Faster Than Light (FTL)'s graphical style is a throwback to 16-bit gaming. The game-play is also retro, playing in a similar style to games like Oregon Trail which relies on random events and luck to progress. Well, FTL is much more complex than that. Sure, you need a bit of luck, but there's a lot of strategy involved too which means you need to get familiar with the mechanics in order to form a plan to survive.
The story sees your vessel on the run from Rebel forces, fleeing with a secret that must be brought to the Federation. The galaxy map is made up of a series of sectors which are comprised of interconnected nodes of star systems. You jump from each star system to traverse the map in order to reach the end of the sector. After each jump, the rebel fleet moves closer. What this means is that you generally need to move horizontally, but may have room to explore other systems in order to find resources to upgrade your ship. You can enter a system occupied by the pursuing fleet, but this results in a tough battle, so your 'turns' are limited within each sector.
After each jump, a random event occurs. It could be nothing, could be a (potentially) good thing, or could be a battle. Usually, you are presented with a choice, to attack/take the quest or move on. The results of some scenarios are random, so it's a case of risk vs reward. For example, there are scenarios where if you are lucky, you may acquire a crew member, but the converse is that you may lose a crew member.
The games currency is scrap, which is acquired by destroying ships. You also need to stock fuel which is used in each jump, rockets for your missile based weapons, and drone parts if you wish to use the drone system.
You can invest your scrap in ship upgrades. Every time you upgrade a system, you must upgrade your reactor too which gives you an extra unit of power. Power can be reassigned as you wish, even in mid-battle.
The UI shows an overhead schematic of your ship, and you can move your crew members between the rooms. Placing them in a room gives a bonus to that room, and this can level up your crew's skill over time. You will need to move them around the ship in order to fix your ship, put out fires, or attack boarding hostiles.
The backdrop shows what kind of system you are currently in, such as a planet, nebula, or asteroid field. These areas can have an affect on the battle. In the asteroid field, you may get hit with asteroids which damages your ship if you have no shields. The nebula can hinder your surveillance, or drain your power to your ship. Solar flares can set fires and damage your ship. It can be a good idea to make the jump away from these systems when you can, rather than staying to fight.
Battles run in real time, but you can pause in order to plot strategies. You can target your weapons at individual rooms to damage enemies, or systems such as: shields, weapons, engines, sensors, and oxygen. Damaging their weapons is a good idea, but you may want to attack other rooms tactically. Damaging the cockpit will stop them fleeing, damaging shields will allow you to do full damage from your weapons, damaging engines will reduce their probability to avoid missiles, and damaging the oxygen supply will damage the crew unless they repair it.
In addition to the standard systems, you can purchase upgrades to give you extra systems. These include stealth (temporary invulnerability), transportation (send your crew to board enemy ships to fight the crew or damage systems), drone control (use all sorts of drone units; defensive or offensive).
Missiles ignore shields but are limited in supply. Lasers can take down shields before doing damage to the ship. Beams can damage multiple rooms but are negated by the shield, breach weapons do double damage to system-less rooms, ion temporarily disables shields or systems. Weapons need various power supply and have different recharge rates.
Even on the easy difficulty, the game offers a tough challenge. The random aspects can mean the difficulty varies between games. You can go for long periods battling away without finding a shop to replenish fuel and missiles, but can go on a run racking up high rewards of scrap or free weapons and crew members.
The game doesn't take too long to run through, and it's one of those games where your save file is wiped if you are destroyed, forcing you to start again. It doesn't feel anywhere near as brutal as games like Don't Starve and is much easier to learn too.
FTL is a simple game, yet offers enough complexity to make it fun and interesting. In my opinion, the permadeth is done well, because the game is short enough so that you feel like you haven't lost too much, but feel determined to come back to do better. There's various ships and layouts to unlock for those determined enough to persevere which will require a change in strategy to adapt to the alternate ship designs.