The easiest way to describe Faster than Light is as a Battlestar Galactica rogue-like. It has absolutely no official links to the Battlestar Galactica franchise but it captures the series star-jumping, on-the-run, limited resources vibe perfectly. The way the game reminds me so much of Galactica is that each time you jump to a new system any number of randomly generated things can happen, making each jump a tense affair. Also there’s the fact your one lonely ship is on the run from a massive enemy fleet. The randomness and the scarce resources make the game a constant series of important decisions that can at any moment lead to an early demise. What makes FTL great is when you make horrible decisions and your crew slowly dies of asphyxiation you happily load up another four-hour long game without a second thought.
FTL’s random rogue-like mechanics can make it pretty damn easy to fail but also make it very addicting to play. Your jumps may lead you to a much-needed merchant who can sell you fuel and a new weapon system you haven’t seen before or an enemy fighter ready to open fire. The jumps give the game a nice episodic rhythm, each one a mini-story and a set of decisions to be made. Sometimes you will just find yourself in empty lifeless space where your crew can have a brief respite to enjoy the view or you might attempt to explore an asteroid field that sees you lose a precious crew member. The jumps can be deceiving as a unit of time, as any one who has found themselves up way into the morning quoting the old line “just one more turn” can attest.
For a game that looks like a … well, a complicated space management sim, FTL is actually incredibly easy to get into and a real breeze to play. The tutorial quickly guides you through what all the bars and number and subsystems mean and how to direct your crew to combat fires and repair cracks in hulls. To be honest it’s a real simple game and after a few retries you will have your head truly wrapped around it. To make something like managing a space ship seem simple without the game feeling hollow and dumbed down is an accomplishment. It’s a fun game that still captures the inherent technical and science based appeal of piloting a vehicle able to navigate the galaxy.
Being a rogue-like also implies RPG like elements, which FTL has. In this game your character is basically your ship which has a wide variety of systems to level up using “scrap”. Scrap is the game’s catch-all currency, used in shops and to upgrade your existing systems. By the end of a game, which I would say clocks in around the four-hour mark, you will have only gathered enough scrap to max out a couple of your systems. Ships have a maximum of eight systems so you will never at the end of the game have a perfect maxed out ship. This means that constant stream of important choices I was talking about earlier applies to the way in which you improve your ship too. There’s also no way of going back and collecting more scrap as the enemy fleet is always progressing along the map. All the more reason to load up a new ship from the hangar and try out some different weapon combinations when your current game is over.
You don’t control your ship in FTL like a traditional space flight sim but in a way more akin to a management game like Theme Hospital. Without direct control over the movements of the ship you direct crew and decide where the ship’s power supplies should be routed. Each ship system has its own room, some which can be manned by a crew member to give the system a boost in performance. For example putting a crew member in the engine room will boost the ships chance to dodge incoming fire. These systems will fail if the room they are in receives too much damage from attacks. If your camera system goes down do you send a crew member manning another important system to repair it? Or do you hope you can fight blind just long enough to destroy the enemy ship? It’s these choices filled with so much drama that make FTL a thrill to play.
FTL is at its best when the game throws you a curve ball to adapt to. When cruising through nebulas your cameras won’t work, but luckily you could have some of the telepathic slug crew members that can sense what’s going on onboard the ships without them. You think you’re doing fine then suddenly find yourself in a plasma storm that cuts the energy supply of your ship in half and an enemy ship is shooting at you to boot. Do you try putting all your power into your weapon systems at the cost of less shields and engine power? Or maybe just fire up the stealth system and try to dodge the incoming attack until your faster than light drive is ready to escape to the next system. Before you make your choice your oxygen system is on fire and your crew is fighting mantis-men beamed from the enemy ship with a dwindling supply of fresh air. FTL gives you plenty of choices to make and plenty of ways for things to go horribly wrong. Faster than Light is one of those very special games where the best bits are when you’re losing and that always deserves a good score so FTL gets 4/5 star systems.