FTL is Firefly by way of the Rogue-like genre, and it’s punishingly brilliant
FTL: Faster than Light
Space is a cold, unforgiving place. You’re given a small ship and a three-man crew in FTL: Faster than Light, and it’s your job to stay alive as long as you can. It’s possible to win the game, I believe, but I’ve never been close. You jump from node to node in a galaxy map, and at each stop you have an encounter. Some are good. Most are bad. You collect scrap, which you can use to buy more fuel, weapons, or upgrade your ship. You control where you crew goes inside the ship, and you get bonuses when you have someone manning any of the respective systems. When you take damage you have to handle repairs, and put out fires. It’s a bloody, adventurous sort of life up in those skies.
The screen at the top of this story is basically it for graphics. The game is dry if you don’t have an imagination, but if you grew up with space operas you will get to tell yourself the most wonderful stories. A pirate ship gave me a slave in return for not blowing him up. That slave became crew, and got straight to work repairing the oxygen scrubbers. I’ve huddled with my men in a tiny room as I opened the rest of my ship to vacuum in order to put out fires. I’ve raced against the timing of solar flares, trying to destroy an enemy ship before I run out of air.
During one game everyone but the pilot was killed, and I ran from the pilot’s seat to the weapon’s system during battles; slowly putting out fires and repairing the ship when I took damage during combat, wondering if it was worth going on to what would surely be a lonely death. I’ve run out of fuel, and prayed that someone friendly picked up my distress beacon. I prayed it wouldn’t be a pirate who would just be interested in killing me and taking my ship for salvage. I named each ship something different, and I worried about the men and women under my care.
You’re asked to make dozens of tactical decisions. Where should your people be stationed in your ship during the battle? Do you attack with your lasers, or use some of your limited torpedoes? Do you try to take out the enemy’s engines so they can’t run, or their weapons so they can’t fight back? How do you upgrade your ship? You can move power from system to system to deal with different situations, and a good captain keeps everything in near-constant motion. You can unlock more ships to fly and weapons to bring into your desperate flight towards away from the enemy fleet.
The rules are never in your favor
Much of your performance comes down to luck. Do you intervene in a situation where a ship is harassing a trade route? There is no right or wrong answer, you may get attacked either way, or be rewarded for helping, or keep your hull at maximum integrity by running. Every run is a gamble, and the best you can do is use your resources to their utmost in order to minimize the house odds. When you come out ahead of an encounter you feel like a god. When your ship is destroyed you curse the universe. And then you begin again.
It’s a beautiful game that isn’t afraid to arbitrarily punish you, or to reward bravery. Or punish bravery. Or reward cowardice. You’re always rolling the dice. The graphics may be basic, but each run is different, you’re racing against an encroaching fleet behind you and a hostile route to freedom ahead. If you’ve ever watched Firefly and fantasized about what it would be like to fly your own ship in the unwelcoming vastness of space, this is your game. The heroes almost always die, but the fun is in the attempt.
There are so many games with beautifully scripted battles and wonderfully enacted cut-scenes with fully realized voice acting, but FTL gives you a few lines of dialog, basic graphics, a large amount of tactical information, and allows your imagination to fill in everything else. So far, FTL has given me better stories than any other single-player game this year.