As someone who lived most all of his childhood through the nineties, I was the perfect audience to idolize the captains of the Star Trek series. Whether it was Picard’s authoritative disposition, Janeway’s ability to mediate between enemies then lead them in the face of larger challenges, or Sisko’s constant struggle to choose between ideals and duties, each one had something that a young child could admire. Also, they were in command of amazing ships. Specifically, large ships where the action isn’t in the cockpit but in the command post on the bridge. Subset Games gives players that same administration responsibility in their first game, FTL.
Mechanically, FTL can be best described as a real-time tactics game with rougelike elements. Players are given charge over a small cruiser and a skeleton crew with the objective of delivering information to a fleet that can end the war raging across the galaxy. There’s really no more story than that. While a few tidbits of a Federation and a rebellion are mentioned, there’s no plot to follow, just a goal to complete. That’s perfectly fine though, as getting attached to the characters of a ship would be a bad move because- like many a rougelike- they (and the players controlling them) will die a lot and often.
As dying will be a common occurrence, one of the screens players will see often is the hangar, where they start the game by picking a ship. When players first start out, they’re given a basic cruiser named The Kestrel with a complement of three humans. More powerful and specialized ships with different layouts, systems and crews can be unlocked by meeting various goals. From there, they’ll move into the screen that they’ll see the most: the command view. It’s a top down cross-section of the ship with various gauges all around the screen that lets players keep an eye on every system and member. It may appear intimidating at first, but knowing where to look and when will become second nature. This is a complement to the game’s ability to display the right information to the player and allow them to always know what’s going on.
Sticking to the game’s theme of command over control, players move their ships from point to point on various maps that are randomized each playthrough. While there are a few constants each time, most jumps lead to unexpected scenarios. Players may answer a distress call and find themselves ensnared in a trap, jump into the midst of a civilian emergency where they can risk either resources or crew for a reward or they may just land in empty space where nothing but a short respite from an oppressive galaxy can be found. While keeping track of fuel is important, which gets spent at the rate of one point per move, the larger strategy of heading to a map’s exit while calculating the risk versus reward of individual points is the main goal here. It’s done well, as grinding for scraps (the game’s currency) is important throughout, but one never knows what challenge each point will present. While the large scale journey of the ship requires some strategy, FTL is really about the moment to moment encounters.
I’ll point out again that the game is about command over control. Nowhere is that more evident when fighting another ship. When players engage an enemy, they’re given a similar cross-sectional of the opposing ship for the purposes of directing weapons. There are a variety of ship systems that are all important in their own way. Aside from doors, sensors, and the cockpit, all systems require power from the reactor. Power is expressed in bars that can be manipulated to different systems at any time. Weapons—of which four can be installed at any one time—charge up every few seconds and are directed by the player to the opposing ship’s systems.
Missiles, lasers, and beams all have different properties and have different power requirements. As players will start out with more systems than energy, knowing when to go all out on weapons, when to power down the med-bay, and even risking taking life-support offline become important decisions. Having different attack strategies is equally as important. I know that whenever I see a mantis ship, I should take out their teleporter or they’ll beam their tough infantry over to me. Otherwise, I should upgrade my blast doors and create an oxygenless environment wherever they end up on my ship. Combat is hectic, but a pause function allows players a chance to breathe and consider options while duking it out. Directing crew to man different stations, aim weapons, engage in boarding actions, repair systems, and seal bulkheads is fantastic. As the game forces players to pay attention to the minutiae of running a ship, life and death decisions are constantly presented and the responsibility of command is always weighing players down.
Aesthetically, the game has a fantastic soundtrack that fits the space theme perfectly. Exploration music has the reverb-laden, slow-swelling synth pads of seventies-era sci-fi while battle music mixes drum machines and the bell-like dings of square waves. The compositions set the mood without getting in the way- the perfect complement to a video game soundtrack. The art is charming but not particularly outstanding- best described as utilitarian.
With it’s throw away crews, systems management, and perfect soundtrack, FTL is easily one of the best command-level games I’ve played in a long while. The randomization element allows lots of replay and the high degree of difficulty ensures meaningful challenge. Many a good ship has been lost to empty space under my command and dozens of lives have been lost as well, but the flawless mechanics of the game keep me coming around for another voyage.
Here’s the Rundown:
+ Great UI
+ High replay value
+ High level control
– Sparse story
– Utilitarian art
9 and 9.5 represent the pinnacle of the genre, a game that defines what that genre should be about. These scores are for games that you not only feel would be worth your purchase, but you would actually try to convince your friends to buy them as well.