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.
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, etc.so 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
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?
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.