I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for indie titles. It always amazes me that such low-budget, low-standards game (compared to big names, of course) can be so addictive and fun. With that in mind, I hesitantly picked up a game that’s been making quite a splash across the gaming community: FTL – Faster Than Light.
The game has a fairly dark premise, considering how relatively simple its story is. In the months and years preceding the game, the mighty Federation has fought a war against a force of rebels – and lost. The game opens up with you taking command of a small cruiser that has discovered the weakness in the rebel flagship, and you’re tasked with transporting it across eight sectors to the last surviving Federation fleet. After getting through all eight sectors, you have to go into one final showdown against the rebel flagship in three brutal rounds of combat – and if you win, you’ve saved the Federation from utter destruction. But don’t be fooled; it’s easier said than done.
The gameplay of FTL is essentially a rogue-like in space. You command the crew of one of nine ships (each with a secondary layout to unlock for a total of eighteen) and travel across the sectors by jumping to different nodes throughout each one. At every node, you face a random event of some kind – either something nice and helpful, such as finding a free piece of gear and some scrap, or encountering a space station full of giant spiders. No, I’m not kidding – that one’s real, and it’s the number one event that kills off members of your crew.
As you travel to each node and work your way across the sectors, you collect various bits of scrap from destroying ships as well as extra systems and weaponry. Scrap is the currency of FTL, used to buy repairs and supplies, as well as upgrade your own systems. Perhaps some of the hardest decisions have to be made on the upgrade screen, because even if you can afford all of them (which is entirely possible, depending on your luck), you will never be able to have all of them powered and active at the same time. Every upgrade requires one more point of energy to utilize it, though you can always temporarily reduce the power level to keep more important systems running.
This is where the game really shines: the ship-to-ship combat. Each ship has a number of systems, including life support, weapons, and engines among others. Combat involves tactically choosing where to target your weapons to most efficiently take down the foe – do you disarm them by disabling their weapons? Eliminate their shields to leave them undefended against your drones? Or even take out their life support and wait for them to choke on the vacuum? You’ve also got to keep your systems powered – and true masters will be able to dance their limited power supplies around the ship to keep running only the most vital of systems for each situation.
In addition, as you whittle down the enemy vessel, you have to keep your own crew frantically fixing holes in the hull, repairing damaged systems, and fighting off enemy boarding parties. It can truly be some of the most intense combat you’ll ever see, especially since failing to fix one system can spell doom for your entire crew.
To further complicate matters, every ship plays a little bit differently – and if you’re not careful, you can wind up dead real easy. The Federation cruiser, for example, uses its lasers to knock out the enemy weapons to let its auto-firing, shield-ignoring artillery beam cause massive damage across the entire ship. The Engi cruiser, on the other hand, uses its ion weapons to disable enemy shields while its drones slowly destroy it one system at a time. All in all, it’s got an excellent blend of tactics and strategy that guide your every action throughout the game.
What really makes this game stand out among others is its soul-crushingly hard difficulty. Even playing on easy, it’s no walk in the park. One screw-up can kill your entire crew; one random event can beam an entire team of Mantis (the game’s heavy hitters in hand-to-hand combat) into your engine room and start taking out systems in a flash. Honestly, that’s all it takes to ruin your run. I’ve had numerous games where I got pretty lucky early on, got a great set of systems and weapons going into the last couple of sectors, and felt confident about beating the flagship. Then I ran into a string of bad events, or I hit an enemy ship with absurdly powerful weapons and systems, and I went down hard.
Despite all that, though, FTL is worth every penny. As hard as the rest of the game can be, the tactical, micro-level stuff is all relatively easy if you know how your ship plays. Combat is actually fairly balanced for the most part, since the AI mostly just targets random spots on your ship while you can focus on important areas of theirs.
After the fiftieth time your crew gets eaten by giant spiders, though, that’s when you’ll be ready to throw your computer through a window.
Should you buy FTL? I’ll admit, it’s not for everyone, because it’s hard to win. I mean, really hard. But if you’ve ever had fantasies about being Captain Kirk or Picard on the U.S.S. Enterprise, this is the game for you.