Wish Fulfilled: A Week with FTL

Saavik: So you’ve never faced that situation? Faced death?
Kirk: I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.
—Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn

Is there any sci-fi geek of my generation (anyone born in the 70s) who hasn’t wanted a video game to bring the infamous Kobayahsi Maru scenario to video games? Various games have tried. There have been actual Star Trek games that have tried. None that I’ve played have ever quite captured that spirit of crewing and powering and surviving aboard a starship like FTL: Faster Than Light. This rogue-like in space that stumbled into $200,543 in Kickstarter funding, while petitioning for a mere $10,000, is the game I’ve been looking for ever since I first heard Kirk tell Sulu to lock phasers on Reliant and “await my command.”

It’s been a long wait…

Before I descend to full on hyperbole, let’s dispense with the notion that the game is perfect. It’s not a beauty. It’s limited in scope. What plot there is, is best not looked at too closely (or at all). Because you can’t play a crew past the end-scenario or play with custom ship builds, it doesn’t go quite far enough to offer a lasting experience. It screams for an iOS or Android iteration. And it still needs a certain something, even if I can’t quite put my finger on what that something is.

It’s also the $10 product of a two-man operation – Sunset Games’ Matthew Davis (programming/design) and Justin Ma (art/design). I wouldn’t know these two gents if they walked up to me and signed my belly, but it’s obvious that what started off as a flight of fancy, as a “I bet we can do this” project, has turned into something neither could possibly have anticipated. Given that, it’s understandable that the game doesn’t present like something that was funded at 2,000% of its goal. At the same time, what these two accomplished would be amazing to me if they were funded at $2,000,000. (That, if you were wondering, is the beginning of a chorus line of Hyperbole.)

In FTL you are given a starship and an initial crew that’s usually comprised of three our four people that can come from a variety of races, each of which has the usual array of strengths and weaknesses. All ships –there are something like eight, each with a variant model– have a few core systems: Life Support, cockpit, engine room, medical bay, shield control, etc. There are additional systems found on some ship variants by default but that must be installed on others, like cloaking, transporters (for boarding actions), and drone control. All of these systems have some kind of upgrade potential that increases their performance or adds capability. You assign your crew to these positions as you like, which both increases that system’s effectiveness and, as they gain in experience, that crewman’s ability to man it.  For example, manning shields incrementally increases its recharge rate.

The goal is clear: You are part of a crumbling Federation, under siege from oncoming Rebel forces. You have information vital to the Federation’s survival and must safely reach your fleet at Sector 8. Each sector is composed of a number of jump points and you jump from point to point and sector to sector. Every stop along the way has some kind of encounter that ranges from exchanging goods with merchants to being attacked by rebels or pirates to helping the locals fight off a spider infestation. (Why must it always be spiders?) Although survival is possible, the game really isn’t so much about survival as it is about seeing how long you can survive. It’s the Kobayashi Maru. That is the challenge and the fun.

I’ve manned the captain’s chair of no less than a dozen starships and only one has both reached the promised land and then survived the final encounter (at which point the game ends). That one successful foray was played on the game’s Easy mode (there are only two difficulty settings). Most of my other attempts have ended in destruction before so much as reaching Sector 5. But then, in the realm of legendary starship captains, I probably rank alongside Jason Nesmith.

Backwash!

What separates FTL from other attempts to crack this impenetrable genre is balance. It doesn’t overplay its hand or try to take on more than its core design can handle. Its UI is simple enough that you can pick it up and understand how to play within minutes. You don’t need a rulebook filled with turn ratios, consumption curves, and hull thickness specifications. You don’t have to learn how to fly the ship because there is no flight control. You don’t have to line up cross hairs or do anything else remotely twitchy. Really, all you do is issue orders, balance power usage, and upgrade your ship. You are The Captain. The Decider. Trust me when I tell you all that keeps you plenty busy.

Power and scrap, the latter of which functions as currency, are everything in this game. Although there are ship systems you can find or purchase, all upgrades require scrap and power. Upgraded engines that improve your dodge chance and speed the time it takes to activate your ship’s Jump capability require you to feed them more power to take advantage of those benefits. Did you add a new ion cannon? I hope you have the scrap parts needed to both enhance the weapons control’s power capacity and your ship’s ability to feed it the power it craves. What’s taken me a dozen hours of play to learn is that trying to fully power every system at once, or even most of them, is folly. You’ll spend all your scrap just upgrading your ship’s power capacity while not being able to afford the actual upgrades needed to survive the range of scenarios you’ll face, not to mention keep your ship maintained (fuel, missiles, drone parts, and armor are all expendable resources you must replenish).

Survival demands knowing when you need a system and when you don’t. It’s easy to turn off a med-bay when the crew is at full health or risk shutting down life support for a few minutes in the name of activating a second weapon or drone, but that kind of thinking will only get you so far. If a pirate is coming after you with a single fire laser and a pair of hull-breaching missile systems, having upgraded and fully powered shields but only stock engines isn’t going to mean much. No, the laser isn’t getting through, but missiles ignore shields and, if you can’t dodge them, wreck both hull and systems alike. This is the moment where you’ll wish you skipped a bigger battery in favor of engine upgrades to which you could’ve diverted power away from your shields. Of course, next time around you’ll encounter a rebel ship that does its damage by sending over a boarding party . If only you had upgraded to security doors when you had the chance, maybe you could’ve slowed the invaders from taking out your ship’s sensors or life support.

Then there is the pain and delight of managing your crew. Having your Rockman put out a fire in the security room or sending your robotic Engi crew member to repair a damaged system is a no-brainer. What about when you’ve vented the ship to repel boarders and only then does life support, which is all the way on the other side of the ship, take a critical hit? (Ship design and system placement also plays a huge role in how you manage your crew.) Somebody has to hold their breath. And which critical post do you abandon in order to repair it? Can you afford to leave the helm when under missile attack or for your weapons to charge up a few seconds slower? And when your ace pilot is killed trying to aid a sick colony do you put off ship upgrades while you look for a jump point with a general store that might or might not have replacements readily available? And even if they do, you’ve still lost half a game’s worth of experience at the helm. It’s a never-ending string of decisions that you have to make and, very often, you have to make them blindly.

This is where the genius of FTL lies. Jump to jump you have no idea what you’ll encounter and, although there is a counter to every attack, there is no way to outfit your ship to handle everything you might face. One minute you’ll wish you had the ability to power more weapons, the next you’ll wish you had saved enough scrap to afford that transporter that would’ve let you send crew over to take out a ship from the inside that that you can’t even hope to scratch on the outside. One minute you sit smugly in your chair knowing a rival can’t touch you, the next you’re cursing the gods as you frantically send crewmen to extinguish a fire and repair a damaged engine that is your only hope of escape. It’s a game of strategic and tactical choices, but it’s also a game of luck. It’s an addicting combination that never ever plays out the same way twice.

FTL may not quite be everything I’d ever wanted from or hoped for in a starship simulator, but it’s much, much closer than anyone else has ever gotten. Matthew Davis and Justin Ma deserve every accolade they receive for this effort, but mostly I just want them to get to work on a bigger and badder version, be it add-on content or an outright sequel. In the meantime, look for FTL as a digital download from either Steam or GOG.com.

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Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor, with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and is a 20-year publishing veteran as an editor of books on consumer tech and professional development for educators. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd was a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets from 1997-2015. Follow him on Twitter @toddsfoolery.

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