Radiation. Freezing temperatures. Endless voids. If popular culture has taught me one thing, it’s that they’re trivial concerns. If you’ve ever watched a sci-fi in the ‘where no man has gone before’ tradition, chances are, you’re familiar with the real danger of life in space: pirates. Intergalactic ne’er-do-wells looking to do damage if just because they can.
The scene has been recreated ad nauseum over the last fifty years: an intrepid crew of adventurers in a hostile region of the universe, forced into combat against sentient space-bugs, all sweating profusely and cursing into the cold vacuum of space. Invasion is a daily ritual for a spaceship captain. When the alien menace-of-the-week closes in with laser-guns stacked high, it’s just another day on the job.
Depending on what your sci-fi of choice is, you’ll likely anticipate a different approach to such an encounter. Maybe the conflict is resolved by a po-faced exchange of words. Perhaps, as in some rental-store sci-fi, the situation is progressed with copious amounts of group sex. Regardless, the outcome is always the same. Against all odds, the likes of Picard and Solo will always initiate a last-ditch plan for recovery along the lines of ‘redirecting power to the central thrusters’, or activating some sort of deus ex machina warp device – something so brilliant that you’ll wonder why they hadn’t used it sooner.
If your imagination is flaring up at the thought, just consider that FTL puts you in that captain’s place, and allows you to make those same decisions in those same situations; to ride away triumphant as the heroic captain of your childhood fantasy. Or at least, in theory it does.
Play FTL for five minutes, and you’ll soon discover that you’re much less of a captain than the ones you grew up watching. Mere minutes into my first playthrough of the game, I found the livelihood of my ship threatened by a crew of insectoid aliens. Imagining myself a hero, I redirected power away from my oxygen supply to cover my shield – saving my ship from an incoming volley of lasers – and retaliated with a few blasts of my own, resulting in the destruction of my enemy. It felt good – at least, until I realised I had forgotten to turn the oxygen back on, and inadvertently asphyxiated my whole crew.
Game over. Whoops.
Played from a birds-eye perspective, and situated entirely within a ship of your choosing, FTL is a no-nonsense rogue-like, moulded in the image of recent indie heavyweights like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac. Like a mix between Elite and The Sims, you’re given control over your ship and its denizens and tasked with travelling to the edge of the galaxy, combating any problems that may arise along the way – and problems will arise. Whether an impromptu fire has broken out in the flight control system, or a trained task force of rock-man pirates have boarded your ship in search of squishy humans to kill, FTL seems intent on throwing obstacles in your way, most of which will inevitably see your ship go down in flames. As you direct, train, gain and lose new crew members, you’ll come to discover that Han Solo was one lucky son of a bitch.
Mechanically, FTL showcases a wealth of intelligent design. Most of the problems you face will have a clear risk/reward structure set in place, most of which can be gamed to operate in your favour. For example, although fire can spread through your ship, opening the airlock can smother it: it’s just a case of knowing where to put your crew while you do so – leave your engines unmanned in order to flush out a a fire, and it could result in a domino effect that causes problems further down the line. A certain species, however, can walk through fire unharmed, and acquiring one as a crew member can completely change your approach for the rest of the game. FTL‘s systems are layered in just the right way, so that small decisions will more often than not hold big consequences.
Sadly, said consequences will more often than not result in your untimely demise. FTL‘s progression isn’t a case of making the best of what you have, rather, pursuing what you haven’t. Whereas games like Spelunky and Isaac can be reliably conquered by skill, FTL tends towards statistics – a single play style that must be perfected and performed ad nauseum, at which point you just sit back and wait for the numbers to fall into place. A brute-force last boss, coupled with a poor approach to scaling and item acquisition, forces FTL into a set path, far removed from the emergent possibilities present in other games in the genre.
That ‘just one more go’ in FTL is never spent in search of fresh combinations of weapons or environments, it’s never spent expecting the new; to the contrary, FTL’s constricted design leaves you hoping for the old – it leaves you wishing for the tried-and-true set-up that will lead you through to victory, because everything else tends towards failure. Ultimately, it’s a fun ride when you’re still learning the game’s intricacies, but once you’re there you’ll discover that the game is a lot less intricate than it first appeared.
Unless you’re willing to stick to the formula and direct every playthrough towards the same set-up, FTL is difficult – obnoxiously so. FTL isn’t perfect, but it’s premise never falters. All in all, it’s worth playing, if simply for the thrill of watching the enemy crew panic when you finally turn the tables and open their ship to the void outside. That alone should be enough to silence the inner child.