FTL: Faster than Light from Subset Games is the early fall indie hit of choice. It had a very successful Kickstarter campaign (an increasingly valuable marketing tool, as we’ve discussed on the show) and it plays to all the fantasies we have of being space captains.
I have been a space captain many times. Starflight. Star Control. Battlecruiser 3000 AD. A lot of games over the years have encouraged my mania to be that great Kirk-like figure managing a crew and keeping them all alive. FTL is not that kind of game.
Many of FTL’s space captain trappings are almost incidental. You have a crew, but the team members are mostly expendable and replaceable though you will miss highly experienced hand-to-hand combat crewmen. FTL has nebulae and solar flares but you don’t explore them as much as they are special locations with special rules. Your encounters are rote and scripted, and if there is an optimal solution because you meet the requirement by having the right equipment or right crew type, you will be told CLICK HERE.
FTL is a role-playing game but the crew are not the ones you are playing. You are not the captain, really. The important thing is not how your shipmates develop – the important thing is how the ship evolves.
FTL has been described as a roguelike, and I think that’s apt. You navigate random chambers (stars), have battles with increasingly more dangerous foes, and are pushed forward to defeat the big bad by pressures of time (advancing enemies) and resource scarcity (fuel, ammo, scrap). You can’t just hang out in an easy star system because you remove a lot of the encounters and the rebel fleet is inexorably pushing your forward – that’s a battle you can’t win. Like a good roguelike, there is no farming for XP.
FTL is Sid Meier’s Pirates! in space. But deadlier. It is a spaceship construction set that lets you mix and match parts, trying out new ship builds as they become available and choosing which gear will help you best. It has much more customization than Pirates! of course, but the premise is pretty much the same. Nobody really likes you, you need to make as much money as you can just to stay alive and you leap from port to port hoping, in this case, that the next leap gets you closer to home.
Pirates! is not a roguelike, but it has many important similarities with FTL. First, the ship is the thing. As you unlock vessels you can experiment with the one you want to take on this quest, but though you can’t swap ships out, by skillful spending and lucky loot drops from enemies you can turn your tiny fighter into a powerful vessel. Being able to recognize when you need to sink the enemy and when to board her becomes crucial as you move through space. You want to pick weapons that do the right kind of damage to soften up the enemy and a lot of the game is about simply staying in motion. If you’ve invested a lot of time in a ship, or, in this case, leveled up your mantis weapons engineer, then the loss can hurt, but it is something you recover from.
What makes FTL such an attractive game is its simplicity. You don’t really need to know a lot of scifi stuff to play this game, though it certainly helps get you into the mood if you have a vague idea of what ion cannons do, or can giggle at an away mission gone wrong. Scifi gives you an entree, but it’s mostly unnecessary since the game itself does a great job of teaching you as you play. The first early pattern is easy to figure out (missiles/ion to eliminate shields, lasers to hit the weapons) and then you are off.
Things get complicated quickly, however, as the decisions mount, and the decisions are always important ones. You have limited space for upgrades. The currency you need to buy new weapons or gear is also what you need to repair your hull or refuel. You can only get this currency by exploring and sometimes taking damage. So what you spend your money on (more ship energy or new gear to route you current energy supply to? More crew or drones?) will be affected by a host of factors that are pressing you while you shop. No store has everything, you might be in a sector where an ion cannon is useful, you might need a drone thing later…and the choices on when and where to jump to take on added tension as you count the number of leaps to a place you can get fuel, hoping the rebels don’t catch up.
You can easily imagine a model similar to this for a host of settings. A 19th century explorer seeking the source of the Nile before his rivals can get there. An explorer in a new world in something like Seven Cities of Gold, but with a team seeking gold and glory while fleeing the long arm of the crown. A game where you must push forward, your options aren’t always clearly laid out, but anything you do is an improvement. You can’t really make a bad decision about how to improve your ship; anything makes you stronger. But you can make bad decisions in combat, or in travel that come back to haunt you.
The combat is really where FTL’s genius shines. This is real-time combat, though you can pause and give orders. In difficult battles, with breaches leaking oxygen and people beaming aboard, it can get quite hairy and tense even though the battles themselves can be over very quickly. FTL is almost nothing but battles, since the non-combat encounters are just silly decision trees that often end in combat or a routine result. Routing energy around your ship becomes a dance in itself. If you need extra maneuverability, you might shut down sick bay and give that power to the engine. Or maybe you need to shut down the engine so you can restart the oxygen. The dance of breaching shields, keeping the pressure on the enemy with fires and disabling systems while also taking care of business on your own ship is frustrating in all the best ways. You are active, you are involved. It can test your tactical mind, and, if you panic, you can make some terrible, terrible mistakes.
Like teleporting your crew onto a drone before you realize that it has no oxygen. If that transporter gets knocked out, your men and women and aliens will suffocate over there.
Like forgetting to close an airlock door and suffocating the engine room. (You sometimes want to open an airlock to weaken intruders or quickly extinguish major fires.)
Like teleporting your crew onto a ship that doesn’t have a disabled engine. I hope they like their new home, because that sonuvabitch escaped with my weapons team.
Like having autofire on because you are attending to your ship’s health and not noticing that the weapons aren’t really doing anything.
I still haven’t won a game of FTL, but I know I eventually will. I am learning more about how the systems work and how the encounters are supposed to work. I will eventually unlock another ship that might suit me better than the first few. The game is not perfect – you could have better warnings that your crewmen and women are dying for example. It would be nice to lock some systems, so that, say, energy is always routed to oxygen unless I specifically choose to turn it off. But Subset games has made one of the early autumn darlings that I hope will be expanded on before people forget it altogether.