(PC Review) FTL: Faster Than Light

Developer: Subset Games
Publisher: Subset Games
Genre: Roguelike / Strategy / Simulator
Players: 1
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Minimum Requirements:
P4 2 GHz, 1GB RAM, OpenGL 2.0 comp. video card, 175MB Hard Drive space, *Win 8 not currently supported

Editors' Choice AwardEven before the advent of digital distribution, games set in space seemed to serve as a particularly strong draw for indie developers, and it’s not hard to see why. The abstractions required to make games about intergalactic travel and conquest easy to digest meant that graphics didn’t have to be blockbuster-grade big and shiny, which has allowed for fascinating and unusual experiences as a result. Very much in that same spirit, FTL: Faster Than Light has emerged onto the indie scene as a graphically simple offering that promises a blend of resource management and—thanks to its unrelenting difficulty—borderline survival horror. It’s a unique beast, to be certain, and one whose appeal is certainly worthy of every ounce of the effusive “Best of 2012” praise that’s been lavished upon it.

The central premise behind FTL is simple enough: in the interests of avoiding an all-consuming wave of enemies licking at your heels, you’re to travel ever forward through a treacherous and dangerous galaxy until you at last reach the Big Bad. More specifically, every new game begins as you take the reins of a Federation vessel, with the task of jumping from point to point across a sector, until you reach the exit point, thereby allowing you to warp to the next sector. This continues on and on until you reach the final sector, where the game can be won by defeating the only real “boss”. You’re kept from dallying in each sector by an overwhelming wave of Rebel ships, which are constantly moving on your position, and will gradually catch up with you unless you move onto the next sector.

Again, the core concept may sound simple, something which is only reinforced when you realize that the actual gameplay is really only about heavily micromanaging your ship. And yet therein lies the game’s insane genius, as it allows you a very personal, intense view into the details of your journey through the stars. This becomes especially obvious when you note that each ship has certain basic systems which are crucial for survival: shields, engines, weapons, oxygen, and sick bay. Others can be added later, such as drones or a teleporter pad. The function of each is obvious, and assigning crew members to manage these individual systems will often provide additional bonuses, i.e., faster recharge times. Other subsystems, such as sensors or door controls, are important but only in need of attention when they’ve been damaged in combat.

In fact, it is in combat that FTL shines, as your micromanagement comes strongly to the fore while you allocate manpower and energy on the fly and in real time. As you and the enemy ship trade blows, staying alive is often about ensuring you put the right people in the right places while you’re managing your ship’s systems. For instance, you may wish to remove engine power from sick bay so you can put just enough juice into the weapon systems to power up both your onboard laser cannon and your missiles. Conversely, if you’re taking an especially hard beating, you may want to instead sap some of that energy out of missiles and divert it into your shields.

This kind of back–and-forth management of your ship’s resources is just as important as the crew itself; unless you want your crew to suffocate, you’ll definitely want to peel your ace shields crewman away from his station to go fix the damage to the oxygen systems, or repair the hole in your hull. A similar back–and-forth strategy is equally required for determining your offensive strategies, as you can direct your weapons fire at whatever enemy systems are most appropriate. This, too, changes depending on your weapons loadout; your tactics will differ greatly if your ship is bristling with brute-force, high-power lasers than if it’s a mix of system-disabling ion weapons and assorted drones. It’s a lot of balls to juggle at any given point, but the give and take, along with the overwhelming tactical flexibility, is immensely satisfying.

This kind of ground-level control allows for some harrowing battles, and some truly astounding stories in which you as the player will have a surprising level of personal investment. In one of my most nail-biting excursions, my ship was boarded as we investigated a seemingly harmless planet, and the invaders slaughtered four of my five crew members before I could even react. Hopelessly outnumbered and facing almost certain death, I sent the sole survivor running into the oxygen-generation room to hide; while the invaders took to beating on my weapons systems, I opened all of the ship’s other doors, including the bay doors, rapidly bleeding all oxygen from the craft, with the exception of my safe room. The invaders choked to death before being able to make it to my remaining crewman, thereby saving my ship but leaving only one individual to pilot, navigate, and fight for an untold amount of time—a daunting task, with poor long-term prospects for survival. Astoundingly, he remained the only individual running the ship for four more sectors’ worth of travel, until I was able to find a space station where I could recruit a few others to lend a hand; this means that this one individual was forced to run from the piloting controls to the weapons systems to the shields to the engines during every battle, helping to provide an edge to each area as necessary. His heroism was unbelievable and his journey most epic, although this is just one story among many, each with their own forehead-slapping errors and jaw-dropping turns of fate. It’s a testament to the game that such stories occur so naturally, with each failure providing its own lessons that will carry you through in your new game. In this case, my crewman discovered that investing in secure, heavier blast doors is almost always a good idea.

In case it hasn’t been made obvious already, effective management of your resources is essentially the central challenge of FTL, even outside of combat scenarios. Each individual jump within a sector consumes a unit of fuel, and running out of fuel is something best avoided. Meanwhile, the most powerful weapons consume missiles, and making use of drones will consume drone parts. Each of these three item types—fuel, missiles, drone parts—can be acquired as the spoils from combat or the positive result of random scenarios, or traded for using scrap, the game’s central currency. However, scrap is also used to upgrade your ship’s various systems, as well as the engines themselves, which must generate additional output to properly power your upgrades. When you consider that scrap is also used for repairs as well as purchasing weapons and new crewmembers, you’re ultimately left with very few resources, forcing you to be extremely strategic about how you use them.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very simple system that allows for terrific narrative flexibility, and careful planning, especially when matching it up against actual combat. Do you invest in your system’s defenses or do you save your scrap for the inevitable repairs? Do dump more power to your engines to boost your dodging? Do you power up ion cannons to disable systems instead of hoping your partial-shield-punching missiles can make it through? Do you pull your weapons expert from his station to help put out the fires raging in the shield room? The same applies for the random encounters or choices you’re occasionally offered. When a pirate offers you a bribe to stop your assault on his vessel, accepting may or may not offer you better materials than you’ll salvage from their wreckage. Nearly every choice you make will have a significant impact on your chances for survival, giving incredible and suspenseful weight to your decisions.

It’s important to note however that whatever moves you make, you will die. A lot. FTL is very decidedly a roguelike in many ways, not only in the random placement of planets, random appearance of enemies, and outcomes of random encounters, but also in the fact you are most certainly destined for the space graveyard time and time again. In fact, enjoying FTL is essentially about seeing how far you can make it before taking too many missiles to your hull, allowing the wrong people onboard, or simply running out of fuel. Even making it to the so-called boss is a partial success in itself, though the daunting, overpowered challenge it poses is such that you’ll have to die any number of times at its hands before you know what you need to do in order to maybe, possibly defeat it. It may sound trite, but FTL is one game where the journey is well and truly more important and more fun than actually arriving at your supposed destination.

Given the sheer amount of time you’ll be spending starting over, it’s gratifying to note that FTL bears a rather insane level of replay value. There are all kinds of different ships to unlock, along with new starting kits and alternative ship layouts for existing ships, either by earning certain achievements or successfully navigating certain random encounters. As well, crewmembers can be recruited from a wide variety of races, each with their own strengths, such as immunity to fire, as well as weaknesses, such as a halved movement rate. Even combat situations offer their own twists, as external factors can play a significant role in ramping up the tension. A nearby, unstable sun can spit out intermittent flares that will set fires to various rooms on both your ships, while a plasma storm will cut your reactor output in half. Duking it out in an asteroid field, on the other hand, will pelt both combatants with deadly projectiles, bringing down shields and damaging hulls. Even the random text-based encounters are a great diversion, with countless opportunities to debate the possible benefits of sending in your crew to put out fires on distant space stations, bringing on mysterious passengers, or engaging in longer-form quests to deliver items or investigate problems. All told, there is a staggering amount of personal goals to pursue, and enough deviation between individual games that FTL becomes a game that you’ll playing for a long, long time.

FTL: Faster Than Light is far, far greater than the sum of its deceptively simple screenshots. What initially seems like a playground for basic ship-to-ship combat very quickly reveals itself to be a puzzle box of sorts, something which offers astounding levels of depth and complexity through a series of interlocking and complementary systems. At its core, the game is all about balancing the strengths of your crew and your ship, the weapons you have available, your use of resources, and a million other decisions that will dictate not when you die, but for how long you put off your inevitable demise at the hands of your countless enemies. It’s a profoundly punishing game that allows you to learn from your every mistake, while offering you the chance to create tremendous stories of courage, victory, and loss along the way. FTL is a remarkable thing, one that is both rare and rewarding for anyone who’s ever wanted a space survival game that is more personal in scope. It is highly recommended, and at no more than $10 in most digital distribution venues, more than worth the asking price.

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