Faster Than Light. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the USS Redshirt. Its doomed mission: to run like hell past strange new worlds, try not to get killed by new life and angry civilizations. To boldly deliver critical Federation data from rebel clutches to where no-one has gone bef *gets unceremoniously blown up by pirates*
Oh, damn. Well, one more restart won’t hurt. It’s only 3AM…
There are three big things you should know about FTL before jumping into it, and three alone. First, it’s a Rogue-style game, aka a Roguelike. It may not look like one, since you control a spaceship and crew instead of a fantasy adventurer, but it is. Just think of it as the squares being much bigger, and your hero being infested with helpful parasites.
Second, you will die, and die a lot. That’s okay. It doesn’t hurt. Third, FTL looks terrifyingly hardcore, with all its buttons and systems and gauges, but it’s not. There is a lot to handle, but it stops being scary after about an hour. Promise.
The Burden of Command
Why are you out here risking life and limb? You’re the captain of a Federation ship, desperately fleeing a Rebel fleet that wants to stop you delivering crucial data to your superiors — and unfortunately, is rather more effective at this than when Dick Dastardly tried to catch Yankee Doodle Pigeon. They’re on your tail. In front of you lies several sectors of randomly generated space, pirates, warships, aliens, nebulae, asteroids, and more. Each sector is filled with navigation points, each point hiding a random encounter. Sometimes it’ll be a friendly trader or a distress call; often it’ll be an enemy. It’s your job to roll with the punches and get through it all in one piece.
Everything else is best discovered for yourself. While obviously more detail follows, I urge that if you’ve already decided you want to play FTL — and if it sounds remotely like your kind of thing, you should — stop reading and go in as cold as possible. You’ve seen the score. It’s good, and it’s cheap enough ($9 through www.ftlgame.com, and still redeemable on Steam) not to be much of a gamble.
Getting a grip on it is much of the fun.
Far Beyond the Stars
For a Rogue-style game to succeed, it has to do more than just throw some randomly generated action in your way and be harder than an adamantium anvil. This is a genre that balances on the razor-edge between “being uncompromising” and “find the designers and set them on fire.” FTL, for instance, has no problem with throwing you up against enemies you’re not ready for. They’ll beam over soldiers, they’ll take out your oxygen, they’ll carve you up with powerful weapons, and quite often there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
It works though, because even in death, you learn something for your next run. Maybe you found a new weapon, or figured out a better tactic, or simply realized that you rushed things and need to upgrade a bit more before facing that level of threat. With every game I played, I felt myself getting better — chip, chip, chipping away at the impenetrable difficulty until I broke through to the next level. Then, it’s time to fight back.
Space-Casino of Doom
FTL absolutely nails the risk/reward element here. No matter how much you play the game, all decisions are inherently gambles — some choices are more likely to pay off and be the smart thing to do, but even those you’ve seen before ultimately coming down to a roll of a die. In one game, helping a lost ship may net you a great gun. Next time, it could be a trap that costs you your best pilot. You may feel comfortable fighting enemies in your sector and go answer a distress call for the loot, only to find that it takes place in an asteroid field or over a sun, with the environmental damage tipping the balance.
Likewise, while there’s nothing stopping you from simply rushing to the next sector, provided you can make it there in one piece, it’s a bad idea. You need to spend time in each upgrading yourself and gathering scrap — but as that’s FTL’s only currency, you have to balance that with worrying about the here-and-now, like paying for repairs, fuel and missiles. You also have to keep an eye out for the Rebel fleet, whose constant advance through the sector only gives you limited time to mess around and mop up.
Resistance is (Almost) Futile
The learning curve is brutal. Your initial ship — the Kestrel Cruiser — is the bucket of junk other buckets of junk look down on and say, “Man, that is one bucket of junk.” To give a hint of this, you start with three crew members to manage four stations, with another four having to be kept in good repair if you want things like oxygen to be part of shipboard life. Your engine provides just enough power for two peashooter-grade weapons and a shield that barely deflects insults.
When combat kicks off, it’s a mix of juggling and crisis management as you try to keep everything from exploding on your ship while carefully timing your counter-attacks, weapon types, and drones — if you’ve got them. The only break FTL is willing to cut is to let you pause to issue orders instead of having to handle everything in real time. And it’s like this from the very first minute.
On a really trivial point, firmly in your-mileage-may-vary-ville, I dislike the music. Its amiable bleeps and bloops are fine for cruising around, but don’t make for pulse-pounding combat. When two ships face off, it’s all often to the kind of action track that could be seamlessly dropped into a match-three puzzle game.
Crucially though, the brutality usually feels fair. It’s you in a hostile universe rather than FTL itself being a spiteful dick, and death is expected rather than punished. Games are short, meaning you never lose much progress, and as said, you’re always learning. Initially, your goal is survival; as you advance, it shifts to gambling. Your ship is damaged and low on missiles. Do you answer distress calls anyway in the hope of upgrades? Do you sacrifice a precious crew member to pirates to avoid a fight? The choice is always yours. Even when you know what you’re doing, you’re still taking risks.
The Undiscovered Countryside
I could point to a few details that displease, but that would be very picky in a game that’s hooked me for hours at a time in a month full of games like Guild Wars 2. The only one I found really disappointing is that the universe itself is incredibly bland, with little sense of identity. It thinks Rockmen and Slugs are awesome alien concepts, and while I’ve heard people compare it to Firefly, it has none of that show’s charisma. Now and again you’ll hit a fun bit of writing, but nowhere near often enough.
That certainly doesn’t interfere with the core action though, which manages to do the rare trick of taking the Rogue genre and really making its own. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, and it makes space action feel fresh. Its setting does of course get familiar fairly quickly, and it doesn’t take long for encounters to start repeating, but hopefully there’ll be plenty of extra content on the way to keep everyone on their toes. If you’re at all interested in the concept, and prepared to embrace death to get to it, check it out and get ready to be hooked on one of the best space games around.
A Roguelike with the same addictive charm as The Binding Of Isaac, but that you can play in polite company? Sold! Though you may want to fire up Spotify during fights. In space, no one can hear you scream, but a little orchestral oomph never hurts. Are you playing? What’s your FTL background music playlist?
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