Contrary to what TV, movies and books tell you, being the captain of a space ship isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. For every minute spent issuing commands while seated upon the captain’s chair, there is an hour spent sitting behind a cluttered desk approving supply requisitions, writing reports, drafting briefings and listening to interminable staff meetings. Even under the time dilating effects of Faster Than Light travel, these mundane yet highly essential aspects of shipboard management seem as endless as the depth of an uncharted nebula. Thankfully the creators of Faster Than Light (FTL) know the difference between which aspects of running a galaxy-trotting space vessel make for a fun and addictive game, and which aspects are about as interesting as watching insulating paint dry on a bulkhead and then filling out the paperwork accounting for the expenditure of materials and equipment.
FTL by independent gaming studio Subset Games, is a roguelike game of spaceship management and combat. For those of us who’ve grown up on a steady diet of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and Honor Harrington novels, this game allows us to slake our desire to be behind the helm of a mighty vessel and its crew without drawing a copious number of disapproving glares from the staff and visitors at the Australian Maritime Museum.
Set in a universe torn asunder by war and rebellion, FTL puts you in command of a ship and crew entrusted with a very special and highly critical mission: to deliver vital intelligence detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy’s super weapon flagship to your fleet headquarters. In order to discharge your duty, you will undertake a journey spanning across several star systems, each fraught with peril and opportunity, in a continuous effort to stay one step ahead of your pursuers. While the storyline is simple and straightforward, the sparse narrative sets the scene and pace perfectly for what is to come, and rather than sit you down and tell you a story, this game allows you to weave your own tale and to create your own story of adventure, derring-do and black market dealings with all sorts of shady alien races.
Naturally, possessing such critical information makes you a wanted man/woman/slug, and your enemies stop at nothing to stop you in your mission. Your odyssey across the galaxy will bring you into contact with a myriad of encounters: some of them benign, but mostly hostile. While a significant portion of these close encounters will result in the friendly exchange of goods and ideas, most of them will involve the heated exchange of ordnance and foul language. In order to facilitate this carnage and destruction, there are merchants and markets which will provides you with a varied choice of weapons and other handy gadgets – all for a price, of course.
FTL’s intuitive interface, comprehensive tutorial and simple controls makes for a very gentle learning curve which allows you to get behind the helm and get into the action quicker – taking command of a space ship has never been easier! Almost every action in this game can be performed by a simple mouse click, and a quick tap of the spacebar will pause the game allowing you to ponder your choices and issue orders at your own pace. Despite how frantic and overwhelming the action can get (more on that later) the interface ensures that at no time do you feel as if you’re battling it as well as the enemy.
While this game won’t be winning any awards for its music or graphics, it certainly won’t be losing any points for those features either. In fact, the old school retro style of both – so favoured by independent developers – definitely gives the game a certain distinct feel. Both the graphics and the music are clean and simple, yet extremely polished and a delight for both the eyes and the ears. Like the interface, these two features of FTL convey the action and information of the game perfectly, ensuring that you know absolutely everything that you need to know and making the gameplay that much smoother an experience.
Although the graphics and music may be unremarkable, the super addictive gameplay more than atones for these shortcomings. For a start, you’re given command of every aspect of your ship’s operations; from the operation of its doors to its engines, weapons, crews, power management and navigations, amongst other things; it’s all at your fingertips. From ensuring you have sufficient fuel to make jumps from one star to another, to ordering your crews to make running repairs to the ship’s systems as a pirate’s lasers pummel your hull, to juggling energy management when a localised phenomenon saps half your generator’s power and you must decide whether to route power to weapons and engage the enemy or to focus on powering up your engine in order to make an escape; FTL places the ship, the crew and the mission firmly within your capable hands.
The game makes it clear to you that you will lose…a lot. But a significant portion of the game’s enjoyment is derived from losing spectacularly. Those unfamiliar with roguelike games may find this difficult to conceptualise; after all, losing is supposed to be a frustrating, somewhat humbling experience – nobody ever bragged about how they were head shotted round after round in Counter Strike, nor do you see Diablo 3 players jubilant at their Hardcore character being brought down by a pack of zombies. But FTL, in true roguelike fashion, makes this work and makes it work well – watching your crew perish because they couldn’t repair the life support systems in time has never been so amusing.
However, this difficulty is understandable given the nature of the game itself: being a roguelike game, unforgiving enemies, permanent deaths and a marked lack of guidance with regards to potential quests and missions are simply part and parcel of the overall experience. If anything, all of these features simply add to the sheer replayability of the game itself. Knowing that a highly experienced crew member could perish due to a well aimed torpedo makes it that much more satisfying when you are able to pull your entire crew through a difficult skirmish.
Though it only takes a few moments to master, this is a game which will require many, many play-throughs in order to unlock and discover everything. FTL is a game which makes no attempt at going easy on the player, and more often than not your mission will end not in ultimate victory, but in your ship and your crew being scattered across a parsec of space care of a rebel’s missile. Keeping true to its roguelike nature, FTL is a game which makes losing fun – some of the greatest moments I had in this game revolved not around combat, but how the damage inflicted on my ship eventually caused my crew to succumb.
- Reviewed On