Friday eXcursion: FTL

There may be no game more emblematic of the state of modern PC gaming than FTL: Faster Than Light by Subset Games. FTL is a procedurally-generated, retro-graphics, board-game-inspired Roguelike from an indie developer. The game was successfully funded on Kickstarter, released on Steam and is currently available for PC, Mac and iPad. All it needs is microtransactions and you’d basically have the entire history of gaming from 2011 to the present, right there. (Note to Subset, please don’t add microtransactions. It’s just a joke. Really.)


In FTL, players are given command of one lonely spaceship manned by three redshirt crewmembers and charged with surviving a long journey through enemy territory. For plot purposes, players must deliver the “Rebels’” secret plans and save the “Galactic Federation” but, honestly, you could be delivering kung pao chicken – it hardly matters to the gameplay, itself.

Your ship is controlled with the mouse or, if you have the iPad version, the finger. It’s all very simple, really. Almost too simple… There are basically only three things players have to do: move the ship, move the little people, and survive.

The people you’ll kill

Your ship has crew, who the player can move around – sending them to different rooms to run the ship’s systems. Players can fill out their original three-person crew with characters found during their adventures. As an added touch, you can rename your little characters to whatever you like.

Our intrepid heroes, ready to launch.

In any case, if you don’t man your stations, you’re just a weird-shaped rock in space. You need a pilot to jump from star to star and someone in engineering to keep your ship moving. Other systems will also work better if they’re manned. Weapons recharge faster, shields repair more quickly, long as they have a babysitter.

If your ship is damaged in battle – OK, when your ship is damaged in battle – you can move the crew to different rooms so they can repair the necessary systems. This may also involve fixing cracks in the hulls or putting out fires along with the standard mechanical work.

The ship you’ll destroy

Moving the ship involves choosing a star system and then jumping over there. Most of the star systems have a random encounter – a shop for equipment, another ship in need of help, or an enemy lying in wait – though, rarely, you may also find yourself in empty space.

Battle happens in real time, but it’s pausable, à la Baldur’s Gate. During battle, your ship has several weapons, each tied to a cooldown. Fighting just means picking a weapon and telling it where to hit the enemy ship. There’s some strategy involved here. You need to stagger the cooldowns to maximize the efficacy of your weapons and some enemy systems definitely need to be targeted before others. However, it’s a lot of click, wait, and hope.

Driving your adventure are two mechanisms, now quite common to this genre. One is the ever-encroaching enemy. The more time players spend bouncing around, the closer the Rebel fleet comes. If they swarm you, you can escape but… well, you probably won’t escape.

The other limiting mechanism is equipment. The ship needs fuel to run and every jump drops your reserve by one. Forget to refuel and you’ll quickly find yourself adrift out amongst the stars. There are also missiles to keep track of and, of course, the health of the ship itself.

FTL may look like a fun little Star Trek-style adventure into the stars, but it’s a lot more Wes Craven (or H.P. Lovecraft) than Gene Roddenberry. If you race across the map too fast, skipping precious upgrades, the higher-level ships will hunt you down and eXterminate you. If you take too long, stopping at every system to go antiquing and enjoy the local cuisine, the Rebel ships will catch up and kill you. Or you’ll run out of fuel and die. Or you’ll be boarded by the praying mantis aliens and they’ll slaughter your crew. Or you’ll end up in a nebula and your ship will explode in a lighting storm. Or you’ll defeat the evil aliens but your ship will run out of oxygen and everyone will suffocate. Or…

Remember that episode of Star Trek: TNG when they were trapped in a time loop and the ship kept blowing up every fifteen minutes or so? Yeah, it’s kinda like that. Only you’re lucky to last fifteen minutes in this game. I’ve owned FTL pretty much since launch in 2012, have played it fairly regularly, and have never won. Not ever. Not even on the easy mode.

There’s lots of other things I could discuss. Alternate ships, alien races, boarding parties, drones, blah blah blah blah blah. Let’s skip ahead to the good stuff. Time to take our poor, doomed friends from the U.S.S. eXplorminate out for an exciting adventure. What could go wrong?

The many (deadly) adventures you’ll enjoy

This will not end well.

Let’s get this FTL AAR going ASAP, OK? As you can see, Rob is in the Captain’s seat, piloting the ship, while Nate is in engineering, and I’m on the relatively ancillary task of shields. Seems about right, right?

Space map is spacey. And mappy.

This is the map screen where you’ll chart your journey. Each yellow diamond represents a place to visit/potential encounter. The stuff outlined in blue in the bottom-right has the added benefit of being in a nebula storm – kind of the rotten cherry on top of a rancid sundae. We’re gonna try to avoid those. The other destinations look perfectly fine, though. Let’s go take a look!


Whoops! FTL is not feeling like being nice today. As I mentioned above, everything is generated randomly, so – while there is usually some amount of ramping – you can easily end up in deep trouble early on. Which is what happened here. First off, we’re in an asteroid field. That means our shields are constantly being knocked back by random rocks. That’s annoying.

Then there’s the enemy ship. Usually things start slow with little drone ships – tiny unthreatening things with one weapon. Not these guys. Well, no use in decrying our lot in life. Much more use in spinning up missiles, lasers, and hot space death.


You can see here that the ship starts with two main weapons: missiles and lasers. Missiles can punch through an enemy’s defenses, but they’re limited (you can see on the top left, I’ve only got eight of them). Lasers are fine, they shoot twice, but they are stopped by shields. As you can see, my missiles are ready to go, so I’m aiming them at the pirates’ shields. Once those are out, my lasers are free to shut down his weapons. Then it’s target practice time!

Cue the singing ewoks.

OK then, that wasn’t so bad. We got lucky this time in that the enemy did NOT get lucky and land a crit. The big green bar in the top left is telling us that we’ve taken a little damage, but nothing all that concerning. Further, we’ve been rewarded with some goodies. Those two missiles are going to be helpful. Drone parts are basically useless since we don’t have a drone controller. Scrap, however, is very useful, being that it is essentially the game’s currency. So, we’ll have a little spending scratch if we ever find a store. All to the good. Nothing to do now but wait until our FTL drive is ready to go – the depleted meter is in the top center – and head to the next location.


In the future, no one will mock your purple spaceship.

Our next stop is a “story” encounter. Occasionally, FTL provides these little decision points that help give some flavor to the otherwise dry game/universe you’re exploring. In this case, we’re given the option of spending some money (scrap) to slow the encroaching Rebels (giving us more time to explore the region), or revealing more of the map (showing us the nature of nearby encounters), or blowing this fellow up, or just moving on. There is no moral judgement here. Other mercenaries will treat you the same if you decide to destroy this one or not. It’s just a moment in time – do something. Or don’t. FTL don’t care.

I decide to reveal some of the map and jump!

No, I will not stop and ask for directions…

A few more uneventful turns later, plus one battle against one of those pesky drones, our map has gotten a lot more interesting. That big red circle on the left represents the coming Rebels. We’ve also gotten some intel on the galaxy around us. The green diamond on the bottom right is the exit. We’re gonna need to find our way down there in order to move on before the Rebels wipe us out. See that diamond on the bottom right marked Store? Let’s go there.

Rats! No Jujubees. I had a craving.

Just about every region in FTL has at least one or two shops. These are places where you can repair your ship, restock on weapons and fuel, hire a new hand or three, and maybe acquire some new, fancy weaponry – all for the low, low price of scrap, scrap, scrap. Like everything in FTL, store supplies are random. They’ll all be able to do repairs and refill your stocks, but the other stuff on offer (basically everything you see on the right of the screen) could be almost anything. You may never find any particular item you’re after, and even if you do, there’s no guarantee you’re able to afford it.

In this case, there’s just nothing here for me. I’d love to set up with some drones, but I don’t have the cash. Naught to do but refill on fuel, stock up on missiles, and move on. As it turns out, that’s a good decision. My next stop leads to a quest where my reward is… a working drone! Take that, greedy capitalist space merchant!

My Volkswagen has this same screen.

Players in FTL also have the ability to upgrade their ship, no shop necessary. With some some extra scrap on hand, it doesn’t hurt to do a little ship improvement. Most of these options are self-explanatory. It’s just another cash sink that you’ll regret not spending on later when the game gets harder. For now, we need to buy some extra power bars so we can run both weapons and drones at the same time.



We’ve reached the end of the first sector! Hooray! And we’re only minorly damaged! Will wonders never cease? Our reward?


Choose another sector! Oy. Once again, this map is randomly generated. Sometimes there’ll be a clear path. Sometimes it’s hostiles all the way ‘till morning. This time it’s not too bad. Looks like I can take Civilian sectors pretty much the whole way except for one nebula sector which – ok it’ll be really really bad – but otherwise, smooth sailing! You know… relatively.

Let’s blow this space popsicle stand!

All good things must come to an end

Of course, there’s a lot more to FTL than what I’ve shown you here. A full eight more sectors’ worth! There are ship boardings and fires, wacky aliens and deadly encounters – a whole universe to explore. Do our friends on the U.S.S. eXplorminate survive their journey to deliver the secret space plans and save the day? (Spoiler alert: no).

But I’m going to leave you here to have your own adventures. Part of the fun of FTL is that sense of exploration, the idea that almost anything could be around the (space) corner. Years and years in, I’m still discovering new things. I’d hate to take that away from you.

And I would be taking something away from you, because you should be playing this game. FTL isn’t very pretty, or especially deep, or even all that unique. Instead, it is just great – one of the seminal experiences of this generation – and not to be missed.

TL;DR: FTL is a spaceship simulator/Roguelike where you get to live out your space captain dreams – uncovering the unknown and succeeding against impossible odds or dying in horrible new ways in the vast cold of space.


You might like this game if:


  • You always dreamt of being Picard, handing out orders and exploring the stars…
  • …the crappiest Picard ever who gets his crew killed and his ship destroyed on every mission (a.k.a., you like a challenge and you don’t mind a lot of failure)
  • You enjoy simple mechanics that combine to create a complex, in-depth experience
  • You like games with short sessions and near-endless replayability 

You might NOT like this game if:


  • You think retro graphics are grody, like, to the max, dude
  • You need in-depth, tactical combat
  • You want more to do in space than just blow things up
  • You hate fun


Joshua has played for 40+ hours on a 2010 11” MacBook Air running OSX Yosemite with a 1.4 Intel dual core processor, 2GB DDR3 RAM and a 256 MB NVidia GeForce graphics card.

10 thoughts on “Friday eXcursion: FTL

  1. I played it till I beat it. It took quite a few playthroughs but eventually I won. I don’t think I played it again after that. It was actually fun, it was just very challenging. I don’t recall there being a way to pause combat though.


  2. Nice review!

    I just want to make a plug for FTL – really fun but HARD game. I also have it on my iPad, and the iOS implementation of the game is super, and the touch interface really works well here.


  3. I’ll be the dissenting voice here :)

    I confess I didn’t like FTL. For no particular reason, mind you. The game is smart and the mechanics are original and interesting. But I just didn’t connect with the game on some level. It missed that x-factor that would click with me, I suppose. So I quite never understood how the game was generally raved.

    There is one aspect of the game that I am critical off; the pursuing fleet. I found this mechanic annoying to an extreme. Surely the game balance could be achieved in some other way, without this “feature” that forces players to rush through the game maps because of a pursuing fleet that is constantly right behind them. Had I been a part of the beta team, I would have filled in a bug report :p

    As someone that is a completionist and likes to cover the whole “dungeon”, the pursuing fleet wasn’t welcomed at all. Fortunately, the ability to alter the game dat file to change this behavior was welcomed and I began to at least tolerate the game after I did it. Unfortunately this changes the game balance quite a bit and it becomes almost too easy. Changing the difficulty level helps, but it just isn’t the same thing.


    1. I have to disagree with your take on the pursuing fleet mechanic. Many modern roguelikes include mechanisms to stop ‘scumming’ — the act of staying too long on dungeon levels (or in this case, space sectors) in order to keep killing easy stuff to raise ones level or gather more power with very little risk. People who do that don’t realize that they are cheating themselves by avoiding the intended challenge of the game. It’s a way of saving a player from himself, acting against his own self interest, in order to make the game easier, but less rewarding. It’s a problem that more modern roguelikes have addressed in different ways, but it generally involves either removing the impetus for staying too long on easy levels, or increasing the risk or difficulty if you stay too long. FTL’s designers happened to pick the latter tactic. For a good example of the former, you may want to check out Brogue (which completely eliminates experience from killing stuff). I don’t know which is better, but it actually is a good thing, imho, and FTL’s implementation actually makes the game more tense and exciting.

      Don’t get me wrong, I also never got hooked on FTL either, in spite of being fond of both roguelikes and science fiction. It’s not my thing. But eliminating that mechanic would totally destroy the whole feeling of impending doom.


  4. ‘I’ve owned FTL pretty much since launch in 2012, have played it fairly regularly, and have never won. Not ever. Not even on the easy mode.’

    That is where I stopped reading. I mean, what’s the point?


    1. I’ve played a lot of roguelikes, and most of them I’ve never beaten. But they still are fun. And that’s why I play them.

      Roguelikes are not like rpgs. In an rpg, cheating is expected. IF you die, you reload from a save. You essentially erase your death, and pretend like you never made a mistake. That kind of defeats the purpose of a game. There’s no real risk and thus less incentive to learn from your mistakes.

      Roguelikes are more like real games, in that you can actually lose. But that gives you an incentive to learn from your mistakes. Because they can be so tough, the reward that most people get from them will be from simply doing better than they did before, maybe getting further in the game, or figuring out a secret or a tactic that they did not know before. Every roguelike is kind of a puzzle, but a puzzle that is never exactly the same twice. That makes every little improvement many times more rewarding than finishing an rpg. Anyone can finish an rpg — all it takes is lots of scumsaving. But finishing a roguelike is a true badge of honor. And thus they are incredibly rewarding to those of us who play them.


      1. the best part of the game is the few dozen runs just before you figure out how to win for the first time. after you’re able to win consistently I think the game loses a lot of its appeal because accomplishments no longer mean anything, loot is no longer exciting, and the tension and suspense is basically absent


        1. I’m not speaking with regards to FTL specifically, because I don’t play the game — I’ve tried it, and it’s not for me. That might be your experience with FTL, and if so, I can’t dispute that. It’s certainly true for you, for that game specifically.

          But in my experience, that has not been true for my favorite roguelikes. With nearly any game, no matter how much you like it, no matter how challenging, no matter how far you get into that game, you can simply burn out on it. That’s been my experience with most games, regardless of genre. I loved Civilization — all 5 versions of it, and each one has been a new experience for me. And I can’t say that I’ve ever mastered any of its versions. But I have burned out on every single one of them. Granted, that was after hundreds of hours of play with each one (in the case of the first one, probably well over a thousand hours). So I’m not complaining. But burn out is inevitable. So to complain that you grow tired with a game, does not necessarily a black mark against a game, but against human nature.

          But I’ll give you an example with roguelikes. I just checked my steam account, and it says that I have over 1300 hours playing Dungeons of Dredmor. That’s more than any other game on my steam account. With Civ 5, I’m listed as having spent over 460 hours, which might be #2 for me (not every game I play is on Steam, or I may have played them offline before getting a steam version, so it’s hard to say).

          I probably beat the game for the first time on the hardest difficulty level at about 250 or so hours, if I recall properly. But that’s NOT the same as mastering a game. Beating it once is not the same as mastering it. First, I had to prove to myself that it wasn’t a fluke. I don’t know how long it took me to beat it a second time, but I’d bet it was somewhere between 50 and 100 hours. Why so long? Because Dredmor is full of surprises. Furthermore, there were expansions, there were new things to learn. Heck, at 1300 hours there STILL are new things to learn. There are special rooms that I’ve only encountered once in all of my playing (like the cyclotron room) — I’ve wanted to find them again., but so far no luck. A special wizardland level was reported once, with a green portal entrance. But the code to access it was never shared. So I’ve always wanted to prove that it actually exists. I’ve wanted to beat the game with random builds (I’ve done it once, but on the middle difficulty level, so far not on the hardest). There are mods out there that I’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t gotten around to it.

          That said, at around 1300 hours in, I burned out on the game. I have taken a couple of breaks at various points, and I’m currently at burn-out. Every now and again, a discussion or a question influences me enough to boot up the game, either to lend help to answer the question. And sometimes I just want to revisit the game. But I’m done with long play sessions and I’m done with playing it almost daily. I still boot it up once in a blue moon. But for the most part, it’s played out. And while I feel competent at the game, as compared with most people, I know for a fact that I suck at certain kinds of builds (roguish ones in particular), that I still have lots to learn, that I still make mistakes (albeit, when I’m careful, I play better than most people — I know because I have many wins under my belt, whereas most people have 0).

          By comparison, if you look at the typical RPG, even ones that I love, that claim to have replayability (say Fallout 3 or 4, or any of the elder scrolls games), I have no where near as many hours invested in them. I used to play MMOs. For example, I was a fan of Rift. But I certainly don’t have as many hours invested in that game either, before I burnt out on it (by reaching the end-game, which if MMO end-games don’t incite burn out in you, then you are very easily amused). Not all roguelikes are as rich as Dredmor, some have relatively few secrets to reveal. But the best of them have far more play value than games in just about any other genre.


  5. … and then when you *do* manage to finish it once, there are 15 other ships to unlock, some with very different limitations
    (how about a ship with no shields? only missiles? focused on boarding other ships? no power, but having to move your crew around that doubles as power sources? )

    Then there’s the Advanced Edition content adding a new race (that not only doesn’t need oxygen, but slowly sucks oxygen out of rooms it’s in), 11 new player ships, hacking, mind control, clone bay, plenty of weapons…

    At this point the game is quite deep enough already, but then :

    There’s the modding community with the giant Captain’s Edition mod :
    That adds not only plenty of new weapons, but greatly extends the content with things like trading, battle stations, “industrial waste” sectors where nebula eat at your hull, “nanite” sectors that are even worse with ships manned by holograms, “plague” sectors with creepy music (but where the Rebel fleet takes time to catch up to you), beautiful backgrounds, artillery weapons for all player ships &c

    That can be extended *even* further with mod components that allow you to spend as much time as you want in “deep space” in-between sectors (but makes progress much more costly), or another that adds randomization to all weapons and drones (think Diablo 2).



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