My list of recent purchases includes XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3, Halo 4, and the supposed Game of the Year, The Walking Dead. Any one of those games is capable of entertaining for hours on end. And yet in the last month, the single game that I played more than any other was a $10 indie title called FTL: Faster Than Light.
Faster Than Light was one of the first games to be paid for by crowd-funding. The developers at Subset Games asked for only $10,000 during their Kickstarter campaign to finance their project, and their generous backers were more than happy to oblige, providing over $200,000 before it was all said and done. Yet even $200,000 is a small fraction of the cost required to produce any of the games listed above. So how is it that a game of such humble origins could have seduced me so successfully that my other AAA blockbuster titles are collecting dust?
It starts with a great idea. Faster Than Light is a game where you control the crew and manage the upgrades and scarce resources of a starship while exploring a randomly generated universe. The universe is divided into 8 sectors of progressively increasing difficulty. The player has to explore each sector while encountering hostile enemy ships, distress beacons, quests and other sources of adventure, all while attempting to escape a restless enemy armada which always threatens to bring a premature end to the journey if the player dallies in one sector for too long.
That’s just one way to die though. The game ends if every member of the crew is killed. The crew can get into trouble in a number of ways, such as hand to hand combat against enemy boarding parties, suffocation if the oxygen system is destroyed, or fires and explosions impacting the part of the ship they happen to be in. They can even die on away missions, if the player chooses to send them on one. But more often than not, it is during a space battle with an enemy when it is the complete destruction of the ship that ends their lives.
Combat in Faster Than Light seems to be simple at first, but can develop into quite a juggling act in the later stages of the game. At its simplest, the player routes power to the ship’s weapons systems and waits for them to charge before firing at the enemy. With any luck, the shot(s) will penetrate the enemy’s shields and do damage to the hull. The player can choose to aim their weapons at specific systems and subsystems, such as destroying the shields so that they can no longer recharge, or aiming at the weapons system to stop or delay the enemy’s attack.
Of course, the enemy can do the same thing to the player. If a system becomes damaged, a member of the crew can be moved into position to make repairs and attempt to put out fires. The crew can also man various stations throughout the ship. Manning the weapons station reduces the time it takes before the weapons can be fired again, manning the shields causes them to recharge faster, and manning the piloting station and engine room increases the ship’s ability to dodge enemy attacks. Members of the crew will gain experience at their respective stations, eventually leveling up and increasing the bonuses. They can also become better mechanics by repairing damaged systems or become more effective in hand to hand combat by defeating enemy boarding parties.
Battles can become quite hectic, and occur in real time. When planning an attack, the player must consider both their available weapons and the enemy’s defenses. Laser weapons will lower shields, or do a small amount of damage if shields are down. Missile weapons ignore shields, but are limited in quantity and can become completely exhausted, so they must be used conservatively. Beam weapons can be devastating, but usually cannot penetrate shields. If the ship is properly equipped, Drones can be used to provide an automated form of attack (or defense), and sending a boarding party to the enemy ship can also be effective, though risky. Often it takes a combination of attacks to breach the enemy’s defenses. And yet the player must simultaneously focus on defense, sending crew to repair damaged systems or to fend off enemy invaders, or pulling them out of a dangerous situation and sending them to the medical facility before they die. Even the doors on the ship can be micromanaged, creating a vacuum in one part of the ship to put out a fire or suffocate an intruder.
If all of this sounds overwhelming, it can be. But surprisingly, the 10 minute tutorial does an admirable job of helping new players get started without too much hand-holding or overstaying its welcome. Also, the game is meant to be paused during combat. While paused, the player can come up with a plan and issue commands that will be executed when play resumes. If the player manages to destroy the enemy ship or force surrender, the player will receive loot in the form of fuel, ammunition (missiles or drone parts), scrap (currency, and upgrade material) or occasionally a new weapon or ship upgrade.
Failure is harsh and permanent in Faster Than Light. Whether through victory or defeat, when the game ends a score is tallied, and it’s back to the title screen where the “Continue” button is grayed out. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll have clicked “New Game” without even thinking about it. A typical game can last from minutes to an hour or two at most, depending on the success of your endeavors. The brevity of each game makes it all the easier to play again right away, and on more than one occasion a “quick game” turned into a series of phenomenal adventures that occupied me ‘til the sun came up. And while there may be no permanent progress in terms of an individual game or ship, overall progress can be measured in the form of developing strategies, completing challenging achievements and unlocking secrets.
Forming an upgrade strategy for your ship is one of the most exciting aspects of the game. As the game is randomized every time you play it, you never really know what you are going to discover in terms of weapon upgrades, drones and augmentations (which provide special bonuses to the ship), however what is consistent is the state of the ship at the start of the game and what system upgrades are available. For example, the default ship always includes 3 crew members and a level one shield, and is always equipped with a laser weapon than can fire off three rounds every time it is charged and a pretty decent missile weapon. Despite the random nature of the game, you can still come up with a general strategy for the ship, and know what kind of upgrades to keep an eye out for.
While Faster Than Light is addicting—even after only playing a couple of games—it’s the unlockables which really got me hooked. After several failed attempts (did I mention this game is hard, even on Easy?), I finally made significant progress through the game and was rewarded with a new ship. Starting the game with a different ship drastically changes the feel of the game, and requires a whole new strategy. For example, there is an unlockable ship that does not have a shield system at all, but it does have a cloaking system, so you have to learn how to effectively neutralize the enemy’s weapons systems before they can bombard your defenseless hull.
In addition to the default ship, 8 additional ships can be unlocked. And all 9 ships in the game have a secondary layout that can be unlocked by completing 2 out of the 3 available ship-exclusive achievements. The secondary layouts might as well be entirely new ships as far as gameplay is concerned, so there are a total of 18 ship layouts in the game, providing tons of replay value.
The game isn’t perfect of course. The graphics will be a sticking point for some people, as they are quite simple, and the music can get repetitive. The storyline is quite light, and remains mostly unchanged despite which ship you are using or which alien race it belongs to. There are also occasional bugs and sometimes the randomness can prove overpowering to the point that it seems unfair. But none of that has stopped me from loving the game. Maybe it’s the randomly generated universe, or how it reminds me of Star Trek, or the high difficulty level, or its roguelike nature, or the depth of combat, or the addiction of the unlocking system, or my need to master each ship in the game, or how I always want to tell my friends about my latest successes (and failures)… but somehow, this humble little indie game has become one of my favorites. I’ve found it impossible to stop playing Faster Than Light, and I hope you will give it a try.
Ari did not receive a copy of the game for review purposes.
Available on: PC
Version Reviewed: PC