Gary, pilot of the Starship Batman, is guiding the vessel through an uncharted nebula in hostile Mantis space. Environmental interference means the sensors are down, despite the best efforts of the ship’s engineer, Gary. Maintenance worker Gary is nowhere to be seen, busy repairing the droid systems after an encounter with an angry crew of pirates a few jumps back. Gary makes for a nearby system and suddenly the alarms hammer through through the corridors of the Batman. Someone is on the ship. A rebel scout was waiting behind a nearby moon, ready for an ambush. As Gary and Gary go to fight off the boarding party, weapon fire rips- through the weapons room, engines and the shield systems. Missiles and lasers were returned in kind.
A message. The rebels wish to surrender, relinquishing precious fuel and materials in exchange for a safe exit. Bollocks to that, says the captain of the Batman, the Garys do not give inches or take white flags. An all-out assault means the wounded scout is space dust, and the heroes are victorious. But the blast doors never closed, and the oxygen is running out.
Useless metal and blinking lights, floating through space. More often than not, this is how your experience with FTL will end. Failure is the order of the day, because this is a hard-as-balls roguelike, and it wants you to prove your worth as a space captain. Yes, you are a spaceship commander, one of the Federation’s best, and you’ve been charged with delivering vital information across the galaxy that will give your side an extreme tactical advantage. The rebel fleet is hot on your tail, advancing inexorably across world after world. Getting to the exit of each sector is priority one, but there’s so much to do and see along the way.
Each trip through Faster Than Light is one way only, and done blindfolded. After choosing your ship (there’s only one to start), your crew and the difficulty, you are unceremoniously dumped in your first randomly generated galactic sector, a dozen or so dots between you and the exit. Each dot is a system ready to be explored, in the grand tradition of inspirational sources like Star Trek et al. When making your jump, any number of things can happen. You might come across a space station with a faulty defense system needing repair, or a pirate ship offering a bribe to pretend you didn’t see any space looting.
All non-combat encounters play out via text boxes, which set out the situation and generally offer a few choices. An alien race needs fuel to get to the next system, and will trade missiles for some of yours. There’s an unmanned drone orbiting a storage facility, which you can chose to engage or ignore. Deep in a civilian sector, you find a planet filled with strange creatures, primed for a first contact or domestication.
And these choices matter, as anything you do in FTL can be the straw that breaks the captain’s back. Giving fuel to the aforementioned aliens can leave you unable to escape from an attack later, or force you to change your course to conserve resources. Helping a ship in distress is just as likely to be an ambush as a rescue mission. Choosing to escort a friendly across the map might leave you stuck inside rebel territory, desperately waiting for your engines to power up. Many of these fateful decisions will manifest as resource management, as looking after your craft and it’s systems is what FTL is all about. Rooms on the ship are designated for weapons, engines, oxygen supply, shields, monitoring and the all-important flight deck. Different ships and shop purchases can add drones, crew teleporter and even a cloaking device.
Running the ship costs power, and you have a limited supply. Often I found myself asking if I really needed a functioning medical bay if I could just reroute all power to my amazing shields. The Undulator, a ship staffed only by busty women called Tiffany and Kate, proved this wrong when the crew was spectacularly ripped apart by invading synthetics. Of course, in another randomly generated lifetime they might have survived. FTL throws an intimidating amount of information and possibility in your face, but once the dust settles on your first half-dozen exploded ships you’ll find yourself approaching a zen moment; suddenly it all starts to make sense, and you begin throwing commands to your crew like a perfect, pixelated Picard.
Between the rebels, the pirates, several different races of unusual alien and the odd asteroid field, you’ll be doing a lot of fighting as you make your way from sector one to sector eight and beyond. Combat can be frantic and initially overwhelming, as missiles bombard your shields and fire breaks out in half the ship. Thankfully – particularly for those of us who are not strategically gifted – you can pause the action at any stage and plan your next move. Ship combat is a lot of fun, despite the difficulty, and it’s nice to be put in charge of an entire ship instead of just the guns and steering.
While I always relished a good scrap – even the ones I had to run screaming from with blood keeping the floors of my vessel slick – it is a shame that there isn’t more to the non-combative side of things. My imagination welcomed the workout each time a little descriptive block came up to tell me about a station or planet, but once you’ve played for a while and begin to see the same bits and pieces reappear it loses some shine. The universe is an interesting place to fly around in, which is exactly why I was craving more.
Your many, many jaunts through the longest distance between two points is made rather pleasant by an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. Electronic blips and alien beats accompany you from system to system, really selling the space theme and providing a surprising amount of immersion. Despite the whole game playing out in a top-down, pixel-based viewpoint, with tiny little sprites representing your crew and nothing but a architectural grid representing your ship, I found myself wrapped right up in the fiction. An hour in my virtual commander’s chair turned out to be three hours in the real world, and had my partner wondering what was so damn interesting about a picture of a spaceship.
Much like space itself, Faster Than Light is quietly beautiful and amazingly dangerous. Small missteps can easily balloon into major disasters, but the straight-up fun of the experience will keep you coming back regardless. And FTL will regard you with indifference, as it forces you to almost finish the entire plot before it lets you unlock even one extra ship, and tosses ridiculous challenges at you, like getting through the entire game without firing a shot. Even after you defeat the rebels, you can’t leave, as multiple different vessels and a galaxy of uncharted space awaits you. When someone initially suggested I play a super difficult, 2D spaceship simulator I laughed in their face, but I was wrong. And I’ve boldly gone.