Developer: Subset Games / Publisher: Subset Games / Played on: PC / Price: $9.99 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
There’s no better sign of the raw gaming variety available today than FTL. If you’ve heard anything about it, you’ve probably heard that it’s a roguelike, but it’s substantially different than the recent genre-reviving titles Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac. FTL takes the ideas that make roguelikes enjoyable and nests them inside unique ship-management and tactical combat mechanics that haven’t been seen since 2002’s Star Trek: Bridge Commander. It’s a marvelously unique game, and if you can tolerate the idiosyncrasies of roguelike gameplay, you’ve finally found your chance to be the starship commander you always wanted.
In FTL, you play as a federation ship that accidentally stumbles across an armada of rebel warships. To warn the federation fleet about the incoming attack, you must travel across eight sectors of space while outrunning the rapidly encroaching armada. You do this by traveling through discrete nodes in every sector to get to the exit. Each node has a random event associated with it whether it’s simply running afoul of a pirate ship, reading a small text window describing a nearby nebula, or stopping in at a merchant to repair your ship.
Combat in the game takes hints from tactical RPGs like Dragon Age or Baldur’s Gate. When you engage in battle, you’ll see your ship on the left and your enemy’s ship on the right. You can bring your weapons to bear on specific sub-systems which will impact the enemy ship’s performance and vice versa. The interplay between ship systems, hull breaches that vent oxygen, fires that spread and damage your crew, and even the ability to transport on to enemy vessels and duke it out with the enemy crew hand-to-hand is just awesome. This is the best Star Trek combat simulator I’ve ever played. It creates those crazy moments where an asteroid can knock out your shields so you re-route power to your engines to escape, or you just defeated an enemy but a nearby solar flare has caused fire to spread through half your ship and take your engines offline. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like you’re captaining the Enterprise or the Serenity, this is the game for you.
So far it doesn’t sound much like Spelunky or Isaac, but FTL still hinges on core roguelike mechanics. FTL is extremely difficult and random, meaning you’ll essentially have to get a series of lucky breaks to make it to the end on normal difficulty. Given that every node you visit generates a random event, it’s possible you’ll never find a shop or generate enough scrap (the game’s currency) to upgrade your ship properly in the first few sectors. Hell, I’ve been outright killed in some of my first encounters just because fires started in the wrong spots on my ship. Sinking 90 minutes into a game only to die to happenstance is a special roguelike pain, and it’s here in force.
The game’s roguelike nature isn’t all pain and loss though. There are tons of secrets to uncover and new ships to unlock, each of which necessitate different tactics to survive. For example, the starting human ship is standard and relies on orthodox weaponry to survive battles. The Engi ship, on the other hand, comes with an ion cannon that incapacitates systems, and must rely on an automated drone to deal hull damage. Other races excel in hand-to-hand combat, meaning that teleporting and attacking crew is the best option. There’s untold replay value in the game in terms of combat tactics, though I am already starting to see several repeats in the random node events. I would’ve liked a little more variety in that regard, but the price is more than right for what you get.
VISUALS AND SOUND
Every part of FTL’s aesthetic emulates early 90s PC gaming. The visuals are basic but effective, using a limited color palette and animation to hit that sweet spot where it shows just enough to please the eye, but little enough to engage your imagination when you watch little blocky dudes punching at each other in your engine room. I wish there were more backdrops in the game though. You’ll see most of the visual variety the game has to offer within a few hours.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is phenomenal. Not only does it sound like it’s coming out of a Sound Blaster AWE32 but it’s also a marvelous bit of composing. The music dynamically switches between serene exploration music and thumping combat tracks, with recurring themes showing up in related sectors of space and near the game’s end. Even the music’s composition simultaneously pays homage to old PC tracks with really chirpy, early-90s sequencing and more modern big beat percussion in combat. The score is absolutely amazing and is instrumental in sucking you into the gaming experience.
FTL is largely easy to control, and I especially appreciate the ability to pause the game and issue commands to your crew members a la Baldur’s Gate or Dragon Age. That capability is especially appreciated because I often had trouble clicking on my crew members to select them. Often times I’d get into RTS mode and try to order my dudes around in real time, only half the commands wouldn’t go through because I hadn’t actually selected anyone despite clicking on the little buggers. I also wish I could assign different colors to crew members so I could remember which is skilled at manning the weapons and which is my engine guy. It’d not only save time but also help me further reenact Star Trek, but alas.
Normally I’m confident in recommending a game to a specific group of people, but FTL hits such a weird cross section of game mechanics that it’s not so simple. Captaining a spaceship is a dream that many gamers have had for years, and FTL pulls it off near perfectly. If the difficulty, randomness, and repetition of rougelikes doesn’t scare you away, FTL will give you an experience you can’t find anywhere else.
8.5 / 10