FTL Review


I shouldn’t like FTL. After continually failing to get more than an hour into the game, I should have quit. I should have had some moment of mulling that taught me to accept my failure, a moment where I thought about that Not-Coldplay song. “Men can’t stand to fly, Greg. You’re not that naive.” And that’d be that.


Nope. I restarted. And restarted. And died. And restarted. Then I died some more. Then I thought I was doing well, and I died. I wonder how many of my ship, The Kestrel, I’ve destroyed. I wonder how many times I’ve ended up back at the title screen’s ambient music. No idea. But I do know that with each time I played I learned. FTL is not forgiving. It didn’t give me anything unless I earned it. I understood that early on, when I went against my normal gaming habits and played the tutorial.

Looking at the game being played, it seems slow. The primary view is a top-down of my ship, all of its rooms open for display. The worlds and action around me are described in text boxes. Three crew members set out with each maiden voyage. Readings on my ship’s systems (weapons, engine, shields, med-bay, etc.) are displayed in the corners of the screen. My hull’s health bar is at the top. My secondary systems (doors, cameras for viewing the different rooms of the ship, my piloting controls) are also shown. They all glow green. Everything starts neat, easy, perfect. Then I FTL jump. And the balancing act begins.


With each jump is a new system. What’s on the other side is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’ll be a enemy ship, maybe it’ll be a asteroid field that damages my shields. Maybe it’ll be nothing at all. Streamlining isn’t an option. I’ll exhaust my supplies. I need to find more scrap, either through battles or through investigating the numerous beacons in a galaxy. Without scrap I can’t get better weapons, more crew, helper droids, or any type of upgrade. So I search.

The suspense and intrigue are products of the game’s fogginess. What lies at the next beacon? I come across a civilian space station that’s been badly damaged and burning. Do I send people in to save whoever remains? I could get better supplies, but I could also lose my crew. When you only get one shot at it, these decisions become lessons in stress management.

In a moment, it could all end. The nuances, the subtleties, appear overwhelming until they’re not. Rapidly, FTL‘s systems coalesce into something tangible and refreshing. I remember systems I haven’t used. I can install droids to defend my outer haul or to scurry around fixing breaches. I could hire a Rockman, who are invulnerable to fires but also slow to react. Or maybe the terrifying mantis people (mantae? manti?) who increase attack power but can’t repair a loose screw.  All of it is elemental. All of it is calculating.


More than that is the powerful lure of discovery. There are other ships I can unlock. According to developer Subset Games, which aptly describes the game as a roguelike-like,  there are numerous outcomes to events. There are 25,000 lines of text in the game, all of them crafted to make the experience different each time through. For me, all of this is natural. There are no secrets I’m seeking, there’s just what my crew came across. The text that tells their story isn’t written by programmers. It’s the end to my means and actions. I’m not booting up a new game, I’m just writing another story.

That’s what brings me back each time I fail. It’s the thought that, no matter how unfair or spontaneous my successes and failure seem, the experience is telling me something every time I play it. As a fan of Firefly and Star Trek, seeking out new worlds and deciding, meticulously, how to proceed is tantalizing. I’d concoct personalities for my crew, even if they’re less than an inch of screen space. It’s adventure. And when the snowball starts to roll, there are no big space battles or maneuvering. There’s just my ship — silent and dissected — and the enemies’, guts on display. The missiles and lasers ignite. Fires start and spread. Oxygen depletes. Enemy troops invade. And somewhere, in front of the screen, clicking and frantic, is me. Loving every damn minute of it.


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Author: Greg Galiffa View all posts by
Greg Galiffa is an Associate Editor at GamerNode. He's also an apologist for the first TMNT film. You can follow him on Twitter @greggaliffa

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