I’m going to do something new here. I’m going to be the first games journalist in the world to write a review of FTL without my first paragraph being an ‘in-game’ story about my adventures in space.
That’s not to say I didn’t have exciting adventures, such as when my crew were desperately holding on until the lightspeed engine charged, weathering a hail of laser fire from a pirate vessel while the cyborg I rescued from an outpost in the previous system furiously fended off some alien slugs who had teleported aboard…
I’m doing it, aren’t I? After specifically saying I wouldn’t.
But that really is the kind of game FTL is. As captain and crew of a starship (on roughly the scale of the Millennium Falcon), it is up to you to fly from one end of the galaxy to the other in order to take an important message back to your HQ. The galaxy is split up into a number of sectors, through which you must navigate in order to find your way home while the relentless approach of the evil rebels remains hot on your heels.
Play is split between a narrative-driven exploration (delivered mostly through text, and with ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ options) and combat. The exploration segment sees you jumping from node to node to cross the sector, maybe investigating distress beacons and visiting stores for upgrades, repairs and fuel and encountering a smorgasbord of seemingly-abandoned space stations, rebel activity, friendly planets and the like. It feels a bit like playing an old Star Trek episode at times.
Combat is perhaps where FTL really comes into its own. There are a fair few options to use in a fight, from drones which will flit around the enemy vessel shooting lasers at it to bombs you can teleport into individual rooms aboard the enemy vessel. But none of it is very complicated in itself. Both ships (combat is only ever 1 vs. 1) are shown on the screen as top-down maps, allowing you to target individual systems on the enemy ship with your weapons. This can be useful for, say, disabling an enemy’s shields to stop them from recharging. Some ships (yours included) can be equipped with teleporters, allowing ‘away teams’ to beam from one ship to the other to engage the enemy crew in hand-to-hand combat. Some weapons can cause fires to break out aboard the ships as well, to add to the chaos.
All of which really means that as well as concentrating on targeting your weapons on the enemy, you’ll also have to keep your crew scurrying around the ship seeing to necessary tasks. And this might leave other systems temporarily unmanned. For instance, my ship, the USS Debate, was under attack by a rebel fighter, and two of the crew had teleported aboard and were wreaking havoc in the life support control room. The damage was causing the air to be slowly sucked from the ship and the rebels were moving on into the ship. Captain Squee remained at the helm while Pip the cyborg and Tero the weapons officer were dispatched to see to the intruders. While Squee desperately attempted evasive manoeuvres to avoid the situation getting any worse, Pip and Tero grappled with the boarders. Tero was seriously injured and had to retreat back to the medical bay while Pip tried to hold off the enemy crew, and to make matters worse a missile hit the sensor room, starting a fire and blacking out my map altogether. Pip was forced to retreat, badly wounded, and Tero, still suffering from wounds of his own, limped to repair the life support system. The shields were still holding so Squee took a chance, leaving the helm to hunt down the intruders, but not before opening the airlock doors to vent the oxygen to the sensor room and starve the fire before…
I’m doing it again, aren’t I?
If I’m brutally honest, I have some worries about the long-term replayability of FTL. Start to finish, a game will take an hour and a half, maybe two hours tops. That said, no two games are exactly alike. But there are only a finite number of random encounters, of course, and while they usually have more than one possible outcome based on the choices you make and random chance, there is only so long that this will remain engrossing. Also, I suspect that over time even the dynamic combat will become workaday once the relative merits of the different weapons and systems are fully explored.
But, come now! This is a successful Kickstarter by a dedicated team of developers who truly believe in their game, and their raw enthusiasm comes through in the story. Text is kept to a minimum, meaning sometimes you’ll be left wondering just what the relationship between the Engi and the Federation exactly is, or how a store survives in the midst of a pirate-dominated sector, but these gaps in the narrative just encourage you to fill in the blanks and kind of write your own story as you go along. Difficulty can be an issue, and the game will challenge even on the easy skill setting, particularly if random chance is against you. And this is a ‘Roguelike’, so dead means dead. There’s no quickloading from a save point.
I expect that FTL will soon enough find its niche as a smartphone game. This is exactly the kind of game I’d love to have for my aging smartphone, it would work fine in that environment. Which isn’t to detract from the PC experience, of course – this is a fun game and a poster child for gameplay over graphics. It doesn’t even really seem worth mentioning the system requirements – the Chillaxe ran this with no worries, which is a little like saying that an Abrams tank can deal with speed bumps.
FTL is currently (as of September 2012) £6.99 on Steam (I guess this makes it about 9.99 in everyone else’s money), so it’s not a bank-breaker. In fact, for the money and the replayability value (particularly if you don’t learn it all back-to-front) you can’t really go wrong. Space adventures (that you can’t help but talk about) await!