The Riftbreaker is a big, sprawling, ambitious, kind of hopeless mess of a game. I sort of love it.
Games can have ambition on a lot of levels, but at this point, the majority of games that want to be ambitious kind of need to sink into the territory of narrative ambition. This isn’t a failing, just a reality; with video games becoming more mature as a medium, a lot of the language of playing games has started to be explored and established and it’s hard to necessarily even make composite experiences that feel shockingly new. Not so The Riftbreaker, which is theoretically a new take on the idea of a tower defense game in the same way that driving a motorcycle is a new take on riding a bike.
At the same time, this is the game’s…well, I don’t want to say failing, but let’s say its biggest weakness. The gameplay feels stretched in a lot of different directions that are sometimes incongruous, and as a result there’s a feel that being pulled in all those takes make for a weaker overall game. Yet the fact that it is pulling in so many directions is also what makes the dang thing so much fun and, if you’re like me, it’s what’s going to inspire you to hang on despite the rough bits.
The Riftbreaker is currently in beta testing and is planned for release in 2020. The Steam version was played for this review.
There’s very little story in this version of the game, but there is exactly as much as the game needs. You play as Dr. Ashley Nowak, a scientist in the time-honored field of “general space scientist exploring space stuff.” Dr. Nowak explores space by teleporting instantly to the distant world Galatea 37 within her AI-assisted gigantic robot suit she has nicknamed Mr. Riggs, thereby freeing her up from any concerns of flying a spaceship or anything like that. Once there, she wants to…survive for a while before teleporting home.
Oh, and it turns out that the local wildlife is both strong enough to do serious damage to Mr. Riggs and the facilities while also being agitated by the communications equipment that transmits data back and forth.
With stakes set and the challenge clarified, the game can get on with the important business of being a game. Everything else is purely down to ludonarrative, with Mr. Riggs offering you bits of advice about building up the base, reinforcing your positioning, clearing out hives of local critters, and the like. But none of it is ever a matter of narrative urgency; you want to do these things because they can make your life easier. Drop on a planet, build up a base to resist attacks, survive until the end and then emerge victorious.
It’s certainly possible to build on this in the future, of course, but at this point the game has basically endless play modes with exactly two characters interacting and a series of monsters attacking them with all the impersonal feel of a natural disaster. And you know? That’s enough.
There are no sapient native life forms to communicate with. Any questions about invading a planet with natural life are neatly solved by the fact that you are fighting for your life against non-sentient creatures whom you are only fighting because they are attacking you. You are a researcher, first and foremost, and it produces a wonderful sense of quiet introspection akin to some of the best moments of games like No Man’s Sky. You are alone, the world is hostile, and you are trying to live.
And then the world gets really hostile and the whole thing turns into flaming meat and claws. I should probably move on from the paper-thin backstory and into the real heart of the game.
Your Base is Belong to You
So, The Riftbreaker is a third-person clicky action game and also a base-building RTS tower defense game. It’s both at the same time. You wander around in Riggs and drop various buildings, starting with your headquarters and expanding to include gun turrets, storage facilities, armories, communications depots, and so forth. Riggs itself is highly functional in combat, possessed of multiple ranged weapons with different uses as well as a melee attack with the sword; however, the aliens of the planet can quickly overwhelm you if you try to just smack them yourself.
Also, every so often a huge wave of aliens gets barfed up and tries to destroy you and your buildings, putting you on a ticking clock. There are also various construction projects like upgrading your headquarters that will prompt an immediate attack, so you have to keep that in mind before you start any given new project.
Here’s the bright side and the down side: the base building mechanics are really nifty and elaborate. Maybe too much so for how you’re building.
See, you can’t just slap down buildings willy-nilly. Buildings need power to operate, for starters, and you generate power by building power plants. Of course, power plants cost minerals to buy, and there are two kinds of material resource to harvest. You also have to ensure that you have enough materials storage to keep all of the materials you’re resourcing, and an armory to upgrade your weapons… oh, and let’s not forget turrets to defend your base. And that requires more AI networks, which cost resources and also need power, because you need to keep that in mind. And then there are research trees to consider, and at some point you’re just staring at all of this and wondering how in the heck you’re going to get all of this built in the short span of time between attacks while also fending off the attacks.
The problem is that even on the easier settings, there’s so much management to do and so little time to do it that you feel like you’re forever running on half strength. Combine that with the fact that you start off with nothing every time and you always feel like you’re on the back foot. I’m sure practice and familiarity can help mitigate this, but it feels like a pretty major stumbling block.
At the same time, that also sort of works for the game. You are always on the back foot and struggling in a hostile environment because…you are in a hostile environment in which you must be forever on the back foot. I think the costs and starting resource amounts might need to be tweaked, but the sense of struggling to defend and build up proper resources is the skill that’s actually being tested in the first place.
And there’s something deeply satisfying about retreating inside the walls of your base to recover while your automatic turrets make meat out of the aliens attacking you, the desperate feeling of taking a stand alongside your automated firepower, knowing that you aren’t safe yet but also seeking out natural chokepoints to form your base. You are on a world where safety is always fleeting.
Despite that, I feel like it’s going to turn some people off, which is a shame when the actual power management and base management systems are really neat to me. There’s some really cool stuff available via research that I feel lots of players just won’t get to see, because it’s so hard to juggle all the resources needed to make it happen.
My Word, this Data
Visually, The Riftbreaker is gorgeous. All of the landscapes are lush and overflowing with colors, but there’s enough differentiation that you can generally pick out both your own robot and the enemies fairly quickly. There’s a paucity of enemy types, but they all animate well and, with how dense the overall game can be, it’s kind of a relief to have a fairly small list to keep in your mind at any given moment.
The music, meanwhile, is…well, not bad, but it’s kind of in the “forgettable basic game music” category. It’s suited for the game, but the incidental effects are better, especially with the mechanical noises of Riggs that manage to really convey the sense of mass. You always are in some degree of danger, but you also feel like you really are in control of a giant tin can designed to protect you.
A lot of my nitpicks of the game are things that can be pretty easily addressed. Micromanagement can be scaled down, resource costs and availability can be tweaked, and so forth. Heck, it’s evident that there are things that are planned for the game that have yet to be implemented, so I’m reluctant to call some of this stuff even a failing. It’s just…well, a bit weaker than it should be, frequently making things slower than needed.
It is, in short, a bit of a mess. But it’s the kind of mess that provides you with some great gameplay moments. At the worst of times, you feel like the game is asking you to do too many things too quickly, but then things blend back together and suddenly you’re clearing away underbrush and building up your defenses in a satisfying fashion. So for all the messy parts, I kind of love it, because it’s fun even through those failings.
Sure, the game may have bitten off more than it could chew, but it’s always trying. That counts for a lot, and the parts where it hits are pure gold.
Preview copy provided by EXOR Studios for PC. Screenshots courtesy of EXOR Studios.