FTL: Faster Than Light Review
This game was reviewed on the PC
You are a Federation ship, carrying vital information across galaxies. This is much easier said than done, however; you are being ruthlessly pursued by the Rebellion. Every stop you make, every ship you help, and every trip to the store means the Rebellion is one step closer to finding you. Every galaxy you visit is littered with threats: Space pirates, malicious aliens, slavers, and ambushes lie in wait. However, space is also filled with people who desperately need assistance: survivors of battles long past, stations filled with giant space spiders, and Federation ships trying to outfly pirates. If that’s not incentive enough, there are also trade stops lush with wares, and the weapons and technology you need to out-fly and out-fight the Rebels.
FTL: Faster Than Light is the little video game that could; this indie game achieved funding through Kickstarter. The game’s concept might sound hopelessly esoteric to the casual gamer: a real-time space sim with the consequence of permanent death if you slip up? Roguelike games aren’t usually applauded for their accessibility. However, Subset Games not only pulls this concept off, but it does so with aplomb. The basic gameplay is fun and it manages to be strategic and skilled despite the lack of twitch reflexes and the inclusion of random events.
Every element of the game is made very clear in the user interface, and despite the fact the models aren’t too far off from the pixelated sprites of the NES in concept, in practice, they read clearly and express essential information – health, race, action, movement – in a glance. The icons and areas of the ship are equally clear, in an almost utilitarian fashion that still manages to be pleasing to the eye. The graphics and audio hail back to its retro ancestors, paying homage while adding modern twists. It sheds the harsh sounds of old 8-bit soundtracks but keeps the same influences, smoothing the final product out into something that manages to be both eerie and hopeful at times, while staying entirely faithful to the genre of science fiction.
As for gameplay, the general hook is very simple: You have a ship, you travel to different points across galaxies, and random events will pop up. FTL: Faster Than Light refuses to keep a light and relaxing pace. Instead, the game plunges into depths that end up being extremely rewarding and fun to uncover. For instance, you start out with one ship, the Kestrel, and three human crew members. Later on, you can acquire additional crew members by saving them from slavers or chaos, and purchase them from stores.
Your ship has rooms, and each room houses a vital part of your ship. There’s the engines, the shields, the bridge, the sensors, the weapons, and so on. These rooms can be damaged in combat in various ways – sometimes the shields are broken, or the engine needs vital repairs. Other times, holes in the floor suck oxygen out of the ship and characters slowly asphyxiate. Or maybe a raging fire will take out your crew members in a horrible blaze. Not only do you have to manage your crew members, but clever use of the airlocks can remove fires at the expensive of oxygen loss. It’s a little like controlling a house full of Sims, but the stakes are much higher.
Then the game goes deeper still. Each crew member has experience bars. The guy who works on the shields all day will end up being very good at repairing shields. Not only will he repair them faster, but the player is awarded temporary bonuses from having the shields expert in the shield room during combat. You’ll also collect more and more crew members as you travel the galaxy, and they come in multiple races. The alien race composed of rocks (aka Rockmen) are slow and lumbering, but they can knock out fires. The Engis can repair things ridiculously well, but don’t expect them to get in a hand-to-hand fight. Also, the different alien races confer ship-wide bonuses, such as increased repair speed or the psychic ability to see rooms that might be blocked from your sight due to a nebula or camera malfunction. This means that not only do they have their individual strengths and weaknesses, but the aliens you bring on board will change the way the game plays and the way you manage the various challenges upon your ship. So, every game that you play will provide a different experience as you deal with your new crew. The result is you can use your crew members and your ship efficiently to minimize your hardships.
And there will be hardships aplenty. The random event generator can be very unkind. Luckily, combat is a blast. Your ship is outfitted with weapons (and later on, drones) that each have unique effects, damage levels, charge up times, and power requirements. The combat is real-time, but there’s also a turn-based element to exchanges as you each wait for your weapons to charge up. Liberal use of the pause button will make life easier for new players, but once you’ve obtained some comfort with the combat system, you’ll be able to breeze through some ordeals. The tricky part comes when you have to combine crew management with ship combat, and then you’ll be clicking away more than a Starcraft player could ever dream of.
Of course, there are rich rewards for your tribulations. You will receive the bread and butter of your travels – missiles and gas – but you’ll also get scrap (which is essentially currency) and drone parts. From there, when you stumble across a shop, you can trade these assets for new weapons, new crew members, new drones (which provide passive effects during combat) and new upgrades. This leads to a rich experience that bears repeating – and repeat you shall. And, as the tip screen will helpfully remind you, dying is just part of the fun. Achievements you unlock during successful runs will carry over through a persistent metagame to allow you access to new ships, layouts and equipment. The problem is the Rebels are tracking you, and the map will slowly show their progress. You gain rich rewards for exploring every corner of the galaxy, but the Rebel fleet is persistent and competent. Once you fall within their jurisdiction, you can expect fights against powerhouse ships that show no mercy at all.
So, what’s the catch? FTL: Faster Than Light is an excellent game, seemingly too good to be true. There is one problem, though: the sheer amount of information the player requires to play the game to its maximum potential. Subset Games has included a tutorial, and while it is well done and informational, it still took experience out in the field to actually learn what I was doing. The tutorial also only covers the basics, and the player is expected to pick up the rest of the information on his or her own. This leads to some confusion over the game that requires a lot of unnecessary research and experimentation, which can break up the fun flow of outrunning the Rebellion. As an example, the way persistent upgrades, ship unlocks or weapons upgrades carry over across games was a large source of confusion to me at first. I wasn’t sure if my upgrades mattered past the individual games or not, and it affected my individual play sessions – do I bother upgrading when I think I’m near death, or do I just go ahead and try again with a clean slate? In addition, the ship upgrade systems can be a bit difficult to use efficiently. While the tutorial explains the basics, I had to teach myself the best ways to upgrade my ship to keep improving how I played and advance farther. These problems rarely affect the first few games or hours of gameplay, but once the player is in the thick of things it can cause confusion.
FTL: Faster Than Light surprised me the way few blockbuster AAA titles can. While the concept of this game might seem alienating or meant for a niche audience of fans of roguelikes and micromanagement, Subset Games has produced a game that comes very nearly close to perfect. It strikes a satisfying balance between acquisition and attrition, random and calculated, managing and playing, complex and simple. Players of all stripes can find value in this game, and I can’t wait to make another run across space
Faster Than Light earns a 4.75/5.00.
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