FTL : Faster Than Light
Game play - 7.5
Presentation - 8
Story / Creativity - 7
Lifespan - 7
Some of the complaints I have about FTL are easy to avoid when you get some experience with the game's random engine and how a ship works. There are two modes of difficulty, one that provides more scrap found through random events than usual which makes it easier for starting players. Regardless of the permanent death system, I do love the variety of strategies that you could develop in combat and the amount of random events found in the game. If you are looking for that science-fiction roguelike game where you can command your crew like Captain Picard, then FTL is the game for you.
I have a love/hate relationship with roguelike games, and some of that shows up with FTL here. I like the randomly generated events and resources that comes with roguelike games, but I’m also not a fan of the radical difficulty in roguelike games or the permanent death system. FTL does have these features, but at the same time it’s also a fun game to play. It stands out from other roguelike games by taking their mechanics and applying it to a science-fiction universe with space combat and war; instead of claiming that some evil wizard has to be destroyed in randomly generated tower #456. FTL isn’t a game that will make you interested in roguelike games, if you are looking for a new look in this genre, it will be worth your time.
The story for FTL is easy to summarize: Your ship is a scout to the Galactic Federation that holds vital information on how to defeat the Rebel fleet. So your crew travels through a few sectors avoiding the Rebel fleet and get back at the Federation base to report this information. Then turn around and face the Rebel fleet with the help of the Federation.
Roguelike games that inspire FTL are not recognized for their in depth story, and it shows here. However as minimalist the story might be, I really like this as it keeps it simple. It gives you a basic set up of what is going on in the game, what your goals are, and what you would be traveling through while you try to reach your goal. There isn’t any back story about your crew members here: One seeing their friends, relatives and pet Mr. Whiskers die at the hand of the tyrannical general Valgaz; while the other is a progeny child spoken in some bizarre religious cult of martial artists with glowing sticks that is meant to bring balance to the universe. Just enough information to get you an idea of what is going on in the game, and then sitting back to laugh while you decide to jump into a Slug Nebula for the first time.
Roguelike games, being one of the oldest genres of video games that dates back even before sprite sheets were considered, don’t have that appealing list of graphics either. FTL is somewhat of an exception as this does use sprite dolls and modern computer drawing techniques to make it stand out from its ASCII heritage. Most of the detail goes into the variety of ships, weapons, and drones you could find in one session. Each has a distinct look to make an Engi ship stand out from the Kestrel. With time an experienced player could identify what kind of weapons their enemy ships might have, and adjust their strategies accordingly.
There might be some nit-picks on the graphical presentation to consider with FTL. There are numerous races that can be on your ship, but they all share the same race pixel doll. There is name distinctions for each one, and there seems to be two different genders of humans, but that is it. Telling the difference between one Engi that is skilled at your engines from another Engi that is skilled at your weapons is hard. The game also uses minimal animations and particle effects, if any. You might see your crew pull out a fire extinguisher to kill fire or flip a lever as an animation indicating they are repairing something, but these are pretty simple animations that might as well have two or three frames.
This doesn’t mean FTL is an ugly game, just one that provides the simplest presentation possible. There is some minor updates to your ship as you upgrade its systems; like the doors for your ship will upgrade to a different look as they are improved. The layout of your ship makes it easy to see what exactly is going on in your ship at all times, which is vital when you are getting into combat. While it would be nice to see some differences between one Engi to another, you could easily check this with the HUD of your crew on the left side of the screen.
What I do like about the presentation of FTL is the writing in the game. I’m not talking about the story of FTL, but the way how it presents the situation to the player through text instead of flashy graphics. Each time you jump to a beacon you get a short yet well done paragraph explaining the current situation to you. You could jump to a beacon and learn that scientists are fleeing from their space station due to an infestation of anthropomorphic arachnids. Or you can jump to another beacon and just barely dodge a missile coming towards you, only to get a message from a pirate ship chasing another vessel telling you to stay out of this and they’ll give you some cash to keep you quiet. I like reading as much as gaming, and FTL has a great balance of presentation similar to a book’s presentation than the flashy effects found in a triple-A game, which is a breath of fresh air.
The story and graphics might not be appealing to some gamers, but where FTL shines is in its core mechanics. The best way to describe it is being the captain of a space ship, like in the Star Trek franchise. You jump to different sectors in the galaxy and encounter random events at each beacon, which varies from nifty rewards or trouble with Mantis pirates. Unlike Star Trek, you don’t get involved much with political debates between races or character stories. You will be focusing primarily on managing your resources as you move from each beacon, bartering with merchants and fighting off Rebel scouts while rushing back to the Federation base.
The layout of FTL is like a randomly generated dungeon of a roguelike game, but in space. Your “floors” in the dungeon are each sector, which could have a theme to them. One sector might be home to the Zoltans, a neutral race that holds back the Rebel fleet and gives you some time to evade them. Other sectors can be infested with Pirates that seek out your ship for meager rewards, but gives you opportunities to deal with black market merchants. Each sector has a series of beacons that act as your “rooms” in the dungeon, and here is where random events could take place. I mentioned a few that you might encounter already, like a pirate ship or saving scientists from spiders. Yet there is enough variety in events that it gives one session a distinct experience from another session.
Your ship in FTL serves as your home, fortress, and potential coffin for numerous sessions in the game. You start out with the Kestrel and slowly unlock new ships with unique attributes from previous sessions. For example, the Engi ship doesn’t have any weapons to fire missiles with, yet it relies on drones to deliver damage to the enemy’s shields and hull. Through the session you can upgrade all the systems (attributes of your ship) with scrap – your money and XP. Spending money to upgrade your shields means you could take more hits before your hull takes damage, but upgrading your weapons means you have more energy to distribute to your lasers and missile launchers.
FTL is a game more like RTS or strategy games than RPG as you are focused primarily on managing your resources. Each piece of scrap is vital for repairing your hull to producing more energy from your reactor, which can power up your systems. Your crew is also a vital resource for repairing damages to systems, fixing holes in the hull, to steering the ship and evading incoming attacks. Each jump to a beacon costs fuel, which is something you always have to buy when you get to a store. Drones and weapons could use drone parts and missiles, respectively, which requires you to think on whether you wish to use these in combat.
Combat system is real time, and fortunately there is a pause feature. It could get very tense as you charge up your weapons so you can fire a volley at your target. But you also have to keep an eye on any damage that could be inflicted to your ship as enemies could knock out your systems or teleport a hostile party to your ship. I don’t think this is a combat system that relies so much on skill as there is a great deal of which ship might be better equipped than another. However there is a lot of room for building up a strategy on what to do with an enemy vessel considering the layout of your ship, weapons, and systems. The Kestrel is a basic combat ship that relies on missiles and lasers, while the Engi ship needs its drones to deliver damage.
With the combat system, management of resources and random layout, FTL starts to get really addicting. Each random event means you could lose a vital crew member or gain a new system for your ship. Combat means you always have to figure out what strengths you have with your ship over your opponent, and exploit these so you can get away with minimum hull damage. However the combination of these might make the game frustrating as well. Purchasing systems, crew, weapons or drones from stores seems very expensive with the amount of scrap your given. Plus those annoying Slugs will cheat by permanently knocking out one of your systems before a fight.
How long FTL will last you depends on whether you like random worlds, management of resources, and dying a lot. The game has a permanent death system, so you always have to start back at the beginning when you die. You do keep your score and achievements, which could help you unlock more powerful ships in the future.
If you see FTL on Steam and are looking for achievements, don’t be fooled as there are quite a few achievements to get here. Some of your first ones will be reaching a sector for the first time. As you make progress in taking down ships or exploring beacons, you increase your score for that session, which is kept on a local high score list on your machine (there is not leaderboards to compare your results with friends). What counts for me is the ability to unlock new ships, which opens up new strategies and difference game experiences for you to try. I was a bit worried that the Engi ship would be hard to use, but I kind of like the Ion Cannon it comes with that can knock out systems temporarily.
Each session of FTL could last as short as two minutes, to a potential hour if you are lucky and smart with your resources. However, as much as I do like roguelike games for their random campaigns and events, I’m not a big fan of the permanent death system. It works fine in here and I had a lot of fun with this game, though I would like to save some resources for another session. Think of it as me just nit-picking. You can always experiment with new strategies in the game like spending scrap only on these resources and saving it for a store later. If you can look past this from other roguelike games like The Binding of Isaac or Dungeons of Dredmor, then this game will keep you busy.