GAME REVIEW: FTL

FTL is a game by Subset Games published in 2012 (with all-new game expansions published in April 2014). It’s a space exploration and combat game with much of the challenge coming from resource allocation problems.

You are the captain of a Federation ship that has vital information about the war against the Rebels. You have to race ahead of the Rebel fleet to reach a Federation base that can make use of the information.

The game is separated out into a series of sectors. Each sector of the game is made up a scattering of jump beacons that let you hop from point to point in the sector. The Rebel fleet pursues you across every sector, sweeping from the entry point to the exit point, meaning that you don’t have enough time to explore every jump beacon, so you have to pick some. And each time you start the game the layout is random, and you can’t load from saves, just Save&Quit or Continue. At each of the beacons you have an encounter. An encounter could be a fight with a Rebel ship. Or the opportunity to buy and sell at a trading post. Or responding to a distress call that could be a ship out of fuel, or a Rebel ambush, or a moon base whose military satellites have gone haywire.

Non-combat encounters often involve a choice that you have to make. A pirate might ask you to pay a toll and you can choose to pay or to fight back. A station might ask your help in suppressing riots. Some choices can be affected by equipment or crew members you have on board. If a mysterious ship flees from you and you want to pursue, you can find them easily if you have long-range scanners on board, pursuing them without means a random chance that you’ll fail. If you try to help with a station with haywire military satellites, an Engi crew member (a technically adept alien species) can disable the satellite for you, or you can choose to shoot at the satellite (with higher risk and lower reward than the Engi path). There are six different species you can have in your crew and each has some benefits to certain non-combat situations.

Let’s talk combat. The developers described their goal to base the game around the kind of combat you see on episodes of Star Trek where its more about moving around crew members and rerouting power to vital systems than it is about maneuvering the ship manually. And they hit that note just right. There are a bunch of different ships systems which all have some effect on combat and many on other aspects, including these few that are on most ships for engines, life support, pilot’s controls, door controls. You can try to avoid fights, but you won’t be able to avoid all of them (and even if you could, winning fights is a way to get resources and you need to gather resources in various ways to complete the game). All ships have weapons that come in different varieties: missiles, burst lasers, cutting lasers. Each require a certain portion of the ship’s power to be functional, and each of them also require a recharge time between uses. All ships also have shields that help protect them from enemy attacks. Lasers deplete the shield but can’t cut through shields. Missiles cut directly through the shields but missiles are depletable ammunition so you need to be careful how you use them. With any of your weapons you can target particular systems on your enemy ship. Damage their engines so that their ship can’t dodge your attacks. Damage their weapons so they can’t attack. Damage their shields so that your weapons will hit their hull directly. You can flee the battle before one of the ship’s is destroyed, but only if you can wait for your FTL (faster than light) drive to charge–that takes time, and you have to keep your engine powered and undamaged.

But of course while you’re attacking your enemy they’re doing the same to you. If your systems get damaged you can send your crew members to repair the systems and get them working again. This doesn’t cost resources but it takes time and effort. Crew members can’t repair a damaged hull, but if you have a repair drone they will do it. Not every ship comes with drone control systems so you may have to upgrade at a store to get those. Otherwise you can generally only repair your hull at shops, in exchange for scrap.

Ships can also be outfitted with teleporters to board enemy ships. If you can kill all the enemy crew in combat then you get much more resources from the intact ship than you would have gathered from the wreckage. And you get some bonus effects if certain systems of the ship have a crew member in them, but that means they can’t be somewhere else and it means that they’re vulnerable to being killed if an enemy targets that system. There are a lot of other details I’m not going to get into here, but there are layers of resource management to contend with. You have to decide how to attack, how to assign your crew members for repairs, how to handle boarding attempts by the enemy. Each of the six species of crew members have different strengths and weaknesses–some can repair systems more quickly, while others are better at combat, and on top of those species bonuses each of them also gets more adept at actions that they do more often.

My favorite little detail of the game is how you can selectively open the ship’s doors to depressurize compartments of the ships to deplete them of oxygen. This makes fire caused by enemy damage to go out, and also causes damage to both friends and foes within the area from oxygen deprivation (sorry, no explosive decompression). But you can only control the ship’s doors if the door control system hasn’t been damaged. Once you reseal the area, the oxygen system will slowly replenish the breathable air.

Generally, there are three kinds of resources: fuel, missiles, and scrap. Scrap is the common currency for most things when you go to shops and want to upgrade your ship or hire crew members, but there are often opportunities for barter if you run into someone who is short on fuel and they will give you missiles in exchange, that sort of thing. Trying to figure out how to spend your scrap is the core of much of the game–you can upgrade most of your ship’s systems to work more efficiently. You can add more weapons, hire more crew members, or just save a bunch of money for the next shop. Each of these has obvious benefits, but trying to figure out which you should do at any given time is a difficult task.

You start with just one kind of human ship, but by completing various in-game activities you can unlock other human ships, and other ships from other species. For instance, I unlocked the second human ship by meeting two of three available accomplishments: to have one member of all six species on the crew at one time, and to have all of the possible ship’s systems installed at one time. Each ship comes with a different room layout, different default crew species

I’ve gone on at some length already, but I still haven’t really scratched the surface. The game is complex, but also very playable even when you don’t understand all the layers. There’s a short training section which I highly recommend you play, but most of what you learn is going to be learned by just starting a game and trying it out. The way the saved games work, you can’t just roll back your previous mistake, if you lose you’re just going to have to restart the game from scratch.

Visuals
Suitable graphics. Nothing amazing, nothing flashy, but all very understandable and serviceable.

Audio
Nothing that really stood out for me for better or worse.

Challenge
Plenty of challenge. There are enough ways to spread your resources that you can’t possibly cover them all, so you have to make choices. Some are better than others, and some will work better with some strategies than others. This combined with the randomness of maps and encounters so that you don’t know exactly what you need to be prepared for and there’s plenty of challenge.

Story
The overall story arc is a little light on content, just basic motivation for the game. Individual random encounters are more varied but also very episodic–what happens in one doesn’t matter much with the others. But that’s fine, not every game has to be heavy on story.

Session Time
You can save the game at any time, which makes it easy to pick up the game and put it down at any time–great for someone like me who gets gaming done in tiny patches of time scattered throughout the week.

Playability
Very playable. It doesn’t take much effort to learn how. It took me quite a bit of time to learn how to play WELL, understanding all the factors in a fight well enough and understanding the ways to spend your scrap, etc… If the battles move too fast to keep up with, you can pause at any time and delegate the next actions before you unpause so it doesn’t have to be real-time action if you don’t want it to be.

Replayability
Very replayable. It took me quite a few runs to really get a handle on the different ways I could spend resources, and I’m still not very good at the game. The random maps and random encounters ensure that you can’t gain an advantage by memorizing layouts so even if you have a rock solid strategy there’s still plenty to be worth playing. And as you unlock different ships, those greatly affect the starting point of your gameplay as well.

Originality
Not much originality in the plot, but I haven’t come across another game that was similar to the gameplay in this one, so for me at least the gameplay seems very original.

Playtime
Basically as long as you want it to be. I’ve played seven hours so far and have barely scratched the surface, though maybe others would pick it up faster than I have.

Overall
Solid game with elements of real-time combat strategy and space exploration in a format that feels novel. If you like that sort of game, the Steam list price of $10 for the game is a bargain. Highly recommended.

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