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Oddball Review: FTL (Faster Than Light)

I’m a huge fan of video games and space opera (Star Trek, Firefly and such), so when I discovered a tasty blend of both in FTL, a space exploration game for the PC, I was immediately intrigued. Although I didn’t immediately bite, a few days later a tweet arrived in my timeline from CheapassGamer informing me that FTL was on sale for 40% off. That was all I needed, so $5.99 later, I was ready to explore the galaxy. And what I found when I got out there was so much fun, I decided to report back post haste.

FTL is an indie game developed mainly by two guys. It’s the result of a Kickstarter that was funded at a whopping 2,000% past its goal, and the result is a fun little adventure in space exploration and starship resource management. It uses retro-style pixel art and Adlib-style sound effects, which I’m not normally a fan of in this modern age, but the FTL team has managed to make the game look and sound beautiful within these confines. Best of all, though, is how the game plays. Rather than another boring space combat game, FTL lets resource management take center stage. If your idea of great space opera is watching dueling crews scramble to reroute power, put out fires or restore the shields before they get hulled, you’ll love FTL.

Combat in progress

You play the collective roles of a small crew of Federation officers who are piloting a craft through space, being pursued by angry rebels who are trying to crush the Federation itself. Your mission is to convey super-secret data about the rebel fleet to Federation headquarters, but that very rebel fleet is hot on your trail, closing in behind you as you FTL-hop from sector to sector, trying to stay ahead of them. The real gem of FTL travel in this game is the fact that you have scores of systems to explore, and venturing into each system results in a random encounter generated from over 50,000 available lines of text. The galaxy itself is randomly generated each time you play, so there’s no “right path” — or at least, none that anyone could tell you in a walkthrough. You’re truly on your own out there.

And it’s hard. The game has two difficulty modes, Easy and Normal, and in fact the game even suggests in the opening screens that if you’re new to FTL you might want to give Easy a shot. I wasn’t going to shrink from a challenge so easily, but on Normal difficulty, I literally got blown out of the sky on the very first system I ventured into. There was a distress call coming from a neighboring system; I thought I’d help; it turned out to be a trap and I died. Very simple. Oh, and when you die? No matter how far you are into the game, it’s permanent. There’s no saving or loading, no going back to a checkpoint. You’re just dead. Here’s your high score. Want to do better? Start over again!

To be honest, I normally hate those kinds of games, believing that they were a product of (and should stay buried in) the 8-bit Nintendo era. But the real fun of FTL is the gameplay, and given that it’s random every time, you’ll happily start over and try to do better than your previous run. I should mention, too, that there is one exception to the “no saving or loading” limitation: You’re allowed to “Save and Quit” at any time, in case you, y’know, need to stop playing and get back to your life (or in my case, go to bed). This is a reasonable accommodation that makes the save system difficult to abuse while taking a step back from the antiquated “play it in one sitting or forget it” precipice.

Ship upgrade screen

As a longtime fan of space opera, when I was a kid I concocted a sci-fi universe of my own devising (using some familiar characters and settings). Somewhere between Star Trek and Red Dwarf, it centered on the exploits of a crew of mostly misfits aboard a lackadaisically-engineered, ponderously overlarge cruiser named Genia 16. It seemed like trouble befell this crew wherever they went, usually in the form of their ship malfunctioning, being shot at, being hit by asteroids, or simply coming apart at the seams. (One episode focused on the laughably oxymoronic concept of “space earthquakes” that shook the ship nearly to pieces.) Naturally, then as I set out to play my first game of FTL, I named my ship Genia 16 and crewed it with three standbys from that old universe: Captain Benjamin, XO Charlie and Engineer Harvie. (At the start of the game, FTL only assigns you three crew members.)

The 16 lived up to its history, too. It wasn’t long before they started getting attacked by pirates and raiders, rebel ships, even a haywire orbital defense system. As I sent crewmen scurrying around the ship to repair damaged systems, patch holes in the hull and put out fires, alarms were going off and my user interface was filling up with warning icons bleating about the shields being down, the engines being out and the hull being a few hits away from utter collapse. It sounds stressful, but in fact it was nothing but a rollicking good time. After that initial game where I got blown away by a raider transmitting a false distress signal, I fared much better in my second game — until it came down to a contest to see whether I would run out of fuel or be blown apart first. (Hint: it didn’t end well.)

The resource management in FTL adds some new twists to the typical setup, going beyond simply managing power and repairing systems like engines, weapons and shields. You also have subsystems like sensors and doors. Sensors allow you to see “inside” your ship’s rooms; if they get taken out, you won’t know what’s going on in a room unless it’s occupied by a crew member. So you might need to rush to get to the medbay for some healing, but not realize that the corridor leading to it is in a vacuum! The door systems allow you to open or close all of the ship’s doors remotely, which is good for controlling boarding parties. Intruders on their way to the bridge? Open all the doors — including the airlock — and blow them out into space! Just make sure none of your faithful crew are near the airlock when this happens.

This looks rather like the end of my last game.

You can also use the doors to control fires, which I perilously forgot at the end of my last game. I destroyed the enemy ship that had been attacking me, but they’d done so much damage that my ship was being ravaged by fire. I had my entire crew trying to put the fires out with extinguishers, but most of them burned to death until only Captain Benjamin remained, backed into a corner with a lone extinguisher, choking to death on the smoke. If only I’d remembered to open the airlock door and put it out. In the end, the fire ate through the hull and airlocked the entire ship. Game over, man.

About the highest praise I can heap on FTL is the fact that it’s the closest thing to a modern EGA Trek that I’ve ever found, and given how much time I spent playing EGA Trek back in the day — even collecting different versions of it on 5.25″ floppy disks — that says a lot. (Apparently EGA Trek was scrubbed of copyrighted references at some point, with all of its Star Trek talk of Klingons and photon torpedoes being replaced with more generic words. Thankfully I never played the “sanitized” version.)

The only bad thing I can say about FTL is that the Intel GMA 3650 GPU in my Samsung ATIV tablet isn’t capable of running it. 🙂

FTL normally sells for a modest $9.99, but through December 10th you can score it direct from the developers for $5.99 (which also includes a Steam key). Frankly, it’s a bargain at either price.

Oddball Verdict: Go Get It.