FTL: Faster Than Light

By Rituro - November 4th, 2012

Lots of hostile sectors ahead. This can’t be good.

Captain Rituro’s log, day 17: We have entered Zoltan-controlled space with what’s left of our ship. A missile barrage from a Rockman cruiser knocked out our life support and medbay. Luckily for us, our beam drone sliced apart their hull after the shields finally went down. We salvaged some scrap and fuel from the wreckage before setting about repairs. Regrettably, Jenkins died from asphyxiation trying to bring life support back online. Ma Na and Krxxl just barely managed to get the damn thing up and running again before the FTL drive hit full charge. I think the medbay might still be on fire; better go check on it. Scratch that, better idea; go repair the sensors and check from a safe distance…

If you haven’t already heard of Subset Games’ darling of a game, FTL: Faster Than Light, it might be you who is fashionably late to the party instead of this review*. Matthew Davis and Justin Ma’s gem of a spaceship sim first pulled in accolades at the 2011 Independent Games Festival and the momentum didn’t stop there. One phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign** later, we have one of the most engaging, complex, punishing, charming and enjoyable games of the year. You’ll laugh with glee; you’ll cry in despair; you’ll scream in agony; and then you’ll click “New Game” and do it all again.

Cornered by a Mantis ship next to a sun. This can’t be good.

The goal of the game is deceptively simple: you, a member of the Federation fleet, must deliver vital information to your commanders seven sectors away. What makes that task so un-simple is that standing in your way are randomly generated encounters in each sector consisting of (but not limited to) pirates, hostile aliens, ion nebulas, asteroid fields and/or solar flares. If that wasn’t enough, the Rebel fleet will chase you every step of the way, forcing you to balance out the needs of salvaging enough scrap, fuel and weapons to survive against the need to not be caught by an implacable, vastly superior foe***. Of those weapons, you’ll have decisions to make: do I load up with beam weapons, rely on high-damage-yet-finite-ammo missiles or try something more esoteric like system-disabling ion blasts, automated drones or boarding parties? After all, it wouldn’t be a spaceship sim without plenty of decisions to make – tough ones, too, considering scrap (both the currency of FTL and the means by which to upgrade your ship) is hard to come by, barring some incredibly lucky non-combat encounters.

Caught by the Rebel fleet. This can’t be good.

It’s those non-combat encounters where things get interesting, though. When a pop-up menu gives you a choice of outcome – sometimes with hidden options, unlockable with certain crew or equipment prerequisites – your decisions can end up either critically damaging your ship, killing a crew member, costing you valuable time and/or resources, or doing the exact opposite: gifting you incredible rewards and providing you a lifeline to survive a few turns longer. For example, you could send a crew member down to help with an alien-infested space station and hope his combat ability is high enough allow him/her/it to survive; or, since you conveniently installed that anti-personnel drone a few jumps back, you could let the drone do it****.

But for all the positive marks in story exposition and game-play choices, FTL brings home the bacon where it counts: combat. When the inevitable happens and missiles start flying, it’s nothing short of a gripping, thrilling fight each and every time. Reminiscent of the “Active Turn Battle” system of Final Fantasy, each on-board weapon has a set charge time; until that weapon charges and is ready to fire, you have to sit and wait, hoping that your shields can soak up whatever your pilot and engine crew can’t dodge. When it’s time to fire, you pick a section of the enemy ship to target – such as engines, weapons, shields, life support or even an unoccupied room – and hope the shot connects. There is nothing more satisfying than methodically crippling an enemy ship one room at a time, whittling down their hull with ease; likewise, there is nothing more demoralizing than realizing your single-shot laser will do bupkis against a triple-shielded Rebel bomber and you’re all out of missiles.

Asteroid field! This can’t be good.

Remember what I said earlier about decisions mattering? Combat emphasizes this better than I could with mere words. Nothing underlines “you should’ve picked the other thing” like your precious ship exploding into pieces or your crew dying in a ship-wide fire. Oh, and top it all off, death is permanent – as in, too bad, so sad, here’s your score, start a new game. You can save your progress if you need to step away from the game but that save file vanishes once the game is resumed. In the words of no small number of brilliant philosophers: “Try not to die.”

Capping the whole package of is a charming 16-bit graphics style and beautiful, moody soundtrack that accurately transitions from the empty vastness of space to the methodical yet tense atmosphere of combat. The little crew dudes and dudettes valiantly extinguish/jump up and down on fires, repair damaged systems and work away at their assigned workstations at just the right balance between silly and serious. The ship designs are unique and functional for both you and your enemies and, it must be said, when a killing blow strikes a ship, it blows up real good. Not in a Michael Bay-esque symphony of orange explosions, mind you; it blows up in a good way. The hull shudders, then rips apart gently like a continental landmass separating on a billion-year time-lapse. I cannot stress enough how wonderfully this image captures both the thrill of victory when you inflict it and the crushing agony of defeat when it is inflicted on you.

Ship on fire. This can’t be good.

In short, FTL: Faster Than Light is the best $10 I’ve spent (Kickstarter backer, yo!) on a game in a very long time. With deep game-play that’s accessible yet challenging, I can see myself sending many a crew to their untimely demise for the forseeable future and beyond. Who knows? Maybe I might even figure out how to survive the final fight.

* – Nice try, Rituro. You’re still late.
** – $200,000 raised towards a $10,000 goal equals a 2,000% success rate, which I’d say falls under the heading of “phenomenal”.
*** – Cue the Cylon theme.
**** – Hint: let the drone do it.

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