My spaceship, Quorra, has lost three of her four crew members in a pirate attack. Shields are down, life support is dead, weapons are at half power and there’s a fire in the engine room. Oh, and she’s venting atmosphere. My last crew member, a human pilot named Emily, leaves the bridge and rushes to life support. Without it, there will be no oxygen to replace the air currently being vented into space to combat the engine room fire.
She successfully repairs life support, but oxygen is dangerously low. Thankfully, the fires are out. But, before the air lock doors can be closed, the still attacking pirates hit door control with a powerful laser blast, knocking it offline. Emily tries to get there before it’s too late, but the oxygen is gone and she perishes while making her way through the engine room. With her crew dead, Quorra is left to drift lifelessly through space.
That story comes courtesy of the last few minutes in a game of FTL: Faster Than Light. Developed by Subset Games, it’s one of the first games to launch after being successfully funded through Kickstarter. FTL is described by its developers as a “spaceship simulation roguelike-like,” and if you’re familiar with Roguelikes at all, you’ll know that means you won’t beat FTL the first time you play. You’re not meant to. Heck, I’ve played 45 games so far, and I only got to the end boss when I bumped it down to Easy. In a way, it’s not about beating the game – it’s about playing and experiencing a new story every time.
In FTL, you take control of a spaceship and its crew. You only have one shop choose from at first, but you can unlock more by meeting certain requirements throughout the game. Each ship has a different layout, sometimes completely different systems and varying numbers and species of crew. Once you’ve selected (and of course renamed) your ship, you must set out on a mission to deliver important data to the Federation fleet while a huge Rebel fleet is hot on your tail. You’ll jump from system to system, exploring nav points along the way. Each nav point will potentially contain a random event – anything from a pirate ship attack to a Rebel ambush in an asteroid field. The encounters themselves are scripted, of course, and you’ll see the same ones pop up, but when and where you experience them is entirely random.
It’s that random element which makes FTL so exciting, while also being the thing which makes it immensely frustrating. Not knowing what you’ll encounter next, and judging from how little I’ve unlocked there’s still plenty I’ve yet to see, is thrilling, but it also means you can’t really prepare for specific encounters. Your next jump could just as easily lead to a fairly easy battle with an automated drone as it could to a well-armed, well-shielded Rebel ship sitting next to a volatile star emitting solar flares. If you were wondering, the survival rate of that second encounter is about 60/40. Solar flares tend to set your ship on fire, and if luck isn’t on your side (which it isn’t), it’ll hit your most vital systems first.
FTL doesn’t often feel unfair, but it does on occasion. On Normal, it may place you in seemingly unwinnable situations or tedious battles of attrition. Even on Easy, there will be scenarios which just seem to pile on as many issues as possible. Important systems will be attacked by enemy crew who have beamed aboard, most likely those crew are of a species which is especially adept at combat, making them very hard to get rid of. So, you’ll soon find yourself with a crippled ship, dead crew and a couple of very dangerous intruders still at large. It’s a scene you’ll see play out far too often, and it’s especially frustrating when you’ve just spent 15 minutes flying around improving your ship. With each game only really taking about 20-30 minutes, though, it’s hard to get too annoyed.
Actually playing FTL is a deceptively simple affair. Aside from a few hotkeys assigned to the number keys and space bar, it’s entirely mouse driven. Your ship, and those you encounter, are presented as bird’s-eye view cross sections, allowing you to see the full layout of your ship and its systems. The controls are so simple because things very quickly become complex when you’re under pressure. It’s at those times that controlling power distribution, crew placement, weapon targeting and dealing with the inevitable fires and system repairs can start to become overwhelming. Thankfully, a quick hit of the space bar allows you to pause the actions, giving plenty of time to formulate a strategy and even allowing you to issue commands. As you get further in and upgrade your ship’s systems, strategy becomes key. Diverting power from the rarely used medbay to shields or weapons will become second nature, as well making the quick decision of which system of an enemy ship to target first.
While FTL is not without its issues, they are very easy to overlook. Usually because they happened an hour ago and you’ve played three more games since then. Even as you curse your last defeat, you will find it very difficult to ignore the temptation of just one more game.