Context is everything, and the opening image that The Riftbreaker offers is a jarring one.
The scene is an alien jungle lush with life, its trees swaying peacefully in a breeze. Suddenly, electricity crackles in the air as concentric triangles appear out of nowhere. The triangles form a teleportation gate, and a giant mechsuit drops out of. The suit is huge, with one arm covered in drills for pulverizing rock, and the other a giant energy sword designed to fell trees.
As the mech’s pilot confirms her arrival and announces her intention to get to work, a reptilian eye watches through the foliage, wary of the intruder’s presence.
How am I supposed to react to this cutscene?
Should I be worried for the mech pilot in the 20-ton death machine, or should I be supporting the strange, hive-dwelling creature whose territory she’s teleported into?
Without a broader context, it’s hard to pick a side here, although I’d tend to favor the native species whose habitat is about to be despoiled by a tidal wave of automated sprawl. This tendency is a little problematic though — as just a few moments in I realize since it’s the mech pilot that The Riftbreaker puts me in the shoes of.
The Riftbreaker is a base-building game with action-RPG combat that offers players a chance to become interplanetary colonists, although not in the serene build-a-shelter-against-the-elements kind of way. No, this colonialism comes with flamethrower turrets and fields of ore refineries.
Players are dropped into a randomized map and instructed to set up a base as quickly as possible before the creatures that live on the planet realize that humans have laid claim to their home.
Said base-building is incredibly smooth and easy to jump into — just find local ore, drill for a minute, and then build some factories to automate the process. Once a base is up and running, the player can focus on building defense emplacements to protect it from the swarms of creatures that will emerge from the depths of the jungles, desperate to defend themselves from extinction.
The player’s mech suit is heavily armed, which is where the ARPG elements come in — rather than simply building defenses, the player can wade out into the combat themselves, slashing and firing gatling guns at the hordes of enemies. If the base is stable enough, they can even go to the trouble of exploring the area, searching out new resources to plunder and enemy hives to destroy, weakening the waves of enemies that periodically attempt to drive the player off-world — and coincidentally, this is exactly what the mech pilot wants!
In The Riftbreaker‘s darkest note (and the one that gets me the most excited about the potential of the story mode) everyone acknowledges that what the player is asked to do is a terrible task. So how do they motivate pilots? By sending them on a one-way trip to the planet they’re supposed to capture. If they’re not able to gather enough resources and build a base stable enough to establish a gate back to earth, accepting the job becomes a death sentence!
Mechanically, The Riftbreaker is fantastic. Building and upgrading make perfect sense, the combat is smooth and well-balanced, and the world is gorgeously detailed.
I still have some misgivings, though. The Riftbreaker‘s gameplay is built around committing such obviously evil actions that the developers are going to have to work hard to come up with a narrative that makes the overall experience something other than a dispiriting slog.
Can they find a context to make this all acceptable, or even justified?
Sure, the plot could revolve around uncovering the humans’ misdeeds and foiling their plans, or the creatures might turn out to be an invasive species that plague worlds all across the galaxy, but whatever they come up with, it’s going to require a lot to make using enemy corpses as a resource feel ‘okay’.
If they can manage it, though? They’ll have a heck of a game on their hands.