There were so many moments while playing The Riftbreaker where I stood at the precipice of annihilation: my resources dwindling, my base relatively undefended as I scrambled to put out fires, and tens of thousands of aggressive aliens marching in my direction. Whether I was managing resources, constructing my base of operations, making upgrade decisions for my mech, or battling hordes of enemies, this RTS/top-down shooter hybrid rarely let me feel at ease – in a good way. Even with several unfortunate bugs and a bland story, surviving by the skin of my teeth through meticulous time management and split-second decision-making made it all worth it.
As a frontiersman sent to colonize the uncharted planet of Galatea 37, you run around in a mech and have to establish a base of operations, survive the incredibly hostile local flora and fauna, and open a portal back to Earth before you get eaten by several thousand monsters (or have a panic attack in real life). The characters and story are bland and forgettable and feel like an afterthought that’s mostly used as an excuse to give you increasingly challenging objectives to complete. The writing and voice acting in particular are often laughable, and the main character, Ashley, is about as interesting as a sheet of drywall. But The Riftbreaker succeeds in so many other ways that I found it pretty easy to ignore the awful banter playing in the background.
The Riftbreaker is incredibly ambitious and mixes together the best components of a dozen genres to create something multifaceted and memorable. It’s got base building and tower defense components, survival elements like resource gathering and management, an RPG-like crafting and gear system, and top-down bullet hell combat with loot drops. One moment you’re spending resources to build a power plant to power your ammo factories like in an RTS, and the next moment you’re running around shooting and dodging hundreds of enemy attacks in bullet hell fashion. You also have to find and set up mining operations on resource deposits and build defensive towers to automate some of the responsibilities of protecting your bases from incoming attacks.
That hodgepodge of mechanics inexplicably comes together really well. It can certainly get a little overwhelming at times, but the excellently crafted campaign tutorializes you in small bites so you don’t break down and cry (at least not right away). It continually pushes you to learn new mechanics while you’re thrown up against increasingly hostile creatures and environments. For example, one biome is so hot that building any structures is impossible until you master cryo cooling technology, while another has explosive mines hidden underfoot throughout the entire level which makes exploration incredibly dangerous.
Each area has its own unique set of problems and resources that can be harvested to improve your gear, defenses, and get you one step closer to opening a rift back to Earth. The desert biome is covered in shifting sands and blazing hot sunlight that can burn your base to the ground, while the volcanic biome obscures your vision with ash clouds and causes massive fireballs to fall from the sky. Some of these areas make it extremely challenging to establish a base, but when you overcome the odds and gain another resource in your toolbelt, it’s incredibly rewarding. Who doesn’t want to feel like the ultimate interplanetary survivalist?
Unfortunately, one of these areas is overly ambitious with its enemy design and ends up being relatively broken in practice. The poisonous swamp, which features a deadly plant that slowly takes over the whole map, seems to be too much for even my high-end PC or the current-gen consoles to handle. Visiting it causes tons of crashes and even makes it impossible to save your progress until you complete your objective and teleport back to a different biome.
As you explore different biomes and establish bases in each of them, the base-building and resource management becomes exponentially more complex as well. You’ll eventually need to jump between biomes and bases to manage each of their resources, improve their buildings, and confront waves of enemies and environmental catastrophes between each of them. It became so complex by the end of my playthrough that I actually created an Excel spreadsheet and a digital checklist to help me remember which biomes I was drawing resources from and which bases needed improving – that was fun for me, but it does speak to how hard this stuff can be to keep track of in-game.
This proliferation of base and resource management can be extremely rewarding, but it’s also intensely stressful. My final hours with the campaign had me standing up and sweating profusely as I watched numbers tick up and down and juggled about 18 different projects with not enough time to accomplish all of them, not to mention the imminent armies approaching my location from multiple fronts. It’s the ultimate test of preparation, time management, and high stakes combat, and it’s absolutely not for the faint of heart. But when I finally emerged victorious, I felt a rush of accomplishment and satisfaction that’s hard to come by.
If you want to adjust the difficulty though, The Riftbreaker has tons of options for customizing your experience, including changing the frequency and strength of enemy attacks and other random encounters like weather events, and increasing the abundance of resources available for you to harvest. I prided myself on getting through the campaign leaving these settings as-is, but for those looking for a less stressful experience, it’s pretty awesome that these options were included.
And when the base building and resource gathering elements become too much of a headache, there are massive armies of enemies to take on in some excellent bullet hell action that puts your skills and gear to the test. You’ll run into the occasional horde as you explore and settle new areas, but the real challenge finds you when armies amass and lay waste to your defenses in the hopes of destroying your base and putting an end to your attempts at colonizing this hellscape.
While you’re able to build defenses, you’ll only ever take direct control of the mech you use for construction, exploration, and combat. Defensive barriers and turrets can deal with smaller groups of enemies attacking your base, but involving yourself directly is absolutely necessary to survive large-scale skirmishes. There’s a wide variety of weapons you can equip your mech suit with, each of them with their own advantages, disadvantages, and resource costs. The flamethrower is great at taking out swarms of weaker enemies at close range, while the railgun does massive damage at long range. Each weapon can also be modified with different effects or bonuses and can be complemented with equippable skills and movement abilities that transform you into a one-woman army.
Your mech can lay waste to thousands of enemies in minutes, but you also can’t be everywhere at once, so it’s almost impossible to succeed without the help of defensive towers, which have an equally wide range of options including missile launchers, turrets, mine layers, attack drones, and long range cannons. Each tower has its pros and cons and many play a vital role in keeping your base intact, but not all defenses are especially feasible. For example, the heavy artillery cannon packs a punch but doesn’t come close to being worth the resources needed to keep it powered. Managing the ammo cost, electrical needs, and resource requirements to keep your base well-defended without breaking the bank is a constant balancing act – one that only gets more challenging as time goes on and your appetite for resources climbs to incredible heights.
Unfortunately, during the second half of the campaign when your mechs, turrets, and enemy armies are at their highest density, large scale battles left my poor framerate in absolute tatters. These choppy moments aren’t the only issues either, as I encountered a fair amount of bugs and performance problems throughout my 50-hour completionist playthrough. In areas where you approach the maximum build limit, for example, The Riftbreaker begins to crash with relative regularity, causing a frustrating loss of progress. Sometimes towers acted erratically and wasted all my ammo firing at a wall or I wasn’t allowed to place a building without tapping the build button repeatedly. None of these issues are especially experience-ruining (aside from the bugged swamp area I mentioned earlier), but they definitely added annoyance to a difficult campaign that already had me on edge.
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