A Genuinely Interesting Indie Treat
FTL: Faster Than Light is a low budget indie game that exists in a strange but rather charming space somewhere between a roguelike and space sim. In it you command a ship carrying data vital to a futuristic military conflict and must travel through seven sectors of space, protecting it from rebels, pirates, and other adversaries wherever you may encounter them. At first glance FTL may seem daunting to newcomers, but it’s surprisingly easy to pick up and play, and it’s one of those games that cleverly manages to have many different mechanics in play at any one time, but makes each of those mechanics simple enough that it never feels convoluted or too mind-boggling.
The universe you explore in FTL is randomly generated every time you start a new game, with each new sector you enter consisting of a number of fixed points which you can use your ship’s FTL drive to jump between, and an exit to the next sector sitting on the far side. At each of the points you usually find an opportunity to trade, a battle (either forced or optional), or some other way to utilise your resources for a potential reward. Having a large unknown universe laid out in front of you with lots of compartmentalised encounters creates a wonderful atmosphere of exploration and discovery that makes FTL what it is.
Unfortunately, the downside to this random universe system is that, while it’s certainly great to have that sense of always wanting to see what’s around the next corner, the random nature of the universe can often make it feel as though your success in the world has more to do with how lucky you get in what you find at each point, as opposed to your skill and good judgement. There are certainly ways to play the game which are smarter than others, but the moments where it seems like the degree to which you are rewarded is more dependent on the cards you’re dealt than factors under your control, can be a bit disheartening. There’s also only so many different ways the game can mix up the pieces it has. As much as it may convey a sense of exploration and the unknown at its best, after some time you begin encountering the same situations over and over, and things can begin to feel rather stale.
The many battles you play through within the course of a single game of FTL take place in real-time, but with you being able to pause them at any moment, making the game more about your strategic ability full-stop, rather than your ability to make decisions on-the-fly. During these skirmishes you must not only worry about the overall health of you and your opponent’s ships, but also maintaining the various individual systems on-board your ship, while strategically targeting the enemy’s. These systems include shields, weapons, oxygen, drone bays, and more. When these parts are damaged their functionality is impaired and eventually disabled entirely, meaning that it’s your priority to work out where to best hit your opponent to hinder them in battle, while appropriately directing your crew to repair parts of your ship that may become damaged.
In addition to dealing with damage, you also have a potentially limited amount of power, which you must divide between the various parts of your ship accordingly, and have to worry about assigning crew to parts of your ship to increase their performance. At points you may encounter, on top of everything else, holes in your ship which if not fixed drain out the oxygen, fires on your ship which have to be put out either by your crew or strategically opening your ship doors, and enemies boarding your ship and engaging your crew in combat directly. Each crew member also has their own individual health and experience points in each station on the ship, meaning that you must carefully balance keeping your crew safe with ensuring that your vessel is run efficiently, and that losing a crew member can often have a real impact in the game.
FTL’s original and ambitious combat system is refreshingly different from what you’re going to find in just about every other game out there, and when the tension mounts up holding your own in a battle feels like an exhilaratingly frantic scramble. While it rarely feels unfair, if your opponent manages to hit you just where it hurts, you can go from smoothly cruising through the galaxy, to teetering on the brink of defeat in a single battle, which gives the wide open reaches of FTL’s space a truly cold and dangerous feel. This is only heightened by the fact that death in FTL is permanent, meaning that losing a battle is something that carries genuine weight, and that each game of FTL feels like a special journey within itself.
Many of the battles in FTL don’t carry this high-stakes intensity though; after a while you can find yourself locked in conflicts that just feel all too familiar, and it’s pretty easy to find yourself making your way through the first few sectors, before the difficulty has really been ramped up, just sitting back and letting your weapons autofire at the same couple of points on the enemy over and over. It’s an experience which is neither particularly challenging, nor rewarding.
As you progress through the game you can use scrap, which is generally obtained from successful battles, to upgrade the various parts of your ship, or use it to barter with vendors for ship equipment, crew members, repairs, and more. Deciding which of these purposes you’re going to use your scrap for can be a bit of a gamble, as you never know quite what each store is going to have to offer, but there’s something rather empowering about managing to outfit your ship with powerful components, making it a force to be reckoned with for all potential attackers, and something rather fulfilling about managing to find a store that offers you just what you want.
Graphically, the trappings of FTL are rather scenic, with the universe of the game being comprised of detailed pixel art backgrounds, but you can find yourself rather weary after just starting at the same top-down view of your ship for extended periods of time. On the audio side of things, the game often keeps things soft and subdued but none the less enjoyable with a few light tunes in a style that’s not quite 16-bit, but certainly reminiscent of that area of music.
When it comes down to it, FTL: Faster Than Light is a game that does get old much sooner than you’d want it to, and can often decide your fate based too much on its own random dice rolls and not enough on the strategic ability you bring to the table. Despite this, it can provide you with hours of unique, fulfilling, and intriguing fun. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to venture into the great unknown as a starship commander from your favourite sci-fi television show or book, then FTL is going to be right up your alley.