My engineer got left behind when we failed to help some scientists with a giant spider problem. My shield operator was ripped apart by a boarding party of fearsome Mantis pirates, after we refused to pay a “toll.” My gunner burned alive trying to put out a fire in our weapons room. My security officer ended up sucking vacuum when attempting to repair a breach next to our life support systems. And, eventually, my pilot perished along with the ship, when a beam weapon sliced it neatly in two.
For a game that – from start to finish – essentially displays nothing but a top-down view of your ship, FTL is astonishingly involving. Hell, for a game in which you can pause at any time you like to change orders or mess about with your energy configuration, it’s unbelievably frantic.
Sorry. “Mess about with your energy configurations” sounds a bit dull, doesn’t it? Let’s try that again.
FTL is a game in which you command a spaceship, initially crewed by a mere three or four people. You’ve come into possession of some rather important information and as such you need to make it through eight sectors of mostly hostile space in order to deliver it to Federation lines, despite not having nearly enough fuel or armaments for the trip. If that’s not bad enough, you’re also being chased by the entire Rebel fleet, and they’d much happier if you were dead.
To put it into shorter, nerdier terms: you’re the Tantive IV, the Empire is right behind you, and they aren’t interested in taking you alive.
I said it above, but it bears mentioning again that FTL is a game in which you command a spaceship. You’re not dogfighting through deft use of a joystick, nor are you manually aiming and firing weapons. Your role is closer to that of a Star Trek captain; you’re the one ordering people to divert power from the medical bay to shields, or to lock ion weapons onto the enemy shield generator and follow that up with lasers to their life support, or to hurry up and put out that bloody fire you idiots. FTL is fundamentally a game about making choices, both short-term and long-term, and weighing up the risks and consequences of any given action.
The game works like this: you’re trying to reach the end of each sector, and you do this by jumping from node to node. Most nodes will present you with a short Choose Your Own Adventure-style choice – you might come across a friendly station under attack by pirates, or a small planetoid with a single life sign, and you have to decide whether or not to intervene, and what action to take. Having certain systems installed on your ship, or crew members of certain races, may afford you extra options.
Choose wisely (or get lucky) and you might get a new crew member, a new weapon, or some resources, the most common of which is the ever-precious Scrap, which functions as both experience points and currency in that it can either be traded or used to directly upgrade your ship. If things go wrong then you might end up losing Scrap, suffering the death of a crew member, taking hull damage, or getting into a fight.
Fights are really the crux of the game, as they’re where the “full power to shields” bits come in, and at their best you’re making an important decision every, ooh, two in-game seconds or so. Let’s say you come up against an enemy with hefty shields, and a weapon that teleports explosive firebombs onto your ship at random locations. Before too long there are fires all over the place and they’re doing continual damage to your systems, while the enemy ship has taken nary a scratch.
So what do you do? Do you put out the fires by sending the crew to deal with them – risking death if another explosion goes off nearby, and making your ship less effective as no-one will be manning the stations – or do you open the airlocks to put them out by sucking out the oxygen? Do you keep on plinking away at the enemy ship in the hopes that you’ll get a hit through their shields eventually, or do you fire your last shield-penetrating missile to do a bit of damage to their systems? If so, then do you aim for their weapons, in the hopes of buying a reprieve to get yourself back up to status quo, or for the shield generators, so that the rest of your weapons can get through more easily? You can pause as often as you like to adjust your orders and think things through, but that doesn’t make things any less hectic or tense.
Even outside of combat, though, there’s plenty to think about. Do you spend your Scrap on upgrading your reactor, or your shields, or your engines? Do you instead wait until you find a store and spend it on new equipment? Do you go there now, or should you risk exploring another few nodes to get some more Scrap first? So many questions.
FTL works when you’re making Important Decisions and there are plenty more of them to be made when you’re in trouble, so it’s probably a good thing that it tends towards the “bastard hard” end of the scale. When it’s easy, it’s dull; early fights against ships that can’t possibly get through your shields are a matter of targeting your weapons and waiting. This problem fades quickly: it’ll probably take near to a dozen attempts on Easy difficulty before you finally manage to snatch a victory, and each of those should last an hour or two.
Death is permanent, but there’s plenty to encourage replayability. The galaxy is generated from scratch every time you restart and there are a multitude of ships to unlock, each of which has enough quirks that they require their own individual strategies. There are global achievements as well as a few individual ones for each ship, and those unlock subtypes of each ship which, again, differ from the norm. There’s lots to do.
Despite this, I’m not entirely convinced that it has enough replayability. I suspect I’ve seen most of the events by now, I can skip through the text without worry, I’ve got plenty of strategies down, and I tend to be repeating the same actions unless something goes horribly wrong. This isn’t The Binding of Isaac where the items you get will differ wildly from game to game and totally change your playstyle, nor do you constantly need to be on your toes. It’s closer to Weird Worlds, in that I’ve played it enough that I feel I’ve seen most of it and I have a good idea of what’s coming.
And yet I’ve played FTL for over 20 hours – which feels like no time at all – and as soon as I finish writing this I’m going to play it again, so maybe that doesn’t matter too much. At the very least, I suppose it’s hard to argue you’re not getting your money’s worth for the asking price of £7.
As such, I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending FTL. It’s a marvellous little roguelike with a fair bit to do and one of the most enjoyable “spaceship command” atmospheres I’ve experienced (and let’s face it – there aren’t many of those around), and it regularly becomes just as tense and fraught as any good roguelike should. I mean, I have war stories from this game. It’s just not quite as broad or as deep as I’d hoped, so fingers crossed for some content packs or open mod support.
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he’s willing to admit. He’s written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion – in all its various incarnations – for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He’s also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man’s only professional games journalist.