FTL: Faster Than Light
Under my watch countless brave men, women, bug-people, rockoids and robots have been sent to their doom in defence of the Federation. Each starship crew valiantly stared down death, and all subsequently were jettisoned into the cold dark void of space. Why crews continue to sign up to my ill-fated squadron I’ll never know. Of course, my disastrous space-military career is based in the imaginary Federation of FTL: Faster Than Light, an indie rougelike-like space sim created by Subset Games and funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
Perma-death, random encounters and somewhat overwhelming odds are the staples of FTL and as such completing the game will require a certain level of game mechanic mastery to complete. It’s the mix of strategy, micromanagement and luck which makes FTL so addictive, and also so punishing.
Caption: Bon Voyage!
The basic premise is you’re piloting a Federation ship laden with juicy information about the Rebel fleet, who just happen to be chasing you relentlessly. There are snippets of meta-plot here and there about the different races you meet, but otherwise the tale is about the journey rather than the details. Each star map is made up of nodes to travel to and random encounters to overcome. The Rebel fleet mechanic acts as a timer for each map as they start taking over portions of the map, basically making a Rebel occupied node impossible to defeat/run from. Along the way you will find merchants to replenish your fuel, missiles and drones, repair your ships or to purchase new crew or weapons. There are also “distress” nodes, which can give you the choice of helping a ship under attack or can even be a trap set up be devious space pirates.
The real guts of FTL is in the micromanagement of your ship and its hapless crew as the game throws constant challenges your way. All but one of the ships are locked from the beginning and have to be earned though quite difficult challenges, and each have their own unique play styles. The crew can be ordered to occupy different ship systems, such as weapons, shields, FTL drive, to give them a boost in effectiveness or to repair damage from incoming fire. A crew member in the pilot room gives the ship a boost to evasion and is required to charge the FTL drive to jump to the next node, while the crew member in the weapons room speeds up reloading time. Each race has different proficiencies in maintaining or repairing the ship and can eve be used in special context specific encounters, except boring old humans of course.
Caption: Not pictured: A semi-psychic teenager, space preacher or psychotic mercenary.
Weapons come in five flavours: lasers for general blasting, beam for cutting unshielded hulls and starting fires, missiles for penetrating shields and breaching hulls, teleporting bombs for various uses, and ion for temporarily shutting down systems. Drone systems can also be installed for various uses like attacking the enemy or defending from missiles. The nitty gritty of the combats often comes down to how power is distributed throughout the ship to power the different systems, and how well scrap is spent (FTL’s currency) upgrading systems and power. Battles are often decided on how well the crew is directed to keep systems running, while juggling an effective stream of fire towards the enemy ship to wear down their shields and important systems. The action can be paused, which is especially helpful when you’re boarded by an enemy crew while as their ship fires on you, all the while the fire that knocked out the oxygen system is spreading and causing further damage. The fight to simply save the ship post-battle can often be more intense than the ship battle itself.
Caption: Asteriods, Rockmen, lasers, oh my!
Visually FTL is fairly simple, utilising a top-down cut away view of the ship for the player to direct the action. The art style does lack some character in that the ships look quite bare-boned, but the space backgrounds look quite striking. The music is an absolute standout ranging from minimalist bleeps and bloops to catchy electronic sonnets that are hard not to hum along to. A similar music experience is the Mass Effect series’ synth-space opera feel, encompasing the vastness of space and the feeling of sci-fi futurism.
Caption: So ends the flight of HMAS Save Game
FTL is a difficult game, no bones bone about it. Like a lot of roguelike games it’s hard to not occasionally feel cheated when confronted by an unbeatable enemy or receiving zero random upgrades in a session. Making it to the final challenge is quite difficult even on the Easy difficulty, and unless you’ve managed to do enough upgrading on the ship the last boss is all but unbeatable. It’s a challenge, but it’s one that feels surmountable with enough practice and patience.