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Wish Fulfilled: A Week with FTL

Saavik: So you’ve never faced that situation? Faced death?
Kirk: I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.
—Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn

Is there any sci-fi geek of my generation (anyone born in the 70s) who hasn’t wanted a video game to bring the infamous Kobayahsi Maru scenario to video games? Various games have tried. There have been actual Star Trek games that have tried. None that I’ve played have ever quite captured that spirit of crewing and powering and surviving aboard a starship like FTL: Faster Than Light. This rogue-like in space that stumbled into $200,543 in Kickstarter funding, while petitioning for a mere $10,000, is the game I’ve been looking for ever since I first heard Kirk tell Sulu to lock phasers on Reliant and “await my command.”

It’s been a long wait…

Before I descend to full on hyperbole, let’s dispense with the notion that the game is perfect. It’s not a beauty. It’s limited in scope. What plot there is, is best not looked at too closely (or at all). Because you can’t play a crew past the end-scenario or play with custom ship builds, it doesn’t go quite far enough to offer a lasting experience. It screams for an iOS or Android iteration. And it still needs a certain something, even if I can’t quite put my finger on what that something is.

It’s also the $10 product of a two-man operation – Sunset Games’ Matthew Davis (programming/design) and Justin Ma (art/design). I wouldn’t know these two gents if they walked up to me and signed my belly, but it’s obvious that what started off as a flight of fancy, as a “I bet we can do this” project, has turned into something neither could possibly have anticipated. Given that, it’s understandable that the game doesn’t present like something that was funded at 2,000% of its goal. At the same time, what these two accomplished would be amazing to me if they were funded at $2,000,000. (That, if you were wondering, is the beginning of a chorus line of Hyperbole.)

In FTL you are given a starship and an initial crew that’s usually comprised of three our four people that can come from a variety of races, each of which has the usual array of strengths and weaknesses. All ships –there are something like eight, each with a variant model– have a few core systems: Life Support, cockpit, engine room, medical bay, shield control, etc. There are additional systems found on some ship variants by default but that must be installed on others, like cloaking, transporters (for boarding actions), and drone control. All of these systems have some kind of upgrade potential that increases their performance or adds capability. You assign your crew to these positions as you like, which both increases that system’s effectiveness and, as they gain in experience, that crewman’s ability to man it. For example, manning shields incrementally increases its recharge rate.

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The goal is clear: You are part of a crumbling Federation, under siege from oncoming Rebel forces. You have information vital to the Federation’s survival and must safely reach your fleet at Sector 8. Each sector is composed of a number of jump points and you jump from point to point and sector to sector. Every stop along the way has some kind of encounter that ranges from exchanging goods with merchants to being attacked by rebels or pirates to helping the locals fight off a spider infestation. (Why must it always be spiders?) Although survival is possible, the game really isn’t so much about survival as it is about seeing how long you can survive. It’s the Kobayashi Maru. That is the challenge and the fun.

I’ve manned the captain’s chair of no less than a dozen starships and only one has both reached the promised land and then survived the final encounter (at which point the game ends). That one successful foray was played on the game’s Easy mode (there are only two difficulty settings). Most of my other attempts have ended in destruction before so much as reaching Sector 5. But then, in the realm of legendary starship captains, I probably rank alongside Jason Nesmith.

Backwash!

What separates FTL from other attempts to crack this impenetrable genre is balance. It doesn’t overplay its hand or try to take on more than its core design can handle. Its UI is simple enough that you can pick it up and understand how to play within minutes. You don’t need a rulebook filled with turn ratios, consumption curves, and hull thickness specifications. You don’t have to learn how to fly the ship because there is no flight control. You don’t have to line up cross hairs or do anything else remotely twitchy. Really, all you do is issue orders, balance power usage, and upgrade your ship. You are The Captain. The Decider. Trust me when I tell you all that keeps you plenty busy.

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Power and scrap, the latter of which functions as currency, are everything in this game. Although there are ship systems you can find or purchase, all upgrades require scrap and power. Upgraded engines that improve your dodge chance and speed the time it takes to activate your ship’s Jump capability require you to feed them more power to take advantage of those benefits. Did you add a new ion cannon? I hope you have the scrap parts needed to both enhance the weapons control’s power capacity and your ship’s ability to feed it the power it craves. What’s taken me a dozen hours of play to learn is that trying to fully power every system at once, or even most of them, is folly. You’ll spend all your scrap just upgrading your ship’s power capacity while not being able to afford the actual upgrades needed to survive the range of scenarios you’ll face, not to mention keep your ship maintained (fuel, missiles, drone parts, and armor are all expendable resources you must replenish).

Survival demands knowing when you need a system and when you don’t. It’s easy to turn off a med-bay when the crew is at full health or risk shutting down life support for a few minutes in the name of activating a second weapon or drone, but that kind of thinking will only get you so far. If a pirate is coming after you with a single fire laser and a pair of hull-breaching missile systems, having upgraded and fully powered shields but only stock engines isn’t going to mean much. No, the laser isn’t getting through, but missiles ignore shields and, if you can’t dodge them, wreck both hull and systems alike. This is the moment where you’ll wish you skipped a bigger battery in favor of engine upgrades to which you could’ve diverted power away from your shields. Of course, next time around you’ll encounter a rebel ship that does its damage by sending over a boarding party . If only you had upgraded to security doors when you had the chance, maybe you could’ve slowed the invaders from taking out your ship’s sensors or life support.

Then there is the pain and delight of managing your crew. Having your Rockman put out a fire in the security room or sending your robotic Engi crew member to repair a damaged system is a no-brainer. What about when you’ve vented the ship to repel boarders and only then does life support, which is all the way on the other side of the ship, take a critical hit? (Ship design and system placement also plays a huge role in how you manage your crew.) Somebody has to hold their breath. And which critical post do you abandon in order to repair it? Can you afford to leave the helm when under missile attack or for your weapons to charge up a few seconds slower? And when your ace pilot is killed trying to aid a sick colony do you put off ship upgrades while you look for a jump point with a general store that might or might not have replacements readily available? And even if they do, you’ve still lost half a game’s worth of experience at the helm. It’s a never-ending string of decisions that you have to make and, very often, you have to make them blindly.

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This is where the genius of FTL lies. Jump to jump you have no idea what you’ll encounter and, although there is a counter to every attack, there is no way to outfit your ship to handle everything you might face. One minute you’ll wish you had the ability to power more weapons, the next you’ll wish you had saved enough scrap to afford that transporter that would’ve let you send crew over to take out a ship from the inside that that you can’t even hope to scratch on the outside. One minute you sit smugly in your chair knowing a rival can’t touch you, the next you’re cursing the gods as you frantically send crewmen to extinguish a fire and repair a damaged engine that is your only hope of escape. It’s a game of strategic and tactical choices, but it’s also a game of luck. It’s an addicting combination that never ever plays out the same way twice.

FTL may not quite be everything I’d ever wanted from or hoped for in a starship simulator, but it’s much, much closer than anyone else has ever gotten. Matthew Davis and Justin Ma deserve every accolade they receive for this effort, but mostly I just want them to get to work on a bigger and badder version, be it add-on content or an outright sequel. In the meantime, look for FTL as a digital download from either Steam or GOG.com.

Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and proceeded to spend over 16 years as a development editor for Pearson Education, publishing books, videos, and digital learning products under the Que and Sams Publishing imprints. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd has also been a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ubrakto or check it out his website at ToddsFoolery.com.

19 thoughts to “Wish Fulfilled: A Week with FTL”

  1. Instabuy from GoG for me. I missed the boat on the Kickstarter and have been kicking myself since then. I agree 100% on the handheld port. It should only be a matter of time.

    1. After two hard days playing it, I have to admit that the frustration is fun, but that there’s one aspect of it that seems, well, dumb. Each ship class has a “strong hand” that it tries to play to: missile use, drone deployment, so on. But since there’s no way to guarantee that your randomized opportunities will let you play to those strengths, that part feels like a wasted opportunity.

      After the umpteenth time being given an opportunity to buy the REALLY GOOD THING for your particular strategy on turn 2, when you won’t have the money for it till turn 7…just dammit.

      1. I know exactly what you mean there, but I actually view it as a positive. There’s definitely a strength most ships play to (that I’ve tried anyway), but what I like about the game is you can’t just assume you can play to that strategy. In terms of upgrades you find or have opportunity to purchase, you really have to adjust to and play the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes that means a disastrous run, but sometimes you can make do and go far with a sub-optimal build, which, for me, enhances how so much of this game is about “how far can you get” as opposed to winning. I dig that. I do wish it had expanded stat tracking, though, so I could more easily look back on playthroughs and be reminded of the more memorable ones.

        1. I think your solution would remove the misgivings I have, yeah. The distance and quality of your failed run – how well you make and eat the turd sandwich you’re given at the beginning of the game – is compelling gameplay, no doubt. But given that every single run of mine has ended in “Blowed Up”, it *would* be nice to have a better tracking system for “number of narrow escapes”, “most expensive weapon you never had a chance to use”, and so on.

          For me, the best part of my next few games will be figuring out how to unlock all the bonus ships. I only have two now, but one has both layouts unlocked. That’s a *vast* difference, too, since each layout gives a completely different weapon and crew configuration, too.

  2. I feel that certain something thats lacking is the need for more random events. Maybe a few different tricks up its sleeve.

    Other then that I’ve devoured this beta and not regretted funding this for a second.

    1. You know, I think you’re right about that. There’s a lot of events in the game, but a lot of it is just variation on the same theme, where you’re really just sort of swapping flavor text. I agree more encounter variety would go a long way with this game.

  3. Seriously why is everything screaming for an iOS iteration? This game is perfect where it is at the PC. I’ve been playing it for months thanks to the early beta and it’s a load of fun.

    Other than that I like your impressions.

    1. It’s fantastic on the PC, but it’s also an experience that would work well on a tablet with a touch UI. I have visions of playing the game on my lunch breaks, at my kids’ soccer practices, and when at my GF’s place. This experience could be made more portable and not lose a shred of awesomeness. So much of my available gaming time now occurs when I can’t necessarily sit down on my PC at home so I think the tablet-version-wishing is natural, as I suspect I’m not alone in that.

  4. I just bought FTL on steam so I have haven’t play it yet. But I plan on playing it mostly on my iPad 3.

    I play most of my PC strategy games on my iPad using the excellent app Logmein Pro. Normally this is a subscription app, but if you call them on the phone and there is a one time purchase option. If memory serves me, it is an in app purchase option.

    Why this works on an iPad 3…

    -If you have your PC/Mac connected to your router by a LAN cable you can turn on/off the PC/Mac remotely from the iPad.
    -The iPad 3 has enough resolution to show the full pc screen.
    -If a keyboard is needed, logmein supports the Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad. Also logmein has a mini onscreen keyboard.
    -The on-screen mouse and mouse buttons are easy to use.
    -You don’t need a lot wireless bandwidth for it to work, it even works well over cellular 4G LTE. But keep an eye on your data usage. I use my data manager https://www.mobidia.com/takecontrol/index.shtml

    I realize this sounds like like an add for Logmein, but I’m just a very happy user.

  5. This game is destroying my productivity.

    Thanks a lot, Todd. 😉

    Man, that last boss is tough, even on easy. I almost, almost killed its last iteration with the engi ship, only to have my final crew member asphyxiate while some teleported bastard was beating him to death in the pilot’s seat. Truly epic.

    1. You’re welcome! 😉

      So far I’ve done two runs on Easy and, surprisingly, won them both. (Once with Kestrel and once with Osprey.) Then I go back to Normal and get waxed by Sector 3. The amount of scrap you can get on Easy makes such a *huge* difference.

      1. Huh, I don’t know how you’d ever collect enough missiles to make a Kestral run viable; unless you just didn’t use them at all until the last fight (or you just didn’t use missile weapons). Maybe I’m just bad at this

        Losing is fun!

        1. As I recall, my missile count was nearly exhausted by the time I defeated the boss on that run, but yeah, I had worked hard not to use more than one missile per encounter unless necessary. Especially on Easy, the burst laser by itself can you get through a few sectors so long as you have sufficient defenses. I’m sure I picked up another weapon along the way too, but really I tried to only use missiles when I needed them to knock down opposing shield effectiveness or because I was taking damage and needed to end an encounter more quickly. I also bought a load of missiles whenever I got to a store.

          1. I ended up beating it without missiles at all; 2 MK2 Ion Cannons and the original burst laser. The Ion Cannons ate his shields and systems like candy.

  6. This makes some insightful ideas-however I notice you could be lacking clarity. I hope to see you expand this, because you are a very eloquent writer and I get immense value from reading your articles.

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