At the time of FTL: Faster Than Light’s debut, the prevalence of the space sci-fi setting has been reduced to inclusions in the shooter, RPG and MMORPG genres. Therefore, FTL came about as quite a surprise, namely how the setting has been adapted for use in a Rogue-like-like indie game.
For more observant (or cynical) people, its use of the space sci-fi setting is little more than window-dressing. It is far from the likes of the Homeworld and Nexus: The Jupiter Incident, which have far more convincing portrayals of what warfare in space (if there would ever be such a thing) would be like.
Nevertheless, FTL has its own charm and sophistication to be enjoyed – if one can persevere through its infuriatingly luck-dependent gameplay.
FTL may not start with a lengthy exposition on its premise, but Star Trek fans might recognize the game’s sources of inspiration not long into the first playthrough.
The Federation is a conglomerate of races which have come together, ostensibly for peaceful co-existence. However, it is under threat from the Rebellion, a surprisingly powerful and possibly pro-human opposition. The Federation is, of course, losing.
The player takes on the role of the disembodied commander of the crew of a lone cruiser; the player is technically every crewmember, but that is really beside the point.
Anyway, the cruiser and its crew have been charged with the mission of bringing vital intel to the Federation. This intel will not matter much in the end, because the game would ultimately have the player’s ship and crew saving the Federation’s backside all on their own anyway.
There is not much which the player would miss if he/she is not paying attention to anything other than what the player must do in order to succeed in a playthrough.
“WHAT ABOUT THE ADVANCED EDITION?”:
To answer this question, it has to be said first that this reviewer (that is, me) happens to have a back-up of the GOG installer for the original version of FTL, specifically that for version 1.0.1, one of the early versions of the game.
For purposes of posterity, there would be two separate reviews for the game. One review will be for the early version of the game, circa 2002, and it will focus on the core gameplay designs of FTL. The other review will be for the Advanced Edition, focusing on its additional content and improvements over the early version.
ROGUE-LIKE-LIKE & CONTINUING CONVENIENCE:
Firstly, it has to be said here that Subset Games is trying to strike a balance between a punishing Rogue-like-like game and one that is user-friendly.
Playthroughs in FTL (especially the successful ones) can stretch into more than one hour in total – time which not everyone may have. For this purpose, the game has a convenient feature of letting the player save and quit the game; this feature will create a file which contains the progress of the player’s current playthrough.
The player can continue his/her playthrough later after loading the game; the game fetches and consumes this file. It will only create another when the player gets the opportunity to save and quit the game again.
It is not clear whether the game would create the progress file in the event of a crash or not, but the early version of the game is stable; this reviewer has yet to suffer any crash with the early version, even over the course of two years of on-and-off playing.
However, there is a rare glitch where the file would become bloated, reaching into sizes of dozens of megabytes with each subsequent save-and-quit. This can become a problem if the player does not intend to have a playthrough in one straight session.
Less-than-scrupulous players who know about how the game records progress can use this knowledge to effectively save-scum, i.e. restore the progress file, even though the game should have consumed it and thus render a playthrough forfeit if the player quits without saving or if the player loses.
Save-scumming may be cheesy, but it gives a player insight on how the game procedurally generates many things in the game. The player will also realize how fickle and occasionally inconsistent the game can be with regards to playing by its own rules.
The player’s vessel is nominally a “cruiser”-class vessel.
Yet, if the player had been approaching the game thinking that the game would apply sci-fi conventions for weight-classes of space-faring ships and their roles in fleets, he/she is advised to toss out all those expectations. Otherwise, he/she is just up for a major disappointment.
This is because FTL will not have anything close to fleet action. It will not even have anything resembling ship-to-ship fighting either, because combat is practically about two bases firing ordnance at each other. Also, RNG scripts handle the details of fighting.
With all that said, the player’s vessel is essentially a building of sorts. Crew members run from room to room within this building, performing duties such as manning stations and repairing damage to the interior of the building.
What the crew cannot do, at least by default, is repair the hull of the ship. The hull is practically its hitpoint meter, counting down to the moment that the ship is destroyed and thus the end of the playthrough.
The destruction of the ship is the most common end of many playthroughs, though another ignominious end can be arrived at by having all of the crew slain. The latter kind of game-over is more indicative of a player’s incompetence. However, for the former, the causes which lead to the destruction of the ship are all-too-often reminders that not everything is within the control of the player.
THE CREW – IN GENERAL:
The player’s vessel obviously must have crew in order to function. There will not be any AI constructs which can help the vessel complete its intended mission.
In the original version of FTL, each crew member is very much mortal. If he/she/it dies, he/she/it dies forevermore.
On the player’s vessel, they perform the following duties: fending off enemy boarders, putting out fires, filling in breaches, repairing systems and manning the (up to) four stations on the ship, in that order of priority. The game will not inform the player of this priority though; this has to be learned the hard way (or at least through well-informed wikis).
Crew members can also be sent to the opposing vessel, effectively boarding them to cause mayhem. There will be more elaboration on boarding combat later.
Anyway, crewmembers do not appear to need to eat. In fact, they do not appear to need any sustenance, other than healing. This can seem a bit unbelievable, but it does make upkeep of the crew simple.
As mentioned earlier, the Federation is a conglomerate of races. Therefore, the player can expect to be able to have crew of different races other than humans.
Speaking of the humans, the earlier versions of FTL appear to have a bias against humans, which the game (still) describes as boring and uninteresting. This actually manifested as a gameplay design; humans have no particular special abilities in the earlier versions of FTL.
They would at least have been jack-of-all-trades, if not for the fact that the Slug race is a straight upgrade over them. The Slugs have similar statistics on just about anything, and have the additional ability of detecting living things, wherever they are. Humans also cannot provide any special options to resolve any event or encounter.
The other races in the original version of FTL have more convincingly balanced trade-offs. In the long run, they are more useful to have around than the pre-AE humans.
The Rocks are slow, but they compensate with their higher hitpoint counts and complete immunity to fire (making them very compatible with fire-creating boarding tactics).
The Engis are not very good at combat, but they can repair interior damage quickly. Conversely, the Mantises are far better at combat than Engis are (and they are faster than other races), but they are terrible at repairs.
The Zoltan are weak, but they grant the benefit of immediately powering the room which they are in. Having them provide additional power to the ship does require some micro-management, but this is rewarding nonetheless.
The Crystals are the rarest race in the game, mainly because they are located in a sector which is not easy to find. The Crystals have the ability to lock a room from entry or exiting, making them perhaps the most tactically useful race in the game.
The player starts with only a few crewmembers, the number of which depends on the ship which has been picked. One of the Engi cruisers gives only one crewmember, whereas the Federation cruisers generally give the player a considerable four.
It is still in the player’s interest to get more crew. There are some events which do allow the player to gain more crewmembers, but not always for nothing in return and almost never without risk and/or opportunity costs.
Besides, gameplay elements concerning crew are the least affected by luck. This statement will be elaborated later when these elements are described.
However, the player cannot gain more than eight crewmembers. When the player gets one more than eight, he/she will need to choose one of them to cast into computer game oblivion.
The interior of any ship is represented simply; it is a cluster of adjacent rooms, each of which is generally accessible from any other room.
The nuance of this deceptively simple system though is how the player manages said access through the use of the doors. Each room is connected to another through at least one door. The doors will be important in controlling the spread of fires and the advance of intruders. There will be more elaboration on doors later.
Different ships have different layouts, some of which are more convenient than the rest. For example, the Red-Tail has the teleporter room next to the medical bay, making boarding tactics a lot more efficient.
As mentioned earlier, making use of the doors in the ship is important. Of course, firstly, the player must first have a functional door system and one which has been upgraded to level 2 too. In fact, this is very much an essential; many runs fail because inexperienced players do not consider this and suffer the consequences of doors which are all too easy for fires and intruders to get through.
Doors can also be used to regulate the distribution of air. For example, if there is a breach in one room, the player can attempt to slow down the loss of oxygen in the localized area by opening the doors to adjacent rooms.
This, of course, puts the other rooms at risk of losing oxygen, but the necessary percentage of oxygen can be maintained longer otherwise, for the sake of crewmembers who are filling in the breach.
Conversely, if the ship has doors which lead out into space, the player may want to vent entire rooms to put out fires and harm intruders.
In the original version of FTL, every crewmember needs oxygen, even the android-like Engi and the Rocks. Therefore, keeping oxygen at optimal levels (at levels of 30% and above, for the original version of FTL at least) is important. If oxygen drops below a certain threshold (which the game will warn the player about with an alarm), crewmembers are put at risk of suffocation.
It is important to note here that the localized levels of oxygen is more important than the percentage counter shown on the user interface. After all, once a crewmember has entered a room with a breach, he/she/it is going to start suffocating, even if other rooms have oxygen. The local level of oxygen is depicted via the colour of the room; if it is redder, it has become more dangerous.
If there is any disappointment with the oxygen system, it is that crewmembers do not appear to be able to don vacuum protection. This may have been so in order to simplify gameplay.
(A mistake which careless players often make is not making sure that oxygen levels have fully reached 100% before jumping. This makes them vulnerable to breaches in subsequent encounters.)
Fires can occur aboard any ship, usually due to actions by hostile ships.
Fires happen to consume oxygen, thus lowering oxygen levels while at the same time spreading to other places. Fires must be put out first before crewmembers can do anything else in the affected rooms. This makes fires particularly distressing.
Incidentally, a fully upgraded and powered oxygen system will worsen fires, so the player might want to consider when to best fully power the oxygen system.
Fires can be starved by venting rooms on fire out to space. Of course, this also means that oxygen levels immediately plummet in those rooms, so this is a decision which is not to be made lightly.
The rules with which fire spreads are predictable: fires can only spread to adjacent squares in the interior of a ship, and can only spread to other rooms if they are occupying squares with doors on their edges.
However, the rules with which fire starts from hits are less certain. When a room takes a hit which causes fires (which in itself is a probability-based occurrence), the fire can start on any square in the room. It may start on a secluded corner, thus giving crewmembers a chance to put it out before it spreads to other rooms.
On the other hand, it may start on a square with a door or two (or three) on its sides, so the fire can spread to other rooms. This adds to the fickleness of the game.
Of course, one can argue that this is why door systems should be upgraded because they can stall fires, but assuming that there is a functional door system all the time is rather naïve.
RESOURCES - OVERVIEW:
Running a vessel is not just a matter of pushing the vessel from one place to another. There are a few resources which the player has to juggle, and all of them are essential in their own ways.
The most important resource is scrap. It is both currency for transactions (for reasons which the game will never explain despite the races being obviously civilized enough for monetary currencies) and the “experience points” which are needed to upgrade the ship (for reasons which are not well-explained either; ship parts could be universal, but this is never mentioned in-game).
Such a resource design is nothing new of course; it has been seen in From Software’s Souls titles. On the other hand, it is rare to find it in an indie title, and one which uses it rather effectively.
The player will be fretting over decisions on how to spend scrap, because each decision has its own opportunity costs.
There are three other resources. One of them, which is fuel, is essential. Fuel is mainly spent on jumps; without fuel, the player will be at the mercy of one of the most prominent gameplay elements in FTL, which will be described later.
“Missiles” are the catch-all name for ordnance which is expended on firing missile launchers or bomb teleporters (more on these later). These weapons tend to be more useful than others in the game, so the limitation of ammunition is understandable.
Drone Parts are consumed whenever the player deploys drones, which is only possible if the player has the Drone Control system and some drone blueprints in the first place. Drones are not always useful or even reliable, but they do provide certain benefits which other systems cannot provide. Some types of drones can also free up crewmembers (though they cannot be directly controlled).
The player can gain these other resources by salvaging stuff (which is by far the most common source), or buying them with scrap. These means will be described elsewhere in this review, but it has to be said here that the designs of these resources do work to provide a balanced “economy” of sorts – assuming that the player does not run into bad luck and/or the player is incompetent.
SHIP SYSTEMS & UPGRADES:
The functions of the player’s cruiser are represented by the systems which are installed in the ship. These systems reside in rooms. If these rooms suffer damage, so do the systems; the damage is duplicated and applied on the systems (which is a gameplay element that the game will not mention to the player).
Any cruiser starts with the most vital of systems: the engine, oxygen system, weapons control and bridge. The engine and bridge are needed in order to make jumps, as well as activate the evasion rating of the ship (more on this later). The need for the oxygen system has been mentioned earlier.
Weapons control is needed to power the weapons on the ship. It has to be noted here that the system does not make weapons accurate. Instead, it appears to be only there to prevent the player from being able to make use of every weapon which he/she gets, an occurrence which would have otherwise made the game too easy (barring bad luck, of course).
The other systems are important too, but some cruisers do not start with each and every one of these.
The medical bay is one of the most important systems. It is the only efficient way to heal crewmembers, and can be turned off without adverse effects. The shield system provides layers of shields as (not entirely impervious) protection to the ship. The door system controls doors (as mentioned earlier). The sensor system is needed in order to have full visibility of the player’s ship.
There are nuances to some of these systems, which will be described later.
Almost every system can be (somehow) upgraded with scrap to make them more effective. However, subsequent upgrades become more and more expensive, with diminishing returns. Most of the systems also require more power in order to function at their fullest after they have been upgraded.
Again, there is the matter of opportunity costs which come with the player’s decisions.
When a system is knocked out, the ship which it belongs to will automatically suffer one point of hull damage. This is a subtle effect which is not always easy to observe, especially during combat.
Shield layers take considerable investment to build up, but they provide a form of protection which few other systems can provide.
Each shield layer can absorb one shot from any non-missile/ordnance weapon. Shield layers can also be regained. This means that if the player’s ship and the crewmember manning the shield system can maintain the shield layers (and the system itself) while under fire, the ship is all but impossible to bring down with non-missile/ordnance weapons.
This is of course an ideal case which does not always happen in every battle. There are many weapons which can bypass shields, and shields do not stop hostile boarding.
Zoltan ships have a special form of shielding which cannot replenished during battle; the shielding also takes full damage from just about anything. However, Zoltan shielding blocks just about anything too, including hostile boarding actions via teleportation.
(For better or worse, there are random events which place hostile boarders on the player’s ship regardless of any Zoltan shielding which the player has, likely much to the player’s chagrin.)
It is important to mention here that the game does not make it clear that the first two “bars” of the shielding system happens to be costlier than subsequent bars. This is intended to make the purchase of the installation of shield systems costly for the Stealth Cruisers, as part of a design policy to balance the starting load-outs of the different cruisers against each other.
REACTOR & POWER:
Every ship (including opposing ships) has a reactor, which provides power to systems. Without power, a system cannot function, and if it is partially powered, it cannot use its higher functions.
The player can divert power around to power systems which the player needs at the time. These are very important decisions to make, especially during battle.
When powered systems have their capacities damaged below the amount of power which they are receiving, they return power to the reactor, which can be diverted elsewhere to compensate (if possible).
Zoltan crewmembers can power systems, freeing up some power to be directed elsewhere. They happen to always power the system within the rooms which they are in, even if the systems have been knocked out. Of course, if the systems have been knocked out, their special abilities are wasted anyway.
Having Zoltans power weapons can be a bit finicky though. In the early versions of FTL, there is a glitch which causes the game to disregard the power which Zoltans are providing when the player continues a playthrough.
There is no ship which starts with the ability to repair its hull.
There are several ways to repair the hull, but whether or not the player comes across any of them in the first place is a matter of luck. Still, some of these means happen more often than the rest.
The most common means of repairing the ship is to visit a “store” location for repairs; “stores” will be described later.
Stores charge scrap for every hull point which is repaired. In the later sectors, the fee increases.
Another reliable method is to have a functional Drone Control and the Repair Drone blueprint. If the player is using this, he/she is effectively converting Drone Parts into hitpoints; the efficiency of the conversion varies with each drone, so luck is a factor. Of course, the player has to be lucky enough to come across the blueprint.
There are random events which do provide repairs for the ship, but as to be expected of random events, their occurrence is a matter of luck.
COMBAT – OVERVIEW:
Ship-to-ship combat always occurs between just two ships. It has been mentioned earlier that the ships are practically bases; thus, this combat is really nothing more than two bases flinging hurt at each other.
There are two aspects to ship-to-ship combat in FTL: what happens outside the ships, and what happens inside the ships, i.e. boarding actions.
What happens outside the ships is, unfortunately, very much affected by luck. There are ways to mitigate the effects of luck, but the player is practically shoehorned into formulaic tactics, as will be described later.
Boarding actions are more reliable and more rewarding means of fighting, though they of course put crewmembers in direct danger.
However, both forms of combat do affect each other; the player forgets this at his/her own peril.
There are quite a number of ship-borne weapons in the game. According to their munition delivery methods, they can be categorized according to the following: pulse emitters, beam lasers, missiles, and bomb teleporters.
Pulse emitters fire energized projectiles at the opposing ship. Generally, these projectiles are always blocked by layer shields at a rate of one projectile per layer, regardless of their damage output.
Beam lasers do not remove shields. However, they have many advantages, such as being able to hit many rooms on the opposing ship. Beam lasers follow their own rules, which will be described later.
Missiles pass through layer shields, making them very powerful weapons to open a battle with. However, they can be shot down by defense drones, which are specifically made to counter them.
Bomb teleporters bypass every form of defense except evasion and Zoltan shields. However, for weapons which use the same ammunition as missile launchers, they do a lot less damage, so they are more useful for tactical purposes than brute-forcing enemy ships.
Generally, any cruiser can have up to four of these weapons.
(Enemy ships can also have up to four weapons, but they usually have a better advantage at powering weapons.)
Not all of these four weapons can be operational at any one time, even if the player can gather the power necessary to run them. The player must upgrade the capacity of the weapons control system in order to support their use; only then can the weapons be powered.
Ion damage is a special property which some weapons have.
Ion projectiles, such as those fired by Ion Blasters, do not damage enemy ships directly. When they hit the layer shields of a ship, they temporarily degrade its shield system. More importantly, they also shut out any crewmember which is manning the shield station. If other ship systems are hit directly with ion damage, they have their capacities degraded temporarily too. Ion damage cannot be repaired.
Ion damage does dissipate over time, but it can be stacked by further shots from ion weapons. Coincidentally, ion weapons tend to be fast-firing (in return for requiring considerable power). This means that an opposing ship can be locked down indefinitely, assuming that the shots hit.
It also means that ion weapons are very much viable for use in many tactics, which is good for the game.
SHOOTING PROJECTILES & EVASION:
Unfortunately, in practice, not every projectile weapon is always effective every time it is fired. The same can be said about missile launchers and bomb teleporters. This is mainly due to the vagaries of luck.
Every ship has an evasion rating. The rating is mainly provided by a functional bridge and engine, and by the pilot at the bridge (if it is not automated in any way).
Whenever munitions from an opposing ship approach the targeted ship, the game makes RNG rolls against the latter ship’s evasion rating.
Although a higher rating makes it more likely that the rolls would turn out in the favor of the targeted ship, the results of the rolls are binary; the shots either miss or hit. Where and when the player places his/her shots will not contribute to the probability of hitting as long as the enemy ship still has an evasion rating at any level. (The enemy ship’s evasion rating is hidden from view, by the way).
For example, the player might have the tactical sense to fire low-power burst-firing guns before firing heavier guns so that the former drops shields and the latter is not wasted on dropping shields. Yet, bad rolls might see the former miss and the latter wasted. Even worse luck can mean that the entire volley of shots is wasted.
Conversely, the game might give the player a serving of ridiculously good luck, having more than half a dozen shots from the enemy completely missing. Some players may breathe a sigh of relief when this happens, but others would have the nagging feeling that they got through not because of their skill but rather their luck.
The capriciousness of this game element very much shoehorns a careful player into starting off combat in the same ways, such as attempting to damage and/or disable the bridge of the enemy ship first to completely negate its evasion rating before firing at anywhere else.
Beam lasers, for whatever reason, are not subjected to the fickleness of evasion ratings.
However, beam lasers is bit more finicky to use than projectile weapons. The player has to orient a straight line, the length of which is dependent on the beam weapon used. For example, the near-obsolete Mini-beam has a very short line, whereas the Pike Beam has a very long line.
In fact, the player would likely need to use the game’s pause feature when placing a laser line, because making an efficient line takes some careful consideration. However, the player is rewarded for having made a careful decision thanks to the nuanced way by which the laser beam inflicts damage.
When a beam laser fires, it will hit any room which the line is over. It inflicts damage according to the number of rooms hit, not according to the distance which it travelled. The hits are guaranteed; of course, that is assuming that the enemy ship does not have the layer shields which are necessary to block the beam.
Speaking of which, beam lasers can be blocked by layer shields, but not always completely. Rather, their damage is reduced by layer shields. This means that powerful beam lasers, such as the Halberd Beam, can still inflict damage if the targeted ship does not have thick enough shields.
However, the game, or at least its original version, does not clearly inform the player that the Anti-Bio Beam weapon does not follow the same rules as other beam lasers do. It is completely blocked by shields, and it does not inflict its damage according to rooms. Instead, it must inflict its damage on its intended targets – crew members – by hitting the squares which they are in.
This means that the player must draw lines over enemy crewmembers, which is easier said than done. This will be very difficult without functional advanced sensors (which can look into enemy ships as well) or at least Slugs (and their ability to detect life-forms). Crewmembers can move about too, making this even more challenging.
Any ship can have a cloaking system installed. Once activated, it greatly increases the evasion rating of the ship; this is the only way to obtain an evasion rating of 100% (which does guarantee complete evasion, fortunately).
Cloaking also prevents the other ship from teleporting boarders over or shooting weapons at it. Cloaking also prevents hostile drones from doing what they do.
Obviously, cloaking is a potent tactical option. However, it does come with caveats.
Cloaking does not last forever; putting more power into cloaking increases its duration. However, the cloaking system will reserve said power while it is active and when it is cooling down. Cloaking also has a long cool-down time.
It is the mark of a prudent player if he/she knows what amount of power to use for cloaking. For example, if he/she is expecting an intermittent barrage of shots but nothing else in between for a while, a low-powered cloak is more efficient to use.
With a functional Drone Control system and the blueprints for drones, Drone Parts can be cobbled into autonomous drones which either protect their parent ship, or help in destroying the other ship.
Speaking of autonomy, this is the biggest problem with drones in the earlier versions of FTL; they are virtually out of the player’s control. The most which the player can do is to deactivate or activate them. When they are functional, they pick their own targets and movement paths.
This makes offensive ship-hitting drones, such as Attack Drones and Beam Drones, quite unreliable for anything else other than to put pressure on enemy ships. Granted, they do have a higher rate of fire than ship-borne weapons. Yet, since they randomly pick which part of the enemy ship to fire on, they are not useful for tactics which require precision. They are also incompatible with boarding tactics.
Then there are humanoid drones, which operate within the interiors of ships. Anti-personnel drones can deal with hostile boarders, freeing up crewmembers for less dangerous duties; the drones also happen to be tough and nasty. However, they do cost power to use, and they are redundant once the player has obtained more than four crewmembers. The same can also be said about system repair drones.
Boarding drones are much like anti-personnel drones, except that they are launched towards enemy ships. They will always hit the enemy ship, and immediately causes breaches too; being drones, they do not need to breathe. However, the player cannot decide where they make breaches and cannot select their targets for them; they just maraud through enemy ships single-mindedly.
The only drones which are worth using are Defense Drones, if only because the player does not need direct control over them for them to be effective.
Mark I Defense Drones can shoot down missiles, but that is just about it; they can be overwhelmed through sheer volume of fire. Mark II Defense Drones are far better, being capable of shooting down almost anything except other drones.
With projectiles and drones which fly through space having been described already, one quirk about the game is to be described next.
Projectiles which are flying through space can hit each other if their paths intersect; they effectively cancel out each other. Projectiles can also hit drones, thus destroying them outright.
This quirk would have been a great nuance if not for the fact that the player has next to no control over the directions of the shots. Once shots from the player’s ship have exited the screen, they can approach the enemy ship in seemingly random directions. Similarly, once shots from the enemy ship has exited its own mini-screen, they approach the player’s ship from random directions.
This makes ship-to-ship combat even more fickle than it already is.
Boarding actions are the most controllable aspect of combat. However, it obviously puts the player’s crew in danger.
Most of the time, the player would be on the receiving end of boarding actions – regardless of whether the player is supposed to have protection against it or not.
When this happens, the enemy boarders attempt to rampage through the ship, usually with a target already in mind. Sometimes, they may change their goal, which is an occurrence that can be unpleasant. However, they do have one predictable behavior: they always attempt to move in groups.
As mentioned earlier, using the doors in the ship against them is a useful tactic.
After the player has obtained a teleporter, he/she can perform boarding actions of his/her own – if he/she has the crewmembers to do so. The teleporter can only send the crewmembers who are in the room into the other ship, and can only recall crewmembers within one room.
There is a nuance here: the number of crewmembers in a targeted room does not matter when they are recalled. As an illustrative example, if the player recalls back four crewmembers in a large room and the teleporter has only room for two persons, the other two persons will be placed in an adjacent room. This is quite generous of the game.
If the enemy ship has teleporters, it will recall its boarders when they have lost too much health. These teleporters appear to have the same limitations as those which the player has, i.e. they can only recall boarders in a single room at a time.
After teleporting over or recalling crewmembers, teleporters will lock up, reserving the power which has gone into it like cloaking systems do. However, having more power in a teleporter is actually desirable; it cools down a lot faster. Moreover, as long as a teleporter has cooled down and the player is not going to use it, power can be shunted away.
CLOSE QUARTERS COMBAT:
Crewmembers of opposing ships can only fight with each other if they are within the same room. If there are two opposing combatants occupying the same square, they will always fight each other first. If there are opposing combatants in the same room but they are somehow not occupying each other’s squares, they will shoot at each other, randomly picking targets.
When combatants enter a room which has opposing combatants, they will generally attempt to engage in close combat first. If combatants have performed attacks, these attacks will hit, regardless of where their intended targets are if they happen to be moving.
All of these rules will not be told to the player by the game. If the player does not want to resort to looking at guides, he/she will have to learn all of them by being observant. This is not always fun.
If boarders find themselves in a room with a system on the opposing ship, they will automatically attempt to wreck the system.
(The player may also want to keep in mind that knocked-out systems automatically inflict one point of hull damage on the enemy ship. Losing crewmembers by having them still on an enemy ship when it blows up is not fun.)
It also has to be mentioned here that fires on an opposing ship do injure boarders too; the boarders will do nothing about the fires. Therefore, the player might want to keep an eye on fires to avoid getting boarders trapped in burning rooms.
Crew members are not just mere cogs in the player’s war machine. They do gain experience at what they have been assigned to do, thus making them more valuable over time – and losing them all the more painful.
There are six skills, four of which are associated with operable systems. Among these, weapons skill is perhaps the most disappointing; instead of making weapons more accurate, the skill merely increases the firing rate of weapons.
A similar complaint can also be made about the piloting and engine skills; all they do is increase the evasion rating of the ship.
The shield skill makes shield layers replenish faster, though its limited benefits are at least more acceptable because it would have been overpowered otherwise.
The repair skill determines how efficient a crewmember is at repairing things, though a high skill rating at this would suggest that the player either has been terrible or has had bouts of bad luck.
Having a higher rating in the fighting skill obviously makes a crewmember better at close combat, though it does not make them any tougher.
The player’s goal is to travel through at least seven sectors towards the sector of the Federation’s headquarters, where the final battle between the Federation and Rebellion would take place. In order to do this, the player’s ship must do the titular faster-than-light trips, called “jumps” in-game.
Jumping requires fuel. If the player does not have fuel, he/she has made the mistake of negligence that is failure to keep enough reserves of fuel; this game mechanic is not particularly luck-dependent, unlike some other elements in the game.
Anyway, if the player runs out of fuel, he/she has to turn on the ship’s distress beacon and wait for some random event to come by which might possibly grant the player some fuel; this is a matter of luck, however. Otherwise, the player is left to suffer one of the punishing elements of the game, which will be described later.
When deciding where to jump, the player will be looking at the sector map. Unfortunately, the sector map will not always tell the player what is ahead, even with the Long-Range Scanners augment (more on augments later).
The player makes jumps from beacon to beacon on the sector map. Each beacon is represented with a node, which is coloured sand-yellow if it has yet to be explored, and blue after it has been. This is the least amount of information which the map would give.
In the earlier versions of FTL, the Long-Range Scanner gives two more pieces of information: the presence of ships at beacons (and thus a higher likelihood of battles) and the presence of hazards (which make battles even more fickle).
Unfortunately, that is just about it. What kind of event which the player would expect from these beacons is uncertain, at least for players who do not save-scum.
One of the key gameplay elements of FTL is that the Rebellion is not doing nothing while the player’s vessel is trying to bring intel to the Federation. It is indeed being hunted – rather aggressively too.
When the player enters a sector for the first time, the player only has a few jumps before the Rebellion starts appearing on the sector map as an increasingly pervasive wave. Although being caught by the Rebellion’s advance does not lead to a straight game-over, the player will be trust into tough battles with next to no rewards even if the player pulls through.
Therefore, this makes the player’s progress inefficient. The player’s progress does matter when he/she reaches the end of the playthrough.
(The later versions of FTL increase the risk by introducing an additional concern in battles which occur in the Rebel advance. The elaboration for this is for another review.)
Conveniently, the player is shown the next step of the Rebel advance; any beacon which is within this next step will be swamped by the Rebellion by the time of the player’s next jump.
There is a default level for the Rebel’s rate of advance, but it can be affected by some factors, for better or worse. For example, there are encounters with Rebel scouts which will attempt to escape; if they do, the next step for the Rebel’s advance is significantly further. Considering that there are several ways to stall FTL jumps by enemies, this is very much the player’s fault when it happens (though encounters with Rebel scouts is still a matter of luck).
NASTY STARTS TO PLAYTHROUGHS:
Theoretically, the first few sectors of any playthroughs should be easier than the later ones. The enemies which the player encounters in these should be either a match for the player’s ship or are weaker.
Yet, the procedural generation of sectors does scatter a few beacons with dangerous encounters here and there, even in the early sectors. Sometimes, these beacons end up adjacent to the one which the player starts at.
Consequently, the player can have brutal starts, such as the first jump which the player makes sends him/her to a beacon with solar flare hazards and a cloak-capable Rebel Drone (an example of this can be seen here).
(This can be averted by picking cruisers which start with the Long-Range Scanner augment, but the other cruisers have no such convenience.)
To players who do not save-scum, it may appear as if the beacons are populated with seemingly randomized events.
The truth is that before the player enters a sector for the first time, the game “seeds” the sector with beacons, hazards and most importantly, events and encounters. Even the rewards for the events and encounters are seeded.
However, in the earlier versions of FTL, there are rare occurrences where the seeded data for events and encounters at the beacons do seem to change, sometimes together with their rewards; players who save-scum a lot may notice this.
Nevertheless, players who save-scum would be a lot more protected against the fickleness of the game in this regard. For players who do not want to cheat and play the game as Subset Games intended, they will have to put up with the seeming capriciousness of the game, e.g. getting into one tough fight after another.
There is some attempt by Subset Games to concoct missions other than the main goal, but at best, these just have the player going from point A to point B. Furthermore, the fickleness of the game does not always make every quest worth following. For example, the player could be expecting some reward for putting up with a tedious quest, only to be rebuffed with meagre rewards at the end.
Yet, there are some quests which the player might want to pursue, if only because they unlock more ships for other playthroughs. There will be more elaboration on this later.
Augments are special upgrades which impart benefits which usually cannot be replicated through other means, or at least benefits which are more reliable.
For example, the Drone Recovery Arm allows the player to retrieve the drone parts which have been spent on making drones. As another example, the Automated Reloader grants improved rate of fire, which is always active, unlike the benefit granted by a crewmember who is skilled in operating weapons. (This benefit by the crewmember is lost the moment he/she/it steps away from the operating station.)
The player’s ship has space to store at least four devices, excluding augments. These devices cannot be used in battle, namely because they are not mounted.
In practice, the ship’s storage does nothing more than storing excess devices. It could have been used in order to prepare for the next battle, but with the exception of the confrontation with the Rebel’s greatest military asset (the capabilities of which will always be the same), there is no way to know what load-out the next hostile ship would have.
That is, unless the player save-scums. If he/she does, he/she is more able to make use of the storage feature to reconfigure the ship for a battle.
A “store” is what the game calls an opportunity to exchange scrap for equipment and vice versa, as well as purchase supplies and repairs. The game will label such opportunities on the sector map, but only after the player discovers them by jumping onto a beacon which is one jump away from a “store”.
There is a narrative behind each and every “store” encounter, but this is mainly there for backstory fluff. Regardless of the narrative, every encounter will always turn out as follows: the player is brought to a screen which shows the goods on sale (which can include crewmembers), and the fees which would be charged for repairs.
The player can also sell devices such as weapons, drone blueprints and augments to the “store”, but only these. The player cannot pluck out systems, or even crewmembers, from his/her ship and sell them, though the (unelaborated) reasons for this limitation should be quite easy to guess at and understood.
What is less understandable though is that the player cannot sell missiles, fuel and drone parts, at least in the earlier versions of FTL. These are loose items, so they should have been viable trade goods.
Whatever argument which could be made in defense of this, there is still the argument that there has been a lost opportunity to make “stores” more sophisticated.
Stores appear to have randomized varieties of goods, though not fees for repairs and the prices for goods. Players who save-scum will notice that this randomization always occurs before entering a “store” for the first time.
ENEMIES – OVERVIEW:
For a significant portion of any playthrough, the player will be fighting against other ships and their crew (if any). The player is not expected to be able to handle every enemy which comes his/her way; sometimes, the enemy ship is very well-armed and protected, so escape is more prudent.
Yet, salvaging or cannibalizing defeated ships is an important means of gaining opportunities to improve the player’s ship, in preparation for confrontations with more powerful enemies. Sometimes, the fickleness of the game may deprive the player of these opportunities.
Returning on-topic, observant players may notice that there are several broad categories of enemy ships. For example, Rebel Riggers are almost always equipped with drones, whereas Mantis ships are almost always equipped with teleporters for hostile boarding actions.
Eventually experienced players can recognize the combat habits of enemy ships through mere glances at their silhouettes and colour schemes.
However, no matter how long a player has played the game, he/she would not be able to predict exactly what kinds of armaments an enemy ship would have. These are very much randomized, with rarely any noticeably repeating patterns which can be associated with specific types of ships. This adds to the fickleness of the game.
On the other hand, the player can indeed handle any enemy ship which comes his/her way, but if and only if the player’s own ship has been tricked out with many things so as to be versatile enough to overcome any challenge.
ENEMIES – AUTOMATED DRONES:
Among the enemies which the player would face, the most peculiar – and troublesome – are the Rebellion’s drone ships.
There are two types of these: the Rebel Scout (which is almost always programmed to escape and thus help the Rebels’ advance) and the Rebel Auto-Assault. The Rebel Auto-Assault is notorious for sometimes having five layers of shields, though this should not be too much of a surprise because the specifications of missile launchers have already hinted that there are vessels with five layers of shields.
Anyway, returning to the matter of the peculiarity of drone ships, they are vessels without any crew – and without any oxygen either, much less oxygen systems. Consequently, they are rather dangerous to take down with boarding actions, especially if they can cloak. (Cloaking prevents teleportation.)
More importantly, drone ships can automatically repair their systems. They are not very quick at doing so, of course, but other than hitting their systems with ion weapons, there is no way to stall their repairs.
END OF COMBAT:
In the earlier versions of FTL, there is an annoying design oversight concerning the end of battles. Even after combat has ended (in the favor of the player), shots fired by the enemy ship can still hit the player’s ship. This can result in unpleasant defeats, an example of which can be seen here.
Initially, the player starts with only one ship design, the Kestrel. It does not have much of anything in the way of special abilities, but it starts with weaponry which remains reliable for until the middle of the playthrough.
Yet, the Kestrel can become boring after awhile. Therefore, it is fortunate that there are more cruisers to unlock. However, they are not that easy to obtain.
There are two other Federation-designed cruisers, and six cruisers which are associated with the non-human races. Getting them requires the player to obtain the opportunities to undertake certain quests; getting these opportunities is a matter of luck.
After the player has started these quests though, completing them is a matter of keeping them in mind, as well as doing some third-party research.
These quests require the player to jump through quite a few metaphorical hoops, some of which are not explained to the player.
For example, the quest to obtain the Rocks’ cruiser is at least one which is told to the player (as to be expected of anything concerning the brutish Rocks). In contrast, the quest to obtain the Crystals’ cruiser has quite a number of steps which will not be clear to anyone who does not do research on it.
Then there are the alternative ship designs. In the earlier versions of FTL, every type of cruiser has a “Type B”, which starts with a load-out which is different from the default “Type A”. These have to be unlocked by achieving at least two of three “achievements” which are associated with that type of cruiser.
Some of these achievements require the player to make decisions which are counter-productive to his/her playthrough. For example, there is an achievement which is associated with the Mantis Cruiser that requires the player to lose all but one crewmember, and have that crewmember kill the last crewmember on the opposing ship.
The player is better off hoping that the game throws scenarios which make getting these achievements possible.
Faster Than Light makes use of pixel art which varies greatly in complexity.
Some artwork is little more than rudimentary. For example, there is the interior for ships, which is always sterile white square tiles with grey walls. The sprites for doors are even simpler-looking.
Of course, one can argue that this is intended so that the icons for systems, sprites for fires and breaches and, most importantly, the sprites for crewmembers (and boarders) stand out.
Speaking of the sprites for fires, these look incredibly symbolic, even trope-like. Nonetheless, they still look obvious enough to be distressing. If there is any problem with them, it is that they do not indicate how close they are to being put out. At least the sprites for breaches do show how close they are to being closed.
The sprites for crewmembers had been designed to make it easier to identify them according to their race. In the earlier versions of FTL, there is only one sprite for each non-human race. The humans have only two distinct sprites, one for each gender, with palette swaps for things like hair colours.
This will not be a problem when crewmembers are assigned to man stations; the stations on any ship are distinct enough from each other to not pose a problem of confusion. However, this might be a problem when the player is deciding who should be teleported over to the enemy ship first for boarding actions. The player will need to manually check the crewmembers’ fighting skill to make sure that the most capable persons are sent first.
Sprites for ordnance are simple and recognizable. For example, the white tubes with segments zooming towards ships are obviously missiles.
When ordnance miss, the game announces this with huge, pixelated characters for “MISS”, almost to an obnoxious degree (especially if the player is missing instead of the enemy).
Each type of drones and weapons has its own unique sprite, which will stick out from underneath the sprites for ships. Experienced players will eventually be able to recognize these weapons from their looks alone, and adjust their tactics accordingly. (Of course, there is still the matter of luck, for which experience is of not much use.)
The sprites for ships are the most impressive-looking visual designs in the game (as far as pixel art goes). In addition to the artwork for their hulls, there are also sprites for when ships break apart, which add to the satisfaction of having defeated enemies.
In the original version of FTL, the background serves as little more than (mostly) static eye-candy. (This is not the case in the Advanced Edition, but this elaboration is for another review.)
For a game with graphical designs which are obviously primitive, FTL has surprisingly catchy sounds to listen to.
Most of the sounds which the player will listen to when playing FTL are the music tracks, as well as the sound effects for battle and the clicking of buttons and icons. There are some voice-overs, but they are mainly for the deaths of crewmembers and they sound like they are little more than stock sound-clips.
The music is perhaps the best aspect of the game’s sounds. The music is composed by Ben Prunty, who had been paid thanks to the game’s Kickstarter funds. The music includes tracks with wondrous and foreboding themes, which are appropriately used for when the player is not in battle, and tracks with more urgent tunes for when the player is.
Beeps and chimes accompany the clicking of buttons and the resolution of occurrences; each of these sounds is distinct enough such that an experienced player will be able to know that something is up as soon as he/she hears it. For example, there is a chime which sounds when the ship can make a jump.
Every type of ordnance has its own associated sound clip when it is fired, such as the deep thump of missiles being launched. There are also sound clips for when shield layers are hit and when hulls are hit. The most important sounds of battle are perhaps the alarms, which sound whenever any statistic of the player’s ship or crewmember has gone past a critical threshold.
FTL: Faster Than Light does deserve some praise for what it has done. There are rarely other, if any, titles which has FTL‘s gameplay of two bases fighting against each other on the outside and within their own interiors. Its emphasis on opportunity costs for each of the player’s decision is laudable too.
Unfortunately, it resorts to a lot of randomness in its gameplay elements. There are very few gaming experiences which can be worse than having bad luck ruin good planning and/or make a mockery of the player’s experience and familiarity. FTL has a lot of such an experience.
FTL just could not be recommended without mentioning the caveat that is its fickle gameplay.