FTL: Faster Than Light – Review
Platform | Release Date
PC | September 14, 2012
Developed by Subset Games
Published by Good Old Games
FTL is a spaceship simulation roguelike-like. Its aim is to recreate the atmosphere of running a spaceship exploring the galaxy (like Firefly/Star Trek/BSG etc.) In any given episode of those classic shows, the captain is always yelling “Reroute power to shields!” or giving commands to the engineer now that their Warp Core is on fire. We wanted that experience, as opposed to the “dog fighting in space” that most videogames focus on. We wanted a game where we had to manage the crew, fix the engines, reroute power to shields, target the enemy life support, and then figure out how to repel the boarders that just transported over!
If you have listened to our podcast, you know I’m always cautiously optimistic about Kickstarter products. But when I saw FTL: Faster than Light, I eagerly jumped at the chance to support it. This afforded me a copy of the game once it shipped.
FTL is a modern Oregon Trail, set in the confines of a Sci-Fi, Firefly-like setting with the freedom to explore a galaxy. You control a spaceship by managing its power, subsystems, resources, and weapons during combat. This control extends from repair assignments for specific crew members, to opening a series of doors to vent compartments (that could be on fire) into space. You won’t start with much, but you can gather supplies and a crew as you go. FTL lets you feel like a starship Captain.
Instead of smooth sailing, however, you are often juggling between burning up in the atmosphere or crashing into the surface. FTL, like Oregon Trail, is difficult and does not reveal all of its systems or permutations without experimentation. You didn’t know how important extra wagon parts were during your first trip West, and you wouldn’t know the value of stopping at every store to restock missiles. This trial and error play will result in bad luck or poor decisions that result in either a quick defeat or a slow death. At the same time, the game’s exploration is directed inexorably onward by a pursuing fleet. You will feel pressured to leave each sector before the enemy fleet catches up to your current position. You will not win your first game of FTL. I haven’t managed to win yet. There are no reloads and every decision might make or break your current run. With luck, you can make it further than you have before. Suffer a string of bad luck and you can lose within minutes. You can always save and quit to resume later, but I’ve found it hard to walk away mid-game.
Instead, you’ll jump one more time to see what’s at the next waypoint. It’s the same compulsion you feel in a Civilization game; you need to play just one more turn. While FTL is not turn-based, each location is a new event that beckons exploration. The odds are more often against you and will lead to a drain of resources more often than a miniscule boon to your benefit, but this won’t stop you from spooling up your FTL drive to fight those odds. You feel compelled.
The combat is real-time with a pause system. As weapons charge up you can pause at any time to issue any orders, distribute power to subsystems, or supply targets. The pace is just fast enough to be intense, and just slow enough that you have to watch helplessly as shit hits the fan. Your crew will be killed, your derelict ship will float away as wreckage, and you will feel bad about it. The high stakes of starting over from the beginning help make even mundane combat interesting as you try to minimize any damage you take, and pray for a nice loot roll as the enemy ship explodes or surrenders.
If you gasp or hold your breath in combat, it will be solely based on the numeric outcome, not the presentation of seeing something cool. FTL is not a pretty game and the combat/explosions are terribly lacking. Where most games look better in motion than their screenshots indicate, FTL is starkly the opposite. It is prettiest when it is paused; animation is nearly non-existent. The style behind it is appealing, but there is some technical thing missing here that makes it look flat and dull. This could be due in part to the fact that FTL is cross platform for Windows, Mac, and Linux and made by a small team. The interface is also quite simple and could easily be ported to an iPad, which might be a factor or just conjecture. The game will still manage to suck you in with its sheer tenacity of design and excellent musical score, but the lack of graphical “oomph” is something you will notice when you first boot it up.
And boot it up you should. FTL is an outstanding game that is different than much of what is on the market. Despite its punishing and often arbitrary difficulty, the tutorial does a great job of teaching you the ropes and the interface is simple to grasp and easy to use. Even if the situation is out of your control, your ship never is. Some of your runs might be punishingly unfun, but the tension provides an excitement not unlike gambling: the potential that you’ll strike it big on your next jump. Take a chance on this one and you’ll lose several hours with string of defeats, but they payout in emotion you’ll feel.