I’d probably be in the majority of people who, before now, had never heard of the sub-genre known as “Roguelike” (as embarrassing as this might be for an old school PC gamer/journo). Wikipedia determines games “characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement” to fit into this very small box, and has seemed to have a small revival of sorts lately, with the introduction of permadeath modes in Torchlight, Diablo 3 and the impressively difficult Dungeons of Dredmor.
The problem lies, however, in introducing a new generation of players to a traditionally niche mode in a manner where the learning curve isn’t completely ridiculous, or the difficulty overwhelmingly unapproachable.
Faster Than Light, or FTL, entered public life as a Kickstarter, like most indie games nowadays, and went on to gross funding of just over $200,000 – an almost 2000% expansion of its original target. As a result, development was significantly expedited and the entire post-alpha refining process was shared and contributed to by the games’ backers. A host of new features were added, including achievements, the ability to save games and a host of new items, antagonists and ships.
So what’s it all about? FTL puts you in the captains shoes of a small warp-capable spaceship, tasked with completing a recurring mission as the last hope to a Galactic Federation, as all the while a heavily armed and very large rebel fleet tracks you across the galaxy. Unlike other titles, control of your ship is from an almost static, top down viewpoint, where the majority of your actions are managing crew, upgrading your ship, making life or death decisions and issuing commands in the event of an attack.
Your ship is divided into various sections that control the different functions of your bog standard space vessel, including Life Support, Weapons, Engines, Pilots and so forth. Each game starts with a skeleton crew, some preassigned stats (depending on the makeup of your ship) and a bit of scrap. As the name suggests, you will be jumping your way through the galaxy, planet by planet, with each new location spawning a randomized event. It could be an attack, a desperate civilian colony in trouble, or a merchant offering you a deal you can’t refuse.
Each action is dictated via an adventure style screen of words with choices, clearly stating the situation at hand and the possible repercussions of your choices. Very few things are black and white, and making some seemingly “easy” decisions can find you in serious trouble. You might find that attacking a pirate ship (instead of helping it) trapped in an asteroid belt is akin to free scrap, until it blows up too close and tears up half your hull, or its pirate buddy could warp in behind you and force a provocation.
FTL does not pull any punches, nor does the “easy” mode offer any favours — risky or just plain stupid decisions will dictate how long you survive. Early on, death will be quick and cruel, based on your inability to multitask your crew or sufficiently target threats. As you replay, you will not only unlock new ships, but realise the best routes through each galaxy, where to allocate very limited resources or whether its worth being too cruel or too kind. In most cases, being selfish and safe may keep you moving, but it’s just not as much fun.
But I’ve found most of the difficulty comes in managing your resources. Each warp, regardless of how safe the galaxy is or how well equipped you are, can be a blessing or a curse. You might stumble across a cache of everything you need, like fuel for jumps or missiles for heavy weapons. You could locate a merchant vessel or station, offering the latest and greatest in auto repair drones, but you’re just two scraps short of the price. Or the opposite, splurging on a costly repair only to find someone on the next jump offering a weapon of immense power for the same price.
But that’s not to say keeping everyone alive is any easier. Your ships can be boarded by other crews, fires can break out or your life support system can be taken out, drowning your men in their own CO2. You can jump into the path of a bomber who disables your weapons, leaving you neutered and useless to domination as you struggle to repair them. The fun is in developing various strategies to fend off each and every sort of attack, based on what upgrades or equipment you have available at the time.
The developers claim that the randomization of almost every element is what forces the player to create their own story, each time they spawn a new ship. In most cases, you will eventually die without much warning, meaning that every single action or decision is imperative to your survival. Simply playing it safe or being ultra aggressive will not provide easy routes to victory in FTL, where a roll of the dice and your ability to think on your feet quickly will mean the difference between destruction or the next jump.
The sheer brilliance of this game is evident by the speed of which its popularity has spread. As of Monday night, the game had been released for a few days, alongside Black Mesa, arguably the most anticipated HL2 mod of the past 5-6 years — but it’s FTL that 90% of my Steam friends list are playing at any given time. At the bargain basement price of $10, you would be an idiot not to take a look at what is, to me, one of the best indie games of the year.