. Instead of keeping an eye on everyone’s composure, you’ll be managing their bloodlust. The drunker they are, the angrier they get. If any of your guys sober up completely, they’ll realize how messed up this whole business is, throw down their gun, and walk away. This is obviously a lot goofier than the main game, and that’s very much a good thing. The fact that the game recognizes that no person in full possession of their mental faculties would ever willingly face the zombie hordes is genuinely funny to me.
Gameplay throws a few curveballs your way, and is far more difficult than the original campaign. First, there are the zombies, of course. Throughout all maps, there are piles of corpses to be found. If a totem is active, there’s a decent chance a group of brain munchers will pop out and attack if you come to close.
Zombies are of the slow cannon fodder variety. If you set up all of your units in a line, they’ll be able to take out dozens upon dozens of shamblers no problem. This becomes more difficult when you’re surrounded – which happens a lot. Sometimes, running-and-gunning to break through one wave is required to escape from particularly nasty ambushes. This is a very specific reference, but remember when you spectated your teammates after dying in Left4Dead? This campaign is a lot like that, and it’s frankly a blast to root for your little buddies on the ground.
Speaking of L4D, we got to have special mutant zombies! There are big tanky guys who can take off half a soldier’s health bar with one swing. They will occasionally charge in a straight line to knock your units over – this is when you spread your units out to surround it. It’s big, glowing weak spot is on its back, shooting at it from the front does next to nothing.
A far less sturdy, but far more dangerous variant are belchers, who will launch explosive globs of bile at your squad. These are telegraphed a few seconds ahead of time, so make sure to leave that area as quickly as possible. Make sure you have a sniper or two with you to take these guys out right away, or you’re in for a world of hurt. These mutants mix up combat significantly and offer a welcome change of pace.
The other major new gameplay element is three-way combat. The Dead and the Faceless don’t get along either, and the Dead usually win. Sometimes the smartest move is to hide behind cover, let the bad guys take each other out, and then mop up any stragglers. There are even instances in which the game specifically offers you the option to summon additional zombies – just make sure you are equipped to deal with them yourself.
The “The Dead and the Drunk” expansion provides around 5 hours of additional tactical challenges. Compared to the base game, it’s a significant step up in difficulty – the perfect fit for players who enjoyed the original campaign.
Broken Lines was reviewed on PC. The game was provided by Super.com.