Still Playing: FTL – discovering new ways to die in Subset’s challenging space-captain sim

FTL

Publisher/developer: Subset Games Format: PC, iPad Release: Out now

The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would probably classify the spiky, metallic Lanius as the one creature in the galaxy you’d least want to meet, largely thanks to their tendency to suck all of the breathable oxygen out of any room they’re standing in. You’d be forgiven for wondering why you’d want one manning the engine room in an embattled starship, but in latest free update to spaceship-management roguelike, FTL, they’re oddly useful.

A Lanius is a walking hull breach, which means they can starve a fire to death in moments. If you leave a crewmate in the same room as one when you hop between stars, you’ll have a dead crewmate when you reach the other side, but I see that as another good reason to replace my ship’s medbay with the new cloning bay. If I lose Joe the weapons guy to Lanius asphyxiation, another Joe will pop right out and resume his normal duties. He’ll lose a bit of experience and the lack of medbay makes it tougher for the crew to recover from any battle wounds, but it means I can feel slightly less embarrassed about any Lanius placement errors.

The cloning bay is even better when used in conjunction with a teleporter room. As long as both systems are working, I can beam a never-ending stream of crew members onto the enemy ship. For the sake of paradox-avoidance and your crew’s sanity, you can’t have more than one of them running around at the same time, but imagine the impact on enemy morale, to have defeated a deadly Mantis warrior in hand-to-hand combat only to see the same Mantis warrior beam right back into the room moments later. In boarding actions, the Lanius’ alarming talent finds another application. Most of your enemies need oxygen, too.

Subset Games’ ‘Roguelike-like’ ‘can generate stories of valour, quick thinking, bad luck and overcoming dire odds,” we said in our FTL: Faster Than Light review.

It might sound like FTL is an easier game for the addition of these new toys, but I’ve seen my ship reduced to drifting space-debris more frequently after the update. The Advanced package gives you lots of inventive ways to break an enemy ship, but they can break yours using exactly the same tools, and the AI is adept at using some of the more fiddly abilities. The new mind control system lets you temporarily flip an enemy to your cause for a few moments if you can target them aboard the enemy ship, but I’ll need faster fingers and a new brain to use it as nimbly as the AI does.

Hacking introduces a new tier of of nightmare scenarios. If you see the enemy hacking drone fasten itself to your hull, you know something horrible is about to happen. If it gets your weapon bay, you can enjoy watching all of your weapons lose power. They can suck shields dry, blow up any drones you’ve deployed and turn the medbay into a gas chamber. Worse still, hacking drones lock the doors to any system they’re infiltrating, which can block access to fires or enemy boarders. Combat drones can shoot down the mechanical limpet before it has a chance to latch onto your ship, and you can shoot out the enemy’s hacking facility to stop the process. By the time your weapons have warmed up it’s often too late.

Death comes swiftly in FTL. I know this well, but it doesn’t stop me from emitting a strange anguished gargle every time I see my ship shattered to pieces. That’s more embarrassing for my switch from PC to the new iPad version, a release that’s sure to increase instances of sweary outbursts on train journeys worldwide. Subset’s gorgeous pixel art translates beautifully to a retina screen and touch controls make some of the systems more satisfying. Tracing the arc of a laser across an enemy hull feels marvellous, and when I need to think for a moment I find myself idly tracing spirals across my ship, watching the doors slide open beneath my fingers.

FTL on iPad is obviously more portable, its touch controls are intuitive and there’s a subtle shift in the game’s rhythm, too.

FTL takes on a more jarring rhythm on iPad. Squeezing so much information into the relatively cramped aspect ratio makes managing the ship’s systems a little more cumbersome, and Subset knows this makes quick, precise crew orders difficult. When you tap on a crew member the game now pauses to let you decide their destination. I find myself playing it more like a turn-based strategy game, pausing for thought often, and then powering and de-powering different systems with a complicated rush of flicks, feeling every bit the Star Trek helmsman.

The appeal of becoming Captain Picard for short twenty-minute sessions hasn’t faded, but I realise the reason I keep starting over again has more to do with FTL’s randomly generated encounters than the fantasy. Every game hands you a new combination of tools and asks you to make the best of it. Sometimes it feels like being dropped into a bear pit with a spoon, but sometimes I’ll pick up a Lanius warrior and a teleporter, and FTL immediately feels fresh again. Thanks to the Advanced update, I’ll be finding hundreds of new ways to explode in the coming months.