FTL (Faster Than Light) is one of the first games to come out of the morass of the Kickstarter game development swamps, but is its space roguelike gameplay any good?
WTF is FTL?
FTL is an odd little mix of a PC “roguelike” game like Dungeons of Dredmor or Desktop Dungeons and…wait for it…Oregon Trail. Yes, I said it, Oregon “You Have Died of Dysentery” Trail. For those of you not familiar with the roguelike genre, it usually involves short playthroughs of a single player of randomized dungeons with the goal of seeing just how long/how much loot you can collect before you die. Death is usually assured, and as there are no revivals, this can make for some heartbreaking deaths after finding a special piece of loot or gear.
FTL takes this painful genre into space, giving you a tiny ship with a skeleton crew and pea-shooter and tells you to race across eight sectors full of pirates, solar flares, and various other deadly ambushes trying to stay ahead of the ever-approaching Rebel fleet. This tiny fighter you pilot has got intelligence critical to the Federation in their defense against this Rebel fleet, and for the survival of the Federation, you must reach Federation space with the information intact.
Might as Well JUMP!
Instead of what one would assume would be a great opportunity to turn this into a space sim shooter, the two guys of over at Subset Games who made the game turned this into a choose-your-own-adventure meets turn-based role-playing game. You start at the left hand side of a star map with a variety of paths laid out before you. You can only see one jump ahead of you, so you don’t really know what you’re jumping into unless you pick up longer range scanners at the black market or off an enemy ship. There’s no active movement in the game, simply click on the next destination you wish to go to and click “JUMP”, and you arrive at the next checkpoint. When you get there, you’re typically greeted with a random encounter, ranging from battling pirates to helping a science crew fight fires on their research vessel to finding six legged zebra creatures on the surface of a planet and deciding what to do with them. These events usually present you a choice: do you fight the pirates who haven’t seen you yet and are attacking a defenseless barge, or do you let them be? Do you shoot out the defensive array of a satellite to hack the satellite itself for valuable gear, or do you fly on? The variety of events is pretty decent, although after a few playthroughs, you will start to see repeats of the same random events. Fortunately, it really doesn’t matter what the events themselves are, as the outcomes also randomly change as well. A ship you may have rescued in an earlier playthrough may not go so well this playthrough and instead kill one of your crew members or seriously damage your hull, and its simply the luck of the draw on how it goes down.
In FTL, battles between your and enemy vessels happen in real time as weapon meters charge. Ships have outer shields and hull points; shoot through the recharging shields to get to the meaty part of the ship to damage the hull and critical systems on board the vessel. Once the shield comes down, your hits can target systems on the ship like weapons, propulsion or even life support systems. Even battles typically end giving you an option; once you critically damage a ship, they will call for mercy and surrender to you, giving you a set amount of loot. However, if you destroy the ship, you take another roll on the loot table to see what you get. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less; it’s very “Let’s Make a Deal”-esque, where you can easily take the $500 that you know about or you can go for what’s behind curtain number two and hope you don’t get zonked (boy, I hope that reference isn’t too old here).
Don’t You Mean “Normal” and “Brutal”?
FTL will repeatedly and in very devious ways break your heart across two separate difficulties: easy and normal. Easy, you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting to sector eight in most of your playthroughs. However, normal difficulty in FTL is a whole different ball of wax, with encounters being exponentially more difficult than the easy difficulty’s ones. I’ve had some pretty decent easy playthroughs, but in a game where skill really doesn’t have a lot to do with it and success involves a whole bunch of good dice rolls and luck, normal playthroughs are cut horrendously short by bad luck and amped up bad guys. That doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable as things are likely to go extremely wrong in a laughably bad fashion, like the time I was zipping happily across the galaxy with my cruiser full of engineers, having a pretty good run, only to stumble upon a boarding party of melee focused pirates who wiped out the crew of my decked out space runner. FRUSTRATING.
Unlike many roguelikes, your progress can actually carry over from one playthrough to the next. Last night after spending way too late on my latest playthrough, I showed some Rock alien race that I was a force to be reckoned with, and they handed over a ship of theirs as they were so impressed with my battle prowess. The nice thing is that in future attempts to save the galaxy, I can now use that Rock ship. Also, if you manage to get a series of severely difficult-to-pull-off achievements, you can also unlock a variant of a class of ship you already have in your hangar. It does give a nice feeling of progression in a genre that usually takes away your lollipop after you only get a few licks and slaps you in the face.
Bleeps and Bloops
FTL’s graphics look like something I might have played on my Apple IIE or a Sega Master System; they’re a little rough, but in the Bit Trip Runner sense. The main graphics of FTL may look a little iffy, but that only means they can get very stylized while still scratching your 16-bit nostalgia. The soundtrack for the game, which is also on sale on Steam along with the game, is definitely something to have turned up while you’re plotting your next jump. The haunting galactic melodies are well put together and help enrich the experience.
Not All Hugs in the Federation
While FTL has that addictive Civilization quality about it, where you just want to jump to one more star or have one more battle before bed and then it’s 4 AM, the game does have its issues. The fact that they had to patch in a screen stretch option to get it out of the tiny default 640×480 screen was a little annoying, and my saves are not syncing between my computers in Steam when I’m moving around the house (yes, I’m playing FTL this much). FTL also thrives on seeming to throw impossible to beat odds in your way on normal; I’m fairly certain beating the game with the default ship on normal might be nearly impossible outside of just incredible string of luck that the player really has no control over. Also, unlike most roguelikes, the threat of the ever present Rebel fleet on your tail makes it so you really can’t progress from star to star to attempt to loot every planet on the map; you are unfortunately pushed onwards more quickly than I really wanted to be. There is something nice to that, but it also makes the game regularly feel like, “Well, I’m going to get to the end of the game, but I’m not going to have nearly the equipment I need to finish it”.
In case you’re not getting what I’m selling here, here’s the gameplay trailer for FTL:
For $10 on Steam, FTL has surprisingly been taking me out of my Borderlands 2 reverie in a way I wasn’t expecting. While Borderlands is a known quantity at this point, FTL feels like a brand new adventure every time I start up, wondering which ship and crew I am going to try out and see what I stumble into this playthrough. Maybe I’ll unlock a newer, better ship? Maybe I’ll finally get around to trying out that crew teleporter and beam an away team into an enemy ship to try taking it over? Seriously, watch yourself, this game is damn addicting, and I highly recommend it to people…even though it makes me want to throw my laptop across the room at times.
Looking for more FTL goodness? Head over to the FTL Subset Games webpage!