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Faster than Light Review

By Jeff Buckland, 9/26/2012

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Aside from those times when I'm reliving my childhood by playing classic arcade games, I dislike playing games where the default end to most sessions is a single permanent death. Games like Super Meat Boy will kill you a lot, sure, but you're always moving towards that goal of beating the game. I do enjoy watching people play Roguelikes, but for me, playing them just has never been much fun.

Faster Than Light changed that for me.

Developed by the two-man team at Subset Games and probably the first big, successful indie game to use Kickstarter as a way to at least partially fund its development, Faster Than Light is a roguelike in space. You've got a ship with a crew and various sci-fi subsystems like shields, engines, weapons, sensors, and life support to manage. You're being chased by a massive rebel fleet, trying to get to your Federation friends with key information that's vital to the survival of the... oh you know what? Who cares? Story isn't really what FTL is about, other than as a basis for a few ground rules, like why you can't linger in any one sector for too long or why you can't summon any help from your pals at the Federation.

FTL's battles play out in a real-time setup where you can pause and issue orders at any time. Then, once a battle is complete, each jump you make between systems is like a turn in a turn-based game, and every turn that massive rebel fleet comes closer to enveloping the whole sector as it moves from left to right. You generally move to the right to escape one sector and enter the next, all the way through the full eight sectors, and the game is constantly generating encounters for you to have for every single jump. In one system you might find a helpful ship that sells you some key resources, in others it's just a straight up fight against mercenaries, slavers, pirates, or rebels, and in still others, you'll have to make choices that could give you a nice boon, or might cost you so much that you wind up losing because of it.

Either way, once you die in FTL, you start over from the beginning - every time. Sure, there are achievements along with new ships you can unlock, but it should be pointed out that if you want a truly persistent experience with a saved character (or ship) that grows over the course of many hours of play, that's absolutely not what you'll get with this game. Instead, you get one session that can last from a few minutes up to about an hour and a half, depending on how far you get, and whether you win or lose, that's the end. The fun comes in the many ways the game plays out during repeated play-throughs and in the game's ability to randomly generate encounters.

Now, that may sound like a pretty bad game design idea for someone that was raised on the notion that every single player game is done once you've completed it successfully - that "beating" a game is the only thing you really do with it. Even someone like me who was raised on classic arcade, NES and C64 games has gotten a little used to this way of thinking over the last two decades, so I needed to get into a different gaming mindset to start enjoying FTL. Most of your runs through this game (especially early on) will result in you dying, but it's important to point out that this doesn't mean that destroying 20 enemy ships and dying to one means that the run was a failure - it was 20 successes and one failure. FTL does a great job making you feel like every space battle you win is a victory to be celebrated, and only once you get killed is that a defeat. From that perspective, you get a lot more wins than losses, even if every run you go through does end in defeat. Not that it will stay that way, however, as while this game's randomness and difficulty will kill you a lot, and sometimes there's no amount of player skill that will fix that, learning to play and employing better and better strategies drastically increases your chances of taking out the enemy flagship.

FTL may seem to play out a little simplistically, as combat is only ever your ship versus one enemy ship, but there is a lot going on here as you micromanage your crew, systems, and where to fire your weapons. Punching through shields can be difficult, and then you've got to decide how to take an enemy ship's hull points out - do you use weapons to start fires on their ship and disable their systems, slowly killing off the crew and spreading out the damage, or do you just hammer one room until you punch a hole big enough to cause the ship to explode? Your crew has bonuses based on their race and experience based on whatever you've set them to doing, and they'll have to both man systems on your ship and fight off incoming attackers when the enemy ship teleports their own crew on board your ship. Of course, fires will start on your ship when enemies get through your shield, too, and you can use your crew to put them out, or you can strategically open the right doors and airlocks to vent the room to space, starving the fires of oxygen. Even then, thoughyou've got to maintain enough oxygen for your crew to live, and moving them away from the systems they're good at manning will mean lower performance.

Then you've got things like automated drones, cloaking, power balancing between onboard systems, the ability to board the enemy ship and kill the crew, and all of the ways you can balance those capabilities, and all of a sudden a game that runs at a slow pace and can be paused at any time becomes very hectic and heart-thumping. What's interesting is that defeating an enemy ship is not enough to secure a victory: sometimes your ship can be left in such a crippled state after a battle that there's no way to survive, and that's not even counting the areas with asteroid fields or deadly solar flares that can do severe damage to any ship that lingers for too long.

It sounds like it's this game is pain in the ass to learn to play, but FTL has a pretty quick tutorial that does a great job of teaching you to play without treating you like this is the first video game you've ever seen. On top of that, the game also includes an easy mode that you could just play on forever, unlocking new ships and all, but the developers seem to consider the only other difficulty - Normal - to actually be the default mode. (And yes, it's quite difficult.) Even with time spent in the tutorial and easy mode, there's still a lot of intermediate and advanced stuff to learn, though, like how to best use beams, when to engage cloak, and what equipment to buy to handle a diverse range of enemy ships. All of that comes only with experience.

One of the important things I think a Roguelike game needs is for players to feel like they've got a path for improvement, and that all those deaths they eat early on will lead to successes in the future. FTL succeeds here, because most sessions do have that path to success between beating early encounters, being shrewd at the stores, and correctly using your resources to make it through later encounters without getting your ship halfway torn up every fight. Even experienced players won't find that path every time, and there will be a few runs where the game does seem to be just purposely trolling you and trying very hard to end your run, but if that happens, you'll be able to see and understand exactly what happened and why.

With all of that said, FTL is still somewhat of a limited game in its scope and size, but it could very likely be expanded quite a bit by future DLC or even community-driven modding which I've heard has already begun. The base game's quality of art isn't exactly the greatest, but a lot of that is made up for by the solid sound effects along with an infectious, wonderful soundtrack by a guy named Ben Prunty. On top of this, the game's also very light on special effects or eye-popping visuals, but it's also very easy to run on lower-end PCs and runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

The ten bucks it costs to get into Faster Than Light won't be money well spent for every gamer out there, but if you are looking for a challenging roguelike strategy game with some intriguing ship management and light RPG systems built into it, then you owe it to yourself to check out this game. It doesn't have the most amazing of visual presentations, but much of that is made up for with addictive gameplay and that "just one more game!" factor that will keep you playing late into the night, long after you should have gone to sleep. You'll get to work bleary-eyed, but you'll have some great stories to tell. Admittedly, you're going to need to have some pretty nerdy co-workers if you want to entertain anyone with your stories of taking out the Rebel Flagship, but they'll still be some great memories.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a bought copy of the game.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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