By Marisa Alexander / May 30th, 2019
Out of historical time periods that are translated into video games, World War II tends to be a common go-to. Broken Lines is another such example, a strategy game by PortaPlay. Inspired by Frozen Synapse, X-COM, and The Banner Saga, the developers aimed to make a game with heavy story and atmosphere. The premise is that eight survivors crash landed in supposedly neutral territory, where they must survive for multiple days. However, gameplay is important, so let’s see how it stacks up. As a disclaimer, when I played the game, it was beta version 0.6, so the game is still in its early stages.
Overall, the game is a quasi real-time squad tactics game. There are no traditional turns but the game does pause for every eight seconds of in-game time, giving you chances to react to given situations. When the game is paused, you can set the path, movement pace, and actions your soldiers take, even planning ahead to take account of future turns. That said, when a new enemy is spotted, the game pauses automatically in order for the player to react accordingly. As permadeath is involved, heavy consideration when going into a situation is important.
When time flows normally, all units open fire automatically, taking cover if placed behind obstructions. Effectively, the main challenge is all about positioning and timing abilities in order to survive. When fired upon, units suffer from stress. If stress is at its peak, a unit will find cover immediately and hunker down, unable to be controlled. There are abilities and equipment that can heighten stress rapidly like suppressive fire and concussion grenades. As such, it’s pertinent to make sure your units are safe from high-stress situations and use such abilities to stress out the enemy quickly.
On a fundamental design standpoint on paper, most of what is offered is perfectly serviceable. The main sticking point is in regards to quality of life features. The main issue comes down to the quasi real-time nature of the game. It can be difficult to ascertain how long a soldier can take to get from point A to point B before clicking on a spot. The game does say how long it takes in the action bar, but it would be helpful to know beforehand for the sake of convenience. Another issue is when selecting movement speeds for multiple soldiers. Movement speeds are selected by hovering over the desired location and holding the mouse. Personally, I would prefer a key toggle as it is quicker, especially when multiple units are involved.
In regards to movement itself, when it’s a straight shot from one spot to the next, it works fine. However, when you want a more specific path taken, the pathfinding can get finicky without selecting multiple spots one after another. This especially becomes an issue when you want a unit to go inside a building, where walls start to block your field of view. Another point of contention is Broken Lines is unclear how much influence cover and other obstructions have on hit rate, combined with weapon accuracy and movement. With enough observation, the general numbers can be deduced but it would be preferable if it were easier to know at a mere glance. If there was a way to discern all this with hard numbers with both cover and length of movement, it was unclear.
Since the game is in beta, technical issues are bound to pop up. One of the more jarring ones involves the smoke grenade. What it should do is what it sounds like, covers an area in smoke. However, when I tried to use it, no smoke was to be had and I am unsure if the effect either worked or didn’t happen to begin with. Another issue I saw involved the character animations while in camp, where a couple characters’ arms would be locked in place.
As for the writing, atmosphere, and art style, most of it is okay. Writing and art style are perhaps the two oddities when it comes to Broken Lines. The writing has a strange ebb and flow where for the most part, it takes itself seriously. Yet, there are lines of dialogue that are more on the comedic end, even though the situation itself is rather dire. I can understand that it is just the characters trying to use coping measures. However, that idea gets dicey when it comes from the mouth of a man dying on the ground.
The art style also suffers from this, where character portraits and models can reach uncanny valley levels. The facial expressions can be exceptionally cartoony yet disconcerting, to the point where I am unsure if I should feel unnerved or amused. Overall, the game needs more consistency when it comes to the tone of the game, as it hurts the atmosphere exceptionally hard.
Over the course of an hour of play time, it’s apparent what Broken Lines needs is some fine-tuning and quality of life features. Since the game is under version 0.6, I wouldn’t be surprise if PortaPlay will iron out all of these in the days to come. The game has interesting ideas, just the quasi real-time structure needs to be worked on the most. The same can be said for the writing and art style, as otherwise, the atmosphere is not really there. Luck to the developers on this, as the game is looking for a release date later this year or some time next year. I think that is plenty of time for these issues to be addressed.