Readers who are unfamiliar with roguelikes may wish to read my introduction on the subject first.
It seems that everyone in the world is playing FTL. It’s one of the first Kickstarter games to be finished (although it was already under development before its Kickstarter campaign), and it’s captured everyone’s imagination. It’s easy to see why: a spaceship management game, which has the player shunting power to different systems and frantically ordering crew-members to put out fires, all while making Faster Than Light (FTL, get it?) jumps to escape the rebel fleet, is something we don’t usually see. The roguelike elements — the randomized encounters and brutal difficulty that force the player to try and try again — seal the deal. Best of all, it can easily be played with one hand, being almost entirely mouse-controlled. The only key needed is the spacebar, for pausing the action to issue orders, and if you’re like me you even go to the trouble of mapping that to a spare button on the mouse [EDIT: I had to use my programmable mouse to do this; the game does not actually allow for remapping controls] for a true one-handed experience (if you’re not like me, it’s OK; reaching over to the spacebar with one hand is still very easy).
Most who have written about FTL focus on the great player-generated stories it facilitates. Here’s one example; here’s another. Since I’ve already done that extensively for my favorite roguelike, I won’t take that approach here. Instead I’m going to talk about FTL’s design, and why I think it works so well.
In many ways, FTL is actually quite simple. It’s inspired by classic sci-fi shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica; much like Battlestar, the player is on the run, making constant FTL jumps to escape certain death. The ships themselves, however, are more like those in Star Trek, requiring constant re-routing of power between shields, weapon systems, engines and more. And unlike the hardy Galactica, when these ships take hits, it hurts. Systems go down, fires break out, and crew-members scramble frantically to patch things up before the enemy can fire again. Although the graphics are simple and abstracted rather than realistic, I can all but see the poor little Star Fleet crew getting thrown around while sparks shoot out of the computer banks.
This stuff will immediately appeal to fans of such shows, and they will be able to start playing immediately too. Controls are very simple: click on crew-members, direct them to a room on the ship, and they will automatically perform the appropriate task, be it manning a station, repairing systems, or putting out fires. If you prefer to put out fires by opening an airlock and sucking out all the oxygen, just click on the appropriate doors to open them. Move power around to different systems with the buttons in the bottom left corner of the screen. In combat, click on a weapon and then target a room on the enemy ship, and the guns will fire automatically once charged. Hit the spacebar to pause at any time if you need more time to give these orders.
That’s all that’s necessary to create the frantic, nerve-wracking situations that aspiring starship captains long for. More power to shields! There’s a fire in engineering, and a hull breach in the weapons room! We need to get the engines powered up and jump out of here! FTL loves to put the player in these situations, and it often gives the player enough leeway to scrape out of them too. If you’re just learning the game you might find yourself watching helplessly as your ship is blown to pieces, but after learning the ropes you’ll realize there are always options. Aim for the enemy’s drone control system, so it won’t be able to shoot your missiles down. Cut the power to the oxygen supply to get your shields going again, and hope that the engines charge up before the air runs out. Or simply recognize when you’re outclassed and need to make a run for it.
FTL nails that perfect roguelike learning curve, where repeated plays teach the player better strategies. Non-combat encounters, which are usually handled as simple text descriptions and a few actions to choose from, seem very random at first. Sometimes sending an away team to help the space station results in some supplies, other times you’ll lose a crew-member. But after many sessions, you’ll learn to recognize the risks of each one. You’ll learn that sometimes having a certain species of crew-member or a certain piece of equipment will generate an extra choice in these encounters, a choice that is always beneficial. And you’ll learn the ins and outs of different types of equipment, to better build a ship that can survive the long voyage ahead.
Scrap is used as currency in FTL, and there’s never enough. Do you accumulate a big reserve of scrap so when you eventually stumble upon a store, you’ll have enough to purchase a shiny new gun or a really helpful subsystem? Or do you upgrade your ship instead? And which upgrade to pick? More shields, or how about an engine upgrade to increase your ability to evade attacks? Or upgrade the ship’s doors to blast doors to slow down boarders? And how about more energy in the reactor to power all this stuff? You’ll never be able to get a maxed-out ship, so you must learn to make smart choices based on the equipment you’ve found, the enemies you’ve faced, and maybe some knowledge (from previous attempts) of the dangers that lie ahead.
Finally, there are the unlocks. Even with all of the great stuff I’ve mentioned, playing with the default ship can get old before long. It always starts with the same equipment, and the random encounters aren’t varied enough to really change my strategy in the early parts of the game. But just when it was starting to feel stale, I unlocked the Engi ship. It’s completely different from the Human cruiser; instead of straight firepower, it has an ion beam that can disable shields or other systems for a short time, but doesn’t cause any damage. For offense, it uses drones, which autonomously attack the enemy ship but can’t be directly controlled. This makes combat a vastly different affair. And while I haven’t unlocked any other ships yet, from my encounters I have a pretty good idea of how they’ll work: the Mantis are focused on beaming boarding parties over to the enemy ship to kill off crew-members and trash systems, and slugs start fights
with a one-time supercharge on their shields [EDIT: Whoops, the Zoltan are the ones with the supercharged shields] (plus they’re psychic, so they can probably see what the enemy crew is up to). I’m sure that the Rockmen and Zoltan (and whatever the rest of the ships are… looks like there are a lot) have different strategies as well.
Still, I don’t think FTL will keep me hooked as long as some more involved roguelikes (and roguelike-likes), but its simplicity is really where it shines. It’s easy to learn, and offers just enough options to make multiple plays interesting and fun. It may become frustrating to have to unlock each ship, depending on what’s required, but even with just the two I have I can easily see myself jumping in for quick games or extended sessions well into the future. If you relish the idea of leading a starship and its valiant crew to their inevitable death, and then doing it all over again, you should definitely give FTL a try.
FTL is available direct from the developers, as well as on Steam and GOG.com.