Listen, space is full of bastards and if you’ve any hope of surviving out here you’ll need to be one. Here’s a hard rule to live by: enjoy killing.
In FTL: Faster Than Light you take charge of a roving hunk of space debris held together by old Blu-tack and bits of sticky tape. The game tentatively refers to this affront to future military might as a “spaceship”. Onboard this spaceship you negotiate a galaxy bursting with belligerent bastards in a futile attempt to deliver the
Death Star Big Evil Spaceship schematics to the Rebels Federation. And then, wheezing and leaking oxygen from a fissure the size of a bungalow, you try to destroy the Big Evil Spaceship.
Succeed at this and you have beaten FTL: Faster Than Light. I’ve played the game 52 times. I’ve emerged a decorated and victorious space captain zero times. But this matters not one jot.
FTL is what people who know more about roguelikes than I do call a roguelike. At a base level this means when you die you stay dead, levels are randomly generated and it’s really fucking miserably hard. It’s a roguelike by way of a spaceship sim, with real time combat thrown in for good measure. But of far greater worth is its knack for breathing life into one of the most unpretentious childhood fantasies: to be the lawless, unchecked captain of a spaceship.
Its boundless nighttime metropolis of planets, nebulas and space stations encapsulate perfectly the artless beauty of space; the unbridled freedom; the exotic perils; the untold possibilities, while elsewhere all the killing and maiming of curious alien-types satisfies my errant dreams of being a markedly less attractive Han Solo.
FTL serves all its glories up to you, sets you off on your own thrilling adventure and then kicks you square in the midriff (that’s the roguelike part at play). But its charm is nonetheless endless.
Gameplay takes two forms. On a macro scale you guide your spaceship through eight sectors using a beacon map, jumping between nearby planets while evading the fog of Rebel ships that inch across the beacon map from left to right in a fashion similar to, oh say, the doom-cloud in Fear 3’s wonderful Fucking Run mode. It means you’re in constant danger of being snatched by the far-reaching hands of intergalactic imperialists, gifting games a forever fretful edge and meaning you never have time to explore each sector fully.
Between jumps you’re placed in charge of the ship via a top-down view. Here, the game drifts between its real-time combat leanings and all the spaceship simulation stuff. After each jump you’re presented with a text scenario and a number of choices. Happening upon these little vignettes is a big part of FTL’s initial appeal, so I won’t spoil any, but they do a decent job of clawing you into its universe. Outside of combat and these decision making scenarios, you can order your crew to make repairs, rejig their positions on board or just unlock all the doors and watch them suffocate like obedient clockwork ants. You are an unchecked space captain.
Everything you do is within the limits of the remaining fuel supply; your every jump and the routes you plot incumbent on how much fuel is in reserve and where the nearest store is. Fuel, as well as weapons, augmentations and additional cabin crew can be bought from the many roaming hustlers, and you’re free to upgrade your ship on a whim. Trouble is, all of these things cost scrap.
You never have enough scrap in FTL. Never enough scrap.
The constant tug-of-war waged between the part of your brain that demands you buy everything and the part squawking about the likelihood of having to pay for repairs a little down the line keeps things on a perennial knife-edge. Husbanding resources is of paramount importance, but try telling yourself that as you’re salivating over a laser that spits out five shots in a single burst.
Combat, meanwhile, is a case of routing and re-routing power to your ship’s many systems and sub-systems in a bid to strike a happy balance between keeping your piece of scrap in one piece and making the other guy’s explode into many. And guess what? There’s never enough power. Re-route all of your precious green bars away from the shields and to the weapons and your crew will be asphyxiating long before they’ve tackled their first engine-fire. Dedicate too much juice to your shields to soak up incoming fire and you may as well as be bashing your opponent’s windscreen with a blow-up space hammer.
It’s the strategy wrought from the decision of where to shoot that makes deep-space murder such a tantalising part of the game.
Render your enemy’s weapons useless, for example, and he might well break down in fits of blubbering wretchedness, thrusting his reserves of fuel and ammunition your way as means of remaining not dead. Boring, not to mention difficult if he’s sporting more than the most basic of shields.
So you quickly adapt to the role of space bastard.
The avenues for visiting doom on your enemies are many but I’ve grown especially fond of disabling an enemy’s shields while we’re wrestling in the hub of an asteroid field – one of FTL’s mercurial environmental hazards. Reducing an opponent’s only defence against hulking great chunks of space rock is a waving of the middle finger of intergalactic proportions. I like to imagine my pilot, so stoic in his duties, takes a moment each time to wander across to the nearest window and blow a raspberry at the vanquished.
“That’ll learn ’em” he says, in Slug tongue.
FTL is a rock solid strategy game and while combat will be the instigator of a lot of angst, it’s in the war room that the game roars to life. The moment when your vastly superior foe collapses into a harlequin cloud of scrap metal, victory flames and frozen space tears is never anything short of brilliant; the rush of relief and joy born out of massaging victory from the impossible forever palpable. There’s something deliciously turbulent about the whole affair too; scraping through an encounter, recouping, repairing, taking stock of ammunition and hull damage, doing a little dance in your underpants and hoping to hell and back there’s a merchant nearby willing to repair that gaping puncture in the flank of your space wagon.
Strategies differ wildly depending on the ship you pilot, too. The Engi ship, for example, is reliant on its supply of combat and defence drones instead of out-and-out weapons. There are ships without shields, those steered by specific species and others still that resemble penises. Which makes the decision to lock seven of the nine off until you’ve satisfied rare or difficult quests a baffling one.
It’s not all combat, though, and a lot of what makes FTL’s galaxy such a seductive place is wrought through the downtime. The curt fragments of text that appear after each jump breathe plenty of life into the galaxy and the decisions you’re forced into making only help foster the heady sense that you’re in complete control of this merry band of phlegmatic heroes.
Playing FTL the first few times is akin to emerging from Vault 101 to be greeted by the vast, unfettered wastes of D.C. That electric feeling: this is your world to explore. That’s allayed somewhat when the scenarios begin to repeat, which is a sad thing, but the combat and your decisions as El Capitan are the lifeblood of the experience and they survive long after the text has turned to background noise.
FTL is a game in which every grand failure is a grander story waiting to be retold and it’s not the exploits of the ‘six-legged horse-like creatures’ that people are recounting all over the internet. It’s the tale of the Mantis warmongers – belligerent beasties with pincers for hands – commandeering my ship, or the time I set an enemy’s frigate ablaze before sending a small troop of fire-retardant Rock People over to play intergalactic whac-a-mole. Or the time Elnubnub the space slug repaired the O2 chamber with his dying breath, sparing Talfryn and Stanhope in a feat of deep space gallantry even old Bruce Willis would stand up to salute. My story.
That’s FTL at its simplest; a majestic cocktail of genre conventions and cunning writing combined to form a game that is every bit as absorbing and thrilling and cruel as space-proper gazed upon through youthful eyes.