FTL: Faster Than Light Review: Second Star to the Right and Straight on ‘Til Morning
In the Inside review, I mentioned the 2009/10 rise of indie gaming that really kicked off thanks to Xbox’s Summer of Arcade that put those games front and center. That bled into the Kickstarter boom earlier this decade. One of those games that was funded in part by Kickstarter was FTL: Faster Than Light which showed that not only are people willing to pay for games that they want but that they can also be commercially and critically successful.
The premise of FTL is fairly simple. You command a Federation ship that has to navigate across eight sectors (and at least five star systems in each sector) in order to return intelligence to the Federation fleet. That sounds fairly easy but you have a fleet of Rebel ships in pursuit trying to stop you and you will encounter pirates also intent upon doing you harm. Off the bat, you have a twist on the usual sci-fi formula. The vast majority of stories feature the rebels as the hero, whether you are a featured rebel or join them later. It’s a welcome change to the standard formula but not one that I think would completely change the experience if you fought for the other side.
The majority of the game will be spent in combat. What in most games be shooting and evading is much more tactical in FTL. Like something out of an episode of Star Trek or the old Star Wars: X-Wing and Tie Fighter space sim games, you shunt power around to various ship systems. You can take power from life support and the medical bay to boost shields or engine power. Similarly, you can move your crew around to boost systems and repair damage. FTL will often put you in situations where you have to choose between pulling a crew member off of speeding up weapons charging to repair life support and risking suffocating your crew to destroy the enemy ship faster so they have less time to damage the rest of the ship and then doing repairs.
Managing your ship’s crew and systems isn’t the only tactical part of the game. Attacking the enemy includes an element of strategy. You can target individual enemy systems like they can target yours. You can damage their weapons system to buy you some time or you can take out the shield generator to leave them vulnerable to a barrage of fire.
When you’re not jumping from star system to star system and engaging in combat, there are choices outside of combat to be made by you as ship’s captain. For example, you will occasionally run into a ship broadcasting a distress signal and can choose to rescue it from its predicament or move on. Sometimes you’re rewarded with currency (called scrap) but sometimes IT’S A TRAP!
As you progress, you earn scrap which you use to upgrade your ship, buy fuel to travel between star systems and hire crew. What you spend your money on is critical to your continued survival. I’ve had to sell off weapons, systems and other cargo that could be useful in a fight to repair the hull so I don’t get vaporized 30 seconds into the next fight.
It’s important to note that FTL is a roguelike (or roguelike-like as some people prefer to term games that aren’t strictly like Rogue). This means that FTL is has procedurally-generated levels, 2D graphics and permanent death. Unlike most roguelike (like) games, FTL has real-time combat rather than turn-based, though there is a very welcome pause function that gives you time to assess the situation and then program in your next moves before reactivating real-time.
Permadeath is a very big deal in this game because it’s hard. The easy difficulty is hard. You go into a game on Easy Mode expecting to coast through it with only a couple of near-death experiences. Instead, I nearly died in the first five minutes and didn’t make it to the half-hour mark in my first playthrough. Some of the difficulty comes through the random generation of levels but it wouldn’t be easy even if you knew everything that was around the corner.
Make no mistake, no matter how good you think you are at tactics games or space sims, you will die and not just once or twice before you get to the end. You will die repeatedly. You could get blown up in battle or watch your crew be overrun by intruders. Hell, you could suffocate because you forget to close an airlock. I didn’t do that but game damn close to venting all the oxygen in the ship to put out a series of fires so the crew could get to life support and fix it.
Death in FTL isn’t that frustrating, to be honest. It’s not exactly fun and you don’t have to like it. It’s part of the game. You just add a letter to the ship’s name, drop into your captain’s chair, order another tea, earl grey, hot, and try to get your intel back to the Federation. Learning from your mistakes and altering your strategy to get farther is just as much a part of the game as combat and resource management. Fortunately, a full playthrough won’t take much longer than an hour so you don’t have to worry too much about sinking a very long stretch of time in only to have one false turn make it all for naught.
From the screenshots above, you can tell that the graphics aren’t going to win any awards. But graphics aren’t what FTL is about. It’s about the gameplay. The user interface is functional and intuitive which is all that matters. You can quickly and easily figure out what’s happening and how to react accordingly. The spacescapes in the game are very pretty in the background but unfortunately static. There is a nice variety of ship designs as well though one does wonder about their practicality sometimes. I suppose that could be a result of seeing countless generic Starfleet ships that all had similar-ish designs.
The audio was surprisingly good for a little indie game with one sound guy. Ben Prunty was in charge of the sound effects and the soundtrack. The sound effects are good but you don’t expect Ben Burtt for $10. The soundtrack, however, is very, very good. Prunty’s synth soundtrack is beautiful. It’s calming and melodic. The battle music relies on percussion to give combat a fight to the death feel. This could be one of the best indie game soundtracks of all time and I’m quite surprised that he hasn’t gotten much work in the industry since.
On the surface, FTL looks like a deceptively simple game but there is loads of depth and replayability to it. To its and your benefit, you’ll never have the same experience twice. The combination of procedural level generation and the many choices to make as you warp from left to right across the galaxy gives you near infinite replay value for $10.
In the many years since FTL was released, we’ve seen a few spaceship management and space sim games created. The likes of Artemis Bridge Simulator and Star Trek: Bridge Crew might have been created regardless of the success of FTL but they certainly weren’t hurt by it either. For my money, though, I don’t there are many games in the whole of gaming with better value than FTL.
FTL: Faster Than Light was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available for Mac OS X, Linux and iOS. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and if dying repeatedly and maybe never winning the game isn’t a reason to never buy a game.