“Somehow you’ve died during the introduction training exercise. Feel free to try again but this doesn’t bode well for your mission”. Welcome to Faster Than Light (FTL).
Space battles form a large part of gameplay - luckily they're sublime
And try you will. Again and again and again. FTL’s voyages across deep space will see you dodge pirates, rebels, asteroid belts, solar flares... every conceivable danger from every sci-fi programme you’ll never admit to liking. The mission itself - delivering a package to Federation forces whilst fleeing pursuing Rebels - is ancillary to the loot, levelling and perma-deaths in this roguelike.
What’s a roguelike, I hear you cry! Shame on you - I bet you have friends and a kite and a happy dog with a frisbee. Allow me to educate you. Roguelikes generally share a few key features - they’re RPGs; levels are randomly generated; they’re turn-based, and; when you die, you’re dead. No quick saves or reloads. FTL has all these features and more.
In a nutshell, FTL is a spaceship management sim. It’s effectively a puzzle game. Your ship must travel across a number of sectors to a Federation stronghold, fleeing from pursuing Rebel forces as you hop from one part of space to another. The actual gameplay is carried out through two means - first, a map of planets and sectors you can jump to. Second, a birds-eye view of your ship’s rooms and crew as scenarios are carried out. These range from space battles to trade negotiations, with a text interface giving a neat retro feel to affairs. Crew members can be moved between rooms to boost their output or repair damage. Orders to flee, attack or raise shields (among others) are issued through on-screen buttons. Power is needed for all systems so you determine manually where power is routed. When things get hectic, hitting Space pauses the game and allows you to queue orders. This gives you breathing space and stops FTL degenerating into madcap farce; failure and success always feel well earned rather than the result of frantic decision making.
Randomised events promote player-driven narratives brilliantly
Ships can be upgraded with scrap metal, usually salvaged after victorious battles but sometimes stumbled upon. Offensive systems can be upgraded so multiple weapons can operate simultaneously. Shields and engines can be improved to improve your defence and evasive manoeuvres respectively, or you can bolster a range of subsystems which provide key benefits (such as an improved med-bay or bulk doors to keep intruders at bay).
There are additional systems which allow some real customisation of your ship. Drones can be bought which shoot down incoming missiles, attack enemy ships or patrol your corridors to tackle boarding parties. Stealth drives can be installed which, at a minimum, hide your ship from incoming attacks and, at best, allow you to attack enemies while keeping your cloak up. The whole system of upgrading is done brilliantly - you won’t come across every type of upgrade in every game and so it’s a painstaking choice what you’ll choose. Trading posts increase the odds of coming across rare items but make the difficult choices more frequent.
Another aspect that ties well to the upgrade system (and the brilliance of the game in general) are the range of species. Initially only plain old Humans are available. Playing through games and triggering key events (no spoilers here!) unlocks ships from other species which have beneficial traits, but hiring crew members of different species can be done right away through trading posts. Engis repair damaged rooms at an increased rate, Zoltans provide power to rooms they inhabit (helpful for powering energy-hungry advanced weapons) whereas Mantis crews have bonus attack damage. Teaming these species with appropriate ship upgrades greatly increases your chance of success. For example, Mantis crews should look out for transporters so they can beam aboard enemy ships and do some damage. Weaker species can counteract this with sturdy bulk doors, which are much harder to break through. Different species also have different ship layouts which helps add flavour to the presentation of your particular game.
I need to unlock this ship
Roguelikes are not known for their user-friendliness but FTL is something of an exception. The tutorial eases you into the game and outlines the simple instructions which, as with all great games, are simple to pick up but difficult to master. On your first playthrough you’ll be throwing your weight around, attacking on sight and greedily upgrading your ship with scrap as soon as you have it. Before long you’ll become stuck, either pummelled to death by an asteroid field you didn’t think to plan for or - in a nod towards what space travel would really be like - stranded without fuel, bleeping a distress signal and waiting desperately while the Rebels creep ever forward. The next few times you’ll get into the nuances of the game; sealing areas of the ship that have been invaded before opening exterior doors to drain oxygen and suffocate boarding parties (much easier than engaging them with precious crew). Scrap will be hoarded jealously and only used for upgrades after much agonising. Routes through sectors will balance alacrity with curiosity - that planet’s really on the outskirts, it must have something good...
I see your fire and raise you MEGA DEATH LASER!
So what’s wrong here? Roguelikes are often adored by gamers because they create a bond between player and avatar - you’re responsible for these little pixels and you want to see them through thick and thin (you can even name them before setting off). FTL may elicit this but - with apologies in advance to the fanboys - I found the opposite was true. Actual games last two-three hours, depending on how long you agonise over choices, so it’s easy to flit through without making this connection. The death of members can also happen in the heat of the moment so they’re often not missed for a few turns... ahem, sorry about that soldier. Similarly the text interface is great stylistically but it becomes tempting to skip through sections once you’ve encountered the majority of randomly generated events. These points are symptomatic of the repetitive characteristic of FTL which, ironically, is also the hook of its addictiveness - games are similar enough to keep you playing but can run the risk of becoming overly familiar, chipping away at the novelty you’ll feel the first time you play.
There’s certainly something of the “choose your own adventure” book about FTL. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the world and lose hours (or longer), planning and strategising your next move. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and this is true here; as soon as you’re done with one game, your brain’s whirring about what you’ll do in the next. There aren’t many games that do this well but FTL is certainly one of them; a beacon of what indie gaming is capable of.