Bursts of laser fire come crackling across the void, thudding into our shields. They flare but hold, and we relax. This battle is all but over – our opponent’s engines and shield control are glowing red, ruined by our beam weapons. Then a missile careens into our hull, taking out door control. We’d scoff, but the words die on our lips as a fire breaks out in the room. You see, the best way to put out destructive flames is to flush air from affected areas by opening the airlocks and exposing rooms to the vacuum outside. It’s what door control exists – or rather existed – for. So we send our battered crew in to extinguish it by hand. One by one, they die in the rampant blaze. Game over.
That’s how quickly a game of FTL: Faster Than Light can turn on you, fully justifying its ‘Roguelike-like’ classification. It’s also how quickly it can generate stories of valour, quick thinking, bad luck and overcoming dire odds. Your perspective on all this drama is from the captain’s chair of a ship on the run from rebel forces, your domain spanning just a few rooms, and a power system that looks complex but proves sublimely easy to use. As you hop from point to point and system to system on the way back to your fleet, you’ll encounter text-based events – rescue a stranded vessel, save a colony from alien spiders – and make hard choices in the pursuit of the gear you’ll need to survive your voyage.
Along the way, you’ll not so much ignore the Prime Directive as leave advanced weaponry embedded in its smouldering corpse. The game’s races (each represented by well-drawn sprites) are a fractious bunch, ready to singe your hull at the slightest provocation. Thankfully, what Subset Games understands is that great space combat is a delicate balancing act, not one pyrotechnic broadside after another. Critical systems, power, fires, and hull breaches – all must be managed as you attempt to cripple an enemy vessel or just jump away to safety.
Like Spelunky before it, survival often depends on what you’re carrying, and when you happen across life-prolonging shops and lucky weapon drops. But FTL is a less masterful game than Derek Yu’s cave diver, throwing more chance into the mix. While Spelunky almost always offers the opportunity to overcome bad luck with skill, FTL can occasionally feel punishing, allowing you to limp from one harsh fight directly into another. Its text-based events are a double-edged sword, too: they entice with their talk of alien worlds, but cabin fever sets in when you realise you’re confined to quarters and the missions start to repeat after a few hours. We’d love to join our crew on their adventures, and to see more events added to prolong FTL’s captivating core play. Make it so, Subset Games.