Developers: Subset Games
Publishers: Subset Games
It's not long after the Dealspwn Buzzard sets off on her maiden voyage, manned with a crew of three, that she encounters some difficulties. The final frontier is a dangerous place and, with a rebel horde on her tail, the Buzzard comes across a number of hostile scouting ships. One of them causes a hull breach and a savage fire in the medi bay even as the Buzzard's defence systems are taken offline. As I'm desperately trying to get more juice out off the engine to make ready for a jump to lightspeed, and Jon is feverishly trying to fix the shield generator, we are forced to flush Carl out of an airlock to save the ship from being consumed by fire. It's a tough decision that leaves us woefully under-staffed...but alive and still on course.
In FTL, though, no matter how many times you've played through the game, you never know what's around the next corner. The map indicates a distress signal coming from a nearby star system; we don't have the men to help out, but maybe, just maybe, there'll be something worth salvaging, or at least another hand on deck that we might add. Of course, in the words of Admiral Ackbar, it's a trap. The Mantis ship overruns our shields even as I dispatch Jon to the engine room to boost our chances of making a run for it. A missile attack damages the O2 systems, and I'm forced to abandon the helm to fix it before we both die. With salvation in sight, and the O2 fixed all that is required is to get back to the bridge and punch it.
Then the ring of a teleporter sounds, two soldiers beam onboard and finish me off swiftly. It's up to Jon to get the Buzzard out of here. Moments before a final blow, he makes the jump to the safety of a neighbouring system. Sadly, having proceeded to wreck the weapons systems and sensor array, the soldiers ambush him on the way to the medi bay, and his only reward for escape is a swift demise. The Buzzard is finished.
I mentioned in my XCOM preview that the simple technique of allowing players to rename the characters to whom they issue orders creates a subtle subconscious bond. You want to keep them alive as they progress into champion masters-at-arms, expert engineers, and death-defying pilots. When you unlock larger ships that come with a more sizeable crew, no one will begrudge you naming your loyal shipmen Mal, Wash, Jane, Kaylee, and Zoe and then shedding a tear when half of them die after a run in with pirates.
The goal in FTL is simple. You start with a ship - the initial Kestrel-class cruiser that you are issued with gives rust buckets a bad name - and a crew that can barely manage it. Carrying vital information for the Federation you're tasked with zipping across the galaxy from system to system to deliver your report, pursued relentlessly by a burgeoning Rebel fleet, marked on your star map as a spreading curve that leaves all planets in its wake impossible to reach. The only way is onwards, but there are mutiple routes to your goals.
Just as you can pick the patches of space to make your way through to your end objective - some friendly, some not-so-friendly - so too are you free to pick your own route through the star systems that fill each individual quandrant. Being a roguelike of sorts, FTL's events are randomly generated, so in theory no two playthroughs are ever the same. It works well for the first few runs through, although after you've played the game for a few rounds, you'll begin to identify certain hazards when you come across them - such as the option to send your crew in a lend assistance to a planet overrun by disease - and the outcomes on offer will often be the same.
But the game is always surprising in terms of when things happen, which means that you can have a play session that see you only come across derelicts for the first couple of star systems, and then immediately afterwards have one that inundates you with hostile forces.
It's in combat and resource management that the gameplay has its roots. Your ship is made up of a number of systems and subsystems. With regard to the former, that includes your engines, weapon and shield arrays, medical bay, and life-support systems. These all drain energy from your reactor, so the equilibrium of your ship is a constant consideration. Every system is upgradable - offering up the opportunity to have better shields, operate larger and more powerful weaponry, or perhaps boost your chances of evasion of shorten the time it takes to power up the FTL drive that could mean the difference between staying put and dying or fleeing for survival in the heat of battle.
The subsystems, meanwhile, include services like sensor intel, which can be upgraded to extend to enemy ships as well as your own; blast doors that can help prevent the spread of fire and the progress of intruders, and your flight controls. They don't suck power from your core systems, but things can get dicey if they're overrun in the heat of battle. Stumbling around in the dark with no flight capabilities is no fun for anyone.
Except for the gamer. You see, you'll die a lot in FTL, and the difficulty curve can be brutal. Battles against enemy ships are a mix between waiting for your weapons to charge and then tactically taking out their systems, whilst running around putting out fires, often literally. It's a mix of strategic ATB combat and crisis management, and you learn to dread the sound of the teleporter. But it's always fair, and it's always fun. You never feel hard done by, at least not in terms of the game itself. Instead, each situation is a challenge to be overcome, even and especially if it's by the skin of your teeth. Should you fail, and you will on many occasion, restarting with your original crew is just one click away. It spurs you on, to take what you've learned and try to boldly go where no-one has gone before.
It's further helped by the fact that games typically take less then an hour or two, and each time you play, the game serves up more emergent anecdotes and narratives in spite of a non-existent plot. It allows you to project yourself into a role inhabited by greats such as Kirk, Picard, Reynolds, and Solo. FTL is a game that allows you to experience what the word intrepid actually means, with the permanent deaths only serving to make every matter a little bit more, the risk-reward system balanced out perfectly.
The game's fairytale background - the Kickstarter campaign, the setbacs and ultimate successes - are all forgotten once you're playing. It's an absorbing experience that's good for a swift little star-hop (thanks to the save system), or if you're feeling stubborn, it's all too easy to step onto the bridge for hours at a time. As I alluded to earlier, the nature of the game is such that after several playthroughs, you'll have experienced every scenario that the game has too offer, which can make subsequent playthroughs feel like you're riding your luck (or being punished for that same reason) on occasion, but as you unlock new ships, more varied crew, and a greater selection of weapons from the outset, the surprises that come with random generation still feel fair, and engrossing.
Seven pounds isn't much to ask for a game that makes to feel like the spaceship captain you've always dreamt of being. If you're a fan of space games, stick on the Star Wars/Star Trek/BSG/Firefly soundtrack, fire up FTL, and then regale us with the tale of your first mission. It's not a perfect game, but its tense combat, surprising accessibility, and fantastically replayable depth make it the little game that not only could, but did. Emphatically.
- Fulfils starship command fantasies better than any other game, except maybe Infinite Space
- Fantastic balance between risk and reward
- Random generator makes for immense replayability
- Frequently punishing
- Fairly dull universe
- Can eventually get repetitive
The Short Version: If you like roguelikes and space and always dreamt of being the one in the big chair saying "Make it so!" then this is the game for you. It might not have the most well crafted universe and it will frequently punish you, but it's also massively replayable, hugely rewarding, and genuinely thrilling at times. Engage!