Indie game review – FTL: Faster Than Light

Welcome to my first indie game review – FTL: Faster Than Light by Subset Games

front end

FTL is a roguelike spaceship management / strategy game. For those of you who are not aware, roguelike games are defined by having the following traits:

  • procedurally generated levels / dungeons or what have you
  • tile based graphics with discrete movement possibilities within the game world
  • and more often than not, permadeath

They are named after the 1980 classic Rogue which, although rudimentary in terms of graphics, was extremely playable and directly inspired the classic dungeon crawler Hack (which in itself spawned Nethack). I want to talk about roguelike games some more but I’ll do that in a future post, for now back to the review.

Proof that indie games can demand the same if not more of your free time than AAA open world blockbusters, FTL is one of the most popular indie games from 2012. In FTL you command a ship and it’s crew as it traverses various sectors of space towards the ultimate goal of saving the galaxy from a vicious rebellion. FTL has polarised opinions as it is known for being an extremely difficult game and a lot of people simply won’t have the time or inclination to replay after dying (and you will die) dozens of times.

The goal of the game is to jump from one sector to another until you reach the final boss area and defeat him. Sectors consist of individual nodes (planets, nebulas, stars etc) and each sector is randomly generated when you enter it, so no two games are ever the same.

sector map

The sector map, showing all the nodes you can visit.

Once you enter a sector you start on the left hand side of the map and must choose carefully which nodes to jump to as you head towards the exit. As you progress further into each sector the rebel fleet are hot on your heels and will start to catch you up as you jump from node to node. You must aim to reach the sector exit before they catch up to you, or else you must face off against their powerful ships before you can leave.

Each node contains randomly generated events that usually result in battles with other enemy ships, civilians needing aid, or travelling space merchants. There are also some unique quests which will require you to visit specific nodes in order to complete, which is usually well worth doing as it gains you precious resources and scrap, the game’s main currency for buying upgrades, weapons and crew members.

The bulk of the gameplay takes place once you arrive in a node and have to fight or otherwise engage enemy ships. As you zone in to a new area, more often than not you will be attacked by various different enemy factions from pirates to rebels to lunatic aliens. This is where the real fun starts.

battle

A battle with an automated drone ship.

Combat takes place in real-time, however you can pause the game at any time and make your decisions whilst paused if things are moving too fast. You micro manage every aspect of your ship, from commanding your crew to managing the ships systems, weapons and power. You must plan and time your attacks carefully as each weapon has unique properties and subtle timing patterns that once mastered can really turn the tide of the battle. You win the battle by either destroying the enemy ship or by killing all of it’s crew (more on that in a moment) and once you are victorious you can take your spoils and be on your way. Whilst in battle however, you must wait for your ship’s FTL drive to spin up before you can jump which often means you can get utterly destroyed by the enemy if they outmatch your ship. This is part of the game that really shines, as there are dozens of combat techniques and strategies you can use to take out the enemy (and vice versa) and it is entirely possible that you can arrive in a node that contains an enemy that you are completely incapable of hurting, depending on your playstyle / ship setup.

boardingparty

A boarding party of Mantis crew members attacking an enemy ship’s crew.

It is simply not possible to have an ‘ultimate’ ship that excels at everything, so you have to be careful with the choices you make. Are you focused on weaponry and destructive force? then invest in a powerful weapons system. Or do you prefer sending an away team to murder the enemy crew? then make sure your teleporter is fully upgraded and your med bay is up to speed. This is a game that requires several playthroughs (or attempted playthroughs) to master. I personally enjoy the away team method, although it’s not feasible on certain ships with limited or no teleporter ability, and you can end up losing valuable crew members either to the enemy or your own stupidity when you blow up a ship that you’ve just teleported your heavies on to (yeah, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve done that and facepalmed HARD).

Speaking of multiple playthroughs, that’s something you are going to have to get used to. As mentioned earlier you will die. LOTS. According to Steam I’ve put over 70 hours in to this game and I’m pretty sure at least a third of those hours was spent screaming “NO. NO. FUCK YOU!” at the monitor. And this is why a lot of people bash the game, because there is an element of luck to it all. Some playthroughs things will go your way. You’ll get plenty of scrap to buy upgrades and weapons, and you might be lucky and get free crew members by rescuing allied ships. Then again you could jump into a node in the first sector that contains a ship that is completely beyond your ability to damage, or into a nebula containing an ion storm that wipes out half of your ship’s reactor power. This is a common trait of roguelike games and a lot of people either love them or hate them because of it. I’ve lost count of the amount of times a single fire has spread across my ship and knocked out all my systems, leaving me a sitting duck for the enemy.

fire

Fuck.

Your crew members are not all created equal. There are several alien races in the game as well as humans, and each race has a unique trait that makes having a multicultural crew preferable to one composed entirely of one species. For example the vicious insectoid Mantis race are excellent at fighting other mobs, but suck when it comes to repairing ships systems. Conversely the half organic half machine type Engi crew members have their repair speed doubled, but only inflict half as much damage as other races. Balancing your crew is vital to prolonged survival.

crew

Apparently Slugs have evolved to fly spaceships.

The random events that you come across as you jump around the galaxy are incredibly well designed (yet sometimes frustrating) and occasionally very amusing. I won’t spoil it but the ‘Intelligent Lifeforms on Planet’ random event made me chuckle the first time I came across it. The crew members names are randomly generated too, which can often lead to humorous results.

craigthemantis

Yes, that is an insectoid alien called Craig.

Initially you start off with just the basic ship and you have to complete certain events or quests in the game to unlock more. Each ship has two variants, the second one you must unlock by completing two out of the three ship specific achievement in game. These achievements require you to alter your playstyle significantly (some are downright bastards to achieve) and really add to the replayability of the game. I’ve still got three ships that I need to unlock (just the first variant!) and I’ve put a lot of time in to the game.

ship choice

Unlocking ships is difficult but necessary if you want to get the most out of the game. And yes there is one that looks like a dick.

Your ultimate goal is to acquire as good a ship and crew as you can whilst heading for the final sector because once you arrive in the final zone you start a game of cosmic cat and mouse with the enemy boss ship. I’m not going to talk about the enemy boss, because FUCK THAT GUY. Google it or play the game yourself to find out how difficult it can be to take him out but what I will say is that once you do defeat him and complete the game for the first time though, it feels like a genuine achievement.

FTL is a fantastic game but is very niche and a lot of people might consider it too hardcore. However if you like your games to have a challenge and nuanced, interesting gameplay with many different outcomes, then give it a shot. Just don’t try it for the first time on ‘Normal’ difficulty. Not if you value your hair.

My verdict: Buy. You (probably) won’t regret it and you will get hours of fun but challenging entertainment for a relatively low cost.

FTL: Faster Than Light is available to buy on Steam for £6.99

f.

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