A review I wrote back in 2012.
In Star Trek, space means kissing green women and fisticuffs with lizards. In Star Wars, it means trick shots and laser swords. In Faster Than Light – 2012’s superb ‘spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like’ from Kickstarter darlings Subset Games – space pretty much equals death.
Death by asteroid. Death by asphyxiation. Death by cloaking drone ship, or enormous rebel fleet. Death by plasma storm, exploding sun, telepathic slug pirates or space stations filled with plague. If it’s on the screen, odds are that it can kill you, and this would threaten to exhaust if FTL’s gameplay were anything less than exceptional. It may be stern and unforgiving, its challenges may multiply like Tribbles, but it is brilliant fun to play – largely due to the classic risk/reward mechanics of rogue-likes, which are implemented in FTL elegantly, and to great depth.
In galactic navigation, for example, you balance fuel economy with resource gathering while the rebel fleet chases you to the sector’s exit. Get there too fast and you’ll be under-equipped for future fights; tarry and you’ll be obliterated by the armada’s high level scouts. Individual encounters provide more morally challenging decisions: intervene in a pirate raid, or accept a bribe to warp away? Help save a failing space station, or strip its hull of raw materials?
Upgrading systems can give you more options (teleport survivors out of the station without risking your crew, for example), but a cruiser with fancy autopilot, gold-plated sensors and swishy doors won’t last long against a thrice-shielded slaver ship bristling with burst lasers. Improving your vessel is expensive, and resources are scarce. Decisions, decisions.
To make matters worse, power to your systems is strictly limited, and you’ll be forced into life-or-death trade-offs, mostly in the midst of combat. Reinforce shields and you’ll have to shut off the medbay. Spin up the engine to escape and you might need to lose oxygen – can your captain hold her breath long enough to punch out? Weapons take time to charge and reload, and shields replenish slowly, lending battles a tense, naval quality.
And you’ll need that pause button, cadet, because the strategic options are practically endless. You can teleport an assault team to sabotage enemy weapons, or breach hulls with heavy missiles, or cripple shield generators with perfectly timed laser volleys, or suppress life support with ion bombardment, or set corridors ablaze with terrifying fire beams…but any ship can do the same to you.
Every moment of FTL is spent trading off, making guesses – the risk/reward management operates from surface-level right down to the pico-scale. And death is permanent. No rewinds or quicksaving. The beautifully (joyously, cruelly…) responsive mechanics ensure that any fuck-up is on you and you alone. The guilt (that ‘I-could-do-so-much-better-next-time’ byproduct of ‘Losing Is Fun’) makes the thought of one more suicide run dangerously compelling.
Its presentation doesn’t fall short either. The indie-game pixelometer is set to charming medium-chunk; design is nostalgically cartoonish, but packed with detail. Ships have different markings per allegiance; aliens slither, scuttle or stomp; the interface is space-age DOS, green when things are fine and red when things are not. Weapons have an appropriately heavy-looking recoil, and blink like traffic lights as they charge up. Breached rooms turn pink as hazard lights flash.
The gentle melodies of FTL’s spacey chiptune soundtrack achieve a lonely, weightless feeling, but play second synthesiser to its meticulous sound effects. Missiles launch to a satisfying torpedo-tube ker-thunk; beam lasers horrify with their sustained and high-pitched whine. The whoosh of decompression sucks out the crackling of electrical fires, and bleeping heart monitors fade away in the aftermath of interstellar skirmish.
For all its absorbing qualities, though, FTL is best played at a slight remove. Like its grand-daddy Elite, it jettisons authorial control in favour of providing enough space for you to make your own stories. So play slowly, and carefully; pause often, and read every announcement out loud. Take notes. Flesh out your crew. Make little drawings, and post them on Reddit.
Otherwise you might forget that you once rescued a war criminal called John Pomeroy, who afterwards took point on your team of teleporting sappers. A master combatant, he led the capture of thirteen vessels, and ended the lives of eighteen space pirates, rebels and slavers – once a death row prisoner, now a buccaneering Federation hero. More Captain Cook than Kirk. You accidentally left him on board a crippled ship in a misty, purple nebula, jumping away before the return teleporter could lock, because of an errant mouse-click. No going back. You sighed, leaned back, actually held your head in your hands. RIP John Pomeroy (human-sized praying mantis, and my friend).