FTL review – Playing as part of the Empire has never felt better

FTL Wallpaper

FTL is one of the poster-boys for Kickstarter campaigns. It’s the heart-warming and fun-filled story of how two men, Matthew Davis and Justin Ma (and their company Subset Games), were making a video game and turned to the gaming community for aid in their time of need. Because the gaming community was their only hope. And things went decidedly well for them as people threw money at their computers hard enough that they managed to raise over $200,000 for development of the game.

And the success didn’t stop there either, because after they finished development and released it out into the wild it got positive reviews and responses all across and board and currently has sales figures somewhere above 500k. In short, it is the perfect example of why Kickstarter is used by so many hopeful indie games companies today and why so many of those might actually let people down. “What?! But it’s an indie Kickstarter project! Why is it not good?”

FTL (short for Faster Than Light, you uneducated ignoramus) is a top-down, RTS in which you control a single ship and each of the individual crew members inside the ship. It’s a good old-fashioned, permadeath, rogue-like in which you have to travel from one end of the Galaxy to the other, experiencing various text-based events in each sector and slowly increasing the stats of your ship and your crew. You are a crew part of the Galactic Empire and you are attempting to reach Empire space ahead of the Rebel Alliance which are chasing you through the sectors you travel through (no those aren’t the names used, but they might as well be). You travel through each sector jumping from star system to star system to reach the end of the sector and then travel to the next one. Sectors can be friendly, enemy controlled or just barren nebulas in which anything could happen. And each system you jump to can start off an enemy encounter with another ship, it might involve aiding scientists in a space-station or it might simply be a delivery quest. There is a pretty large array of encounters in which you are usually given the options of fighting, running away or occasionally a few special options.FTL screenshot

Your ship is composed of various rooms (duh) and inside you have little sprites which are the members of your crew. Starting with three (of various different species) you slowly can gain or lose crew members as you travel across the Galaxy. You move your crew about your ship just as you use the power provided by your ship’s generator to power your shields, weapons, engines and so on. You need a pilot to fly the ship and the crew members in the various rooms provide different bonuses to your ship (e.g. a weapons man can help your guns charge faster). You also need to be on the ball for enemy troops teleporting into your ship so that you can converge your men on the bastards and gun them down. As a rogue-like RPG there is an upgrade system based on collecting scrap which you use as a basic currency or to upgrade various sections of your ship from the power generators to the shields and engines.

All of this is delivered in lovingly designed and drawn pixel sprite graphics. Pixel animations are the bog-standard of graphics, they’ve been done since Mario and so it takes an awful lot to make them look impressive. Hell, even I once made a brief pixel animation which I actually thought was rather nifty. This though is so far above a lot of pixel animations I’ve seen in games that I never once felt that it needed big and bad 3D graphics to improve it. Watching an enemy ship getting blown apart in a storm of pixels which must have taken ages to do is continuously satisfying and impressive. It’s all smooth and really rather well done. That’s the thing about pixel graphics, they are easy to do (I mean, if I can do it anyone can) but it’s hard to make them look THIS good.

FTL screenshot 2

The gameplay is actually great fun and genuinely addictive. Traversing the galaxy and grinding your ship from the basic, low-level starter to a fully shielded and geared up hulk of death is something I’ve spent quite a few hours doing again and again. That said, after the 5th attempt of building up a ship if you make some decent headway each time you will begin to run out of encounters that provide the variety of the gameplay. Additionally after about this period of time you begin to realize that every encounter really plays out the same way. A few involve text options and solutions, where sometimes there will be special options available to you if you have specific pieces of equipment, where only your choices made affects the outcome. The rest of the game though involves meeting another enemy ship in space and then either running or fighting it. Combat almost always plays out the same way too, you will take turns taking pot-shots at each other until one of you is torn apart by explosions. Sometimes there are small variations to the combat, the enemy might beam their crew aboard your ship for some hand-to-hand combat with your own team, sometimes the dogfight takes place in the presence of asteroids or solar flares baring down upon you both, but normally the formula remains the same. Equally, despite the variety of weapons and drone available for acquisition in the game, my tactics almost never varied and always involved the use of the same types of weapons targeting the same parts of the enemy.

It is rather unfortunate but a lot of the game’s options feel completely superfluous. Some examples include the teleporter room and a number of the weapon types and upgrades. Your crew are, inevitably, worse at hand-to-hand combat than any enemy crew and so it usually requires that you win with numbers when the enemy invade your ship. So attacking an enemy ship with your people just always seems like suicide (even if buying the teleporter wasn’t so damned expensive anyway). Many of the weapons and drones provided use up too much power to ever be of any use and some upgrades to the ship (for example any to the oxygen room) just seem like a complete waste of scrap. There isn’t much balance there, which is a shame. This means that as well as in-game options and encounters often playing out the same way, you will likely make the same choices of equipment and upgrades each time.

Despite the repetitiveness of the game it is not without it’s moments of excellence and tension. Playing on “normal” difficulty is actually a genuine challenge and by sector 3 you will often be struggling your way through many of the fights, fights which always seem doable. The level of challenge provides an obstacle to overcome which always seem possible, and so you find yourself getting more and more into it with each subsequent encounter to the stage where you find yourself cheering on your individual crew members by name (naming them individually is genius by the way) and being oh so upset if failure comes. As an example, I once made it as far as sector 8 on “normal” and I was so hyped up on adrenaline and excitement and pride that I actually remembered it vividly enough to recount it in a tale on the internet.

On the other side of the coin though I will admit to only that once having gotten past sector 5 on normal, which says an awful lot about how difficult the game actually is. Now, you might want to just play on easy instead, but I’m not sure how I feel about that. I have twice played on easy and succeeded both times in getting to the final sector (10) without any trouble what-so-ever, indeed my ship was actually pretty much at full health on both occasions. It’s so genuinely simple it’s actually a little boring and there is definitely not the same level of achievement or fun involved. So why play that difficulty at all? Well, because I still lost both times.

That brings me smoothly to my final problem with the game. Playing on easy I had fully upgraded weapons and shields combined with decent engines and a full complement of elite crew members. And I still, both times, got absolutely destroyed by the final boss. This makes me wonder how ridiculous the boss must be on normal. In fact it seems like it might even by a little unfair, especially considering how exponentially more difficult the boss was than ANY other encounter in the entire game.

So on the whole FTL is a really rather great little game. It’s excellently designed and built and makes for a few hours of great fun, enough so for me to entirely recommend getting it. Unfortunately it’s held back from true brilliance by it’s overall lack of variation, some issues with balance and a completely fucking ridiculously overpowered final boss. I mean seriously, since when did the REBELS get the Death Star?

Rating: B-

Also, if interested in some gameplay of the game, Tim made a video of his first impressions a while ago. Check it:

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