A delight in every way
In FTL: Faster Than Light, you are tasked with bringing a crew of your choosing, running a ship of your choosing, and their precious intel on the Rebel fleet back to friendly territory. Over the course of doing so, you will encounter ion storms in nebulae, asteroid fields, helpless and hapless citizens needing your help, and ruthless pirates that want nothing more than to ruin your day. You will panic and your ship will explode. You will get unlucky and your ship will explode. You will make a wrong decision at a critical point, and — yes — your ship will explode. But you will also win battles triumphantly, and get lucky with a jump, and happen upon some scenario that you have just the right gear to resolve, and just maybe escape the rebel fleet with your hull intact and your spirits high.
FTL can be reductively categorized as a Strategy-RPG Roguelike. You start the game by choosing a ship class. Each ship class has its unique capabilities: the default ship is well-balanced, but for instance the Engi ship relies more on drones than on weapons, and the stealth ship relies upon, well, stealth. There are also not only unique room layouts for each ship, but two layout options per ship class. There is a default layout that's always available, but — much like how you unlock the ships themselves — upon achieving some set of objectives with each ship, you unlock that ship's alternate layout. These usually pose a meaningfully different challenge from the original.
Layout turns out to be important in the game, since many rooms have a special function associated with them. Every ship has at minimum some basics: a pilot room, an engine room, a weapons room, a shield room. There are many others you can start with or add. In some cases, assigning a crew member to a room will improve the ship's performance in that area — having a shield operator will improve your shield's recharge rate, for example. And, you must have a pilot present in order to perform an FTL jump — more on that later.
Each ship also comes with a unique crew. You can name your crew whatever you want and choose their gender (I always go with Annie, Troy, and Abed for reasons you're pretty cool if you understand), but their species are specific to the ship. Humans are the boring standard, but most species come with a bonus and a drawback: the sturdy Rockmen, for example, have extra health and are immune to fire, but move half as quickly as other species. The species of your crew end up factoring heavily into your crew management, particularly as your encounters become more and more complex. In addition, crewmembers will gain experience in nearly everything they do, including operating a ship room or fighting boarders. Long-term management of what your crew are doing are critical to success in the game.
Once you've selected your ship and crew, you'll embark upon your journey. The game plays out as a series of encounters — each time you spend a unit of fuel to perform an FTL jump, you can pick from a number of nearby jump points. Upon each jump, you might come across nothing, or a merchant, or a questgiver, or most commonly a hostile ship of some kind. Once you deal with the situation, or whenever your FTL engines charge back up (which happens quicker if you have upgraded them and are giving them sufficient power), you choose your next jump destination. The game is broken up into 8 sectors, each of which has a couple dozen jump points scattered around. Each sector has an exit point where you can jump to the next, and if you jump around too long in a sector the rebel fleet starts to sweep in. Jumping to a point the rebels have already occupied is a waste of time — you'll gain nothing from the encounter even if you're victorious. This is, in essence, the game's way of hurrying you along.
Each sector has some unique property. There are in fact many more than 8 sectors on the overall sector map, as each sector jump you'll be presented with a Star Fox 64-esque branching set of sectors to choose from. There may be an advantage for you at any given point to jumping to a nebula-ridden sector, or a hostile sector, or a sector you think your crew may be friendly with.
I'm going to stop here for a moment and point out just how many systems are in this game. I haven't even gotten to the basic operation of your ship, and I've already had to explain a half dozen different systems. One of FTL's best parts is that the tutorial gets you through the most critical of these quite effectively, and some of the less important ones you're left to discover on your own. At no point did I feel like I was uninformed or confused about what was happening, and yet I was still learning and discovering new bits of the game hours into it.
So back to the game. In combat, you'll be managing everything to do with your ship: your power allocation, your weapons systems and their targets, your crew, and any auxiliary systems that may have come with your ship or that you may have picked up along the way. You can target specific rooms on the enemy ship for maximum effect based on your strategy. The easiest strategy is just to knock out their shield room with a missile weapon (which pierces shields), and then wreak havoc from there, but the beauty of the game lies in just how many unique, valid approaches there are to deal with any given situation. Maybe you play an aggressive species and you just want to teleport your crew over and murder the opposition. Maybe you focus on defense and let your drone system take out the enemy ship for you. Maybe you focus on breaching their hull and draining their oxygen with heavy-duty missiles. Maybe you use fire bombs to set their ship on fire. If, on the other hand, they set your ship on fire, maybe you get your Rockman over to put it out, or maybe you simply open your airlock and some doors and vent all the oxygen out to space. If it's your oxygen room that is on fire… that's probably a bad idea. And while your oxygen room is on fire, you're probably being boarded, and need to send defenders before they take out your shields from within. Or you double down on the whole oxygen situation and simply vent your shield room's oxygen, suffocating them. And Annie's probably low on health but your medbay is unpowered because you've diverted all the power you can to your engines to improve your dodge chance. And also, if you move Annie from the pilot's seat to the medbay to heal up, your dodge chance drops because she's the best pilot you've got. And crap, you just had your sensor room knocked out so you can't actually tell where the intruders on your ship are anymore. It's a lot to handle, but thankfully you can hit spacebar to pause the game at any time and think before you give out rash orders.
I think you get the point here. The game provides you with a box full of tools. Power, weapons, drones, crew, many others. The game's biggest success is in giving you complete control over them and providing you with a large number of viable ways to do so. Variety is the spice of a roguelike's life, and FTL delivers it in spades. And of course, the other spice of a roguelike's life, permanent death, is in full effect here.
There is another tool in your box: ship upgrades. You'll have a lot of options for directly upgrading aspects of your ship, or for acquiring and bolting on additions such as new weapons, drones, or even functional rooms. How you decide to do this is shaped by your combat (and survival) strategy, and there are just as many options here as in the heat of battle.
I could go on and on and on. And frankly, considering that this is a review, I've provided very little opinion in what I've already written — I've really just described stuff. This is because I think this is a game that sells itself to the right people. If it appears to be your cup of tea, it is — there aren't really any flaws that would merit an asterisk on that decision process. If you read above that you could vent a room's oxygen out to space and your pleasure center twitched a little, this is a game for you. Or if you read about power management and felt the release of dopamine in your head. Or, frankly, if you're a masochist that likes watching your ship explode and your crewmembers die (though there's an Easy mode that's relatively straightforward to complete, and probably the best way to start off). If with each new aspect of the game I explained above (and I didn't nearly hit upon all of them) you felt a little happier, you need to buy this game. It's a delight.
Even just beyond its mechanics, it's lovingly built. The way the music is tailored to each sector (I particularly like the theme that's in 5/4 time, and the space reggae dub), and the way it ramps from calm to tense to raucous depending on your situation is perfect. The art is basic but it still looks great and — most importantly — never fails to convey what's happening all around you. It's extremely replayable — even if you tire of trying different strategies, the game assigns you a score upon completion that you'll surely want to maximize.
I've never given a 5-star review on Giant Bomb. I tend to review games when I think they're really interesting and possibly overlooked, and this class of game tends to be flawed in some way that knocks out a star. FTL is interesting, will hopefully not be overlooked, but is very definitely not flawed. It's pretty spectacular, and if you've read this far you simply must play it.