By Tom Hooper aka Atomp
Once again I’m reviewing an oldish game, and once again it’s indie and once again it’s a rogue-like, I’m not sure if you’re seeing the same pattern as I’m seeing. In defense of how late this review is, FTL has proven to be a major pre-cursor of things to come, from crowd-funding to Steam Early Access and as such it’s an interesting case study of how things have changed in the last 18 months.
Ultimately the selling point of FTL is its blending of rogue-like randomness and perma-death with being a starship captain. That second bit is really the important part, as characters such as Han Solo and Mal Reynolds have created this fantastic image of the rogue starship captain that pulls their heap of junk yet much beloved starship through impossible trials against the odds. Who doesn’t want to at least pretend to be that!? That’s not to say that starships haven’t been done, far from it in fact as Elite and the numerous descendents of the genre have shown, massive universes and awesome trading and fighting opportunities have been in games for a long time. This is also true of the larger scale as simulations of capital ships exist normally peaking in a 4x strategy. These games don’t quite fit the bill, the Elite-likes focus too much on the piloting; too micro and the capital ship and up focus too greatly on the macro. FTL however fills a pleasant niche between the two, seeing the sensation of crew management and being captain fulfilled very nicely, in FTL the captain actually delegates and its all the better for it.
The early life of FTL is an interesting one. The development team of to received a great deal of critical recognition at a couple of IGFs which meant that their decision to start a funding Kickstarter meant that they were among the wave of very successful and highly publicised early gaming crowd funding initiatives. This critical response to the game and the popular response through the Kickstarter ($200,000 of $10,000) means that for such a relatively small indie project FTL got a huge amount of publicity and an astounding response. In short I’ll say that it deserves every bit of that response and if this is a sign of things to come from crowd-funded indie projects then I eagerly anticipate the next 18 months as other projects finish up and return. It’s also worth noting that FTL appears to have been one of the first non-Valve game to run their beta and early access through Steam which has now grown into a fully feature Early Access system.
The gameplay is based around the ship view; a top-down view of the various rooms and modules of your particular ship. Within this ship are your crew members who are moved around the ship RTS style and can be moved to work on different systems, repair different systems, fight or heal. Around the view of the ship is a selection of system information displays which show the status of your ship, your weapon controls and a display of any opponent. Controlling the ship during combat is a balance of crew and power distribution between the various systems and depending on your overall strategy. The action is played out in pausable real-time which retains the tension of RTS but gives the opportunity for more thought in bigger decisions. The way this mechanic works out is satisfying although it can lead to some heart-breaking pauses in the action where no matter how much time spent on a decision, it is ultimately unwinnable.
The more macro elements rely on a ship, weapon and drone upgrades which are purchased with ‘scrap’, gained from destroying foes, selling gear or completing side-quests. These can be used to customise your ship to whatever play style you feel like which works together with unlockable ship types. Navigation is done through two maps, the first showing a display of the sectors available and then the map of the sector you’re in at the time. The map showing available sectors will generally give a limited choice in paths however planning is plausible as sectors are shown to be friendly, neutral or hostile. The in-sector map is a net of star-systems allowing for a choice of path through the sector. Jumping into the system will generally trigger some form of event which could be a fight, station or SOS response among others. The sector map will show which systems contain shops and will also show SOS signals. The manner in which random encounters happen moves the balance of luck and skill slightly towards the luck end of the scale, but only very slightly.
In addition to this is the key restriction of FTL; the limited time aspect. The story goes that you are a Federation ship being pursued across space by a rebel fleet; which is implemented in limiting the amount of time that can be spent in each individual sector as the fleet moves through it. This is an understandable mechanic as the amount of development required for more player freedom would be immense, and the idea does add a degree of urgency to the game that makes hard decisions at every level even harder due to the irreversible nature.
FTL is a good looking game. The artistic style for the interface is much like you’ve seen in countless displays in sci-fi movies, only done really well. The look of the rest of the game is a simple and clean 2D look which works very well to portray the elements of the game whilst not attempting to relinquish complexity for integrated elements. This is one case where HUD elements are acceptable if not vital and whilst there are initial impression of the complexity a handy tutorial explains it all at the start. The sounds are appropriate and well done and of special note should be the soundtrack which captures the essence of the game perfectly and absolutely enhances the experience.
The game is available on Windows, Mac and Linux. The cross platform nature was assured from the outset of the Kickstarter and was certainly a selling point for myself. The game is available DRM-free or through Steam on all of these platforms. System requirements are minimal; the Steam page shows 2GHz CPU, 1GB RAM, 175MB HDD space and an OpenGL 2.0 compatible GPU. These specs are those of a cheap netbook nowadays and unless you’re trying to run Win ME on a toaster or something you should be able to play the game. (BTW try Linux on the toaster, it runs on most things).
The game is available from the game website through the Humble Store which will provide DRM-free downloads for all platforms as well as a Steam key. This option comes in at £6.55 (approx $10.00) and is by far the best option. The game is also available through Steam for £6.99 (approx $10.67) and GOG for £6.54 (approx $9.99).
(For the sake of checking out the past of the project)