(NOTE: This review will cover Faster Than Light, as well as the expansion, Faster Than Light: Advanced Edition, and the bundled iPad version)

After my friend discovered I voyaged into Subset Games’ space adventure Faster Than Light, he told me one thing: “Don’t name any of your characters.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they are all going to die.”

He was right. FTL is far from the utopian yarn realized through Star Trek. Space, instead, is closer to what Bones describes as “disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” Thankfully, a charming 8-bit soundtrack straight from the late 80s will keep you company. Part Roguelike and part micromanager, FTL uses an incredible sense of agency to capture the essence of commanding a starship. It can feel like a double-edged sword, since FTL brings an uncompromising difficulty that puts a premium on player skill. Luckily, this gives way to some of the most invigorating gameplay I’ve ever experienced.

Brief and simple, the story casts you as an Alliance ship commander transporting important intel across a galaxy teeming with Rebels. Though you can’t choose who to follow, the journey has its own choices and obstacles. Presented in neat dialogue introductions, every new stage comes with its own rewards and risks. Sometimes a stranded friendly vessel needs fuel to move on, or a would-be research team nullifies a crew member into nanites. Though it isn’t always possible to see how things will go, erring on the side of caution might thwart some potentially juicy rewards. The key thing to take from FTL is always be prepared, because situations often get hairy. Leaving an encounter unscathed rarely occurs, which leaves the line between victory and defeat unclear. Still, how well you fare after a fight can separate a true starship captain from a rookie straight out of the academy.

Ship-to-ship battles comprise most of the gameplay. Coming out on top, whether it’s pirates, rebels, or rogue-machines, requires not only focus on an opponent’s ship but also on your own. Managing the ship’s systems and keeping them optimal make combat an invigorating combination of synergy, situational awareness and tactics. Whether last minute damage to the weapons systems prevents a missile from going off, or an attack drone pops the enemy’s shields just in time for an ion blast to neutralize their systems, FTL is a micromanagement dream come true.

Hull integrity close to full? Not for long

This is aided by a wide breadth of resource management. That missiles are running low, the FTL drive won’t make it out of the system or the ship could perform better in combat are all common occurrences. Luckily, salvage the player accumulates can be used at random stores to upgrade the base stats of a ship, fuel up, hire new crew members, or to gain a strategic edge through augmentations, new weapons or a completely new system. But salvage is a scarce commodity. And loitering in a system means the Rebel fleet inches that much closer. Sometimes, fleeing for safety precludes the option to upgrade, which gives these decisions real weight.

Playthroughs in FTL are never identical. Every restart – and you will restart – is another roll of the dice. It can feel unfair, especially when aliens boards your shuttle in the first stage and eviscerate an unseasoned crew. But rarely does death come undeserved. Most faults can be traced to a misstep, whether it’s being unprepared or rash. And FTL cushions some of the misery, because a second try might mean new ship to toy with, but will always mean an important lesson was learned. This plus a nearly undefeatable final boss create some powerful incentives to play again.

At the same time, the cyclical nature of FTL can foster some monotony. Despite a randomly generated universe, scripted encounters appear multiple times throughout a single playthrough. And though combat swells in difficulty especially towards the end, suspiciously familiar events and unvaried visuals impede on an overall feeling of progression. As encounters get repetitive the randomness starts to work against a veritable quality of spontaneity. And soon the experience loses some of its hook.

“Fear” is when these asteroids come o’ knocking during a heated firefight

However, as a free expansion on Steam that coincides with an iPad release, FTL: Advanced Edition boasts enough content to keep the formula fresh through a larger catalogue of events. Do you rescue a man relegated to a dark cave in the far reaches of space? Or do you attempt to take advantage of an undiscovered docile species and sell their organs for salvage? As well, some unique alien races and a new ship to commandeer open up hours of strategic reinvention. Where one ship has drones take care of all the work, another might emphasize boarding parties. And the opportunities cascade from there. That you can send a crew to rid the enemy of oxygen or neutralize their weapon systems is testament to how unique skirmishes can play out. And this fosters an unprecedented level of agency.

Though I had my doubts on how the controls would fare, FTL on iPad remains a close runner-up to PC. The controls are surprisingly precise. And the ability to pause, plan and execute maneuvers make a tablet interface seamless and intuitive. Still, to account for touch some of the icons overlap, and its common to see some of the ship systems interfere with important information on crew status. However, this issue rarely detracts from an otherwise exceptional port that boasts desirable mobile functionality.

FTL demands that you play on its terms and its rules with plenty of no-win scenarios. Though I’d sooner swap the option to name my characters for a drawer full of red shirts, FTL is a fresh take on the Roguelike genre that blends invigorating combat with a deep sense of choice.

Review: Faster Than Light
To claim its rewards, FTL demands nothing less than total exertion. But pain never felt this good.
Pros:
  • Deep micromanagement systems
  • Robust sense of choice
  • Bracing combat
Cons:
  • Obfuscating iPad controls
  • Harsh difficulty
9Overall Score
Reader Rating: (1 Vote)
9.0

About The Author

Contributor

Since his parents scraped every last penny to put a Nintendo 64 under the Christmas tree of 1996, Adrian has maintained a passion for video games. When his hands aren't sprawled over 'W', 'A', 'S' or 'D', Adrian churns out a few sentences, and sometimes paragraphs, about the games that graze an emotional touchstone.

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