By: Lynda McDonald
The time came in my life during my final year of college where I had to make the decision to forego playing video games in the hopes of being more productive. At the time, I mostly played online competitive multiplayer games so I convinced myself that if I allowed my Xbox live subscription to run out all would be well. Eventually one night I searched for different ways to procrastinate and none of the steam games in my library really seemed to scratch my itch. That was until I found FTL: Faster Than Light. FTL has that Sid Meier quality that makes you think you’ve been playing for an hour until you see that unmistakable sliver of sunlight creeping across your room to signal the approaching dawn.
FTL is a top-down spaceship simulator. The art style is simple, but it works. The idea of a top-down game is, in some ways, quite retro, yet the graphics still look fresh and, most importantly, obviously sci-fi. FTL is a very tactical game that requires you to really get to know your ship if you want to fair well. It can be paused at any point. This is important as sometimes you will find yourself verging on losing a battle, pausing the game, and, hopefully, overcoming all odds with some masterful chess-like manoeuvring before moving on. There are many ways to win an encounter, some depend on the layout of the enemy ship. Once you get their shields down you can usually attack a room of your choice. Life support, weapons, engine and piloting can all be targeted. If you upgrade your ship you can even send your crew onto their ship for some hand to hand combat. It’s the fact that all these encounters are so self-contained that lets you lose track of time so easily. It’s too easy to convince yourself to just have one more turn.
Then there are also the rebel forces that are chasing you across each sector, forcing you to choose the quickest route with the most encounters you can manage before they catch up to you, adding yet another, less obvious layer of tactics to the game. If you choose to avoid encounters as much as you can you are likely to find yourself floating aimlessly around your last destination once you run out of fuel. The rebel forces are one of the main balancing factors in the game as they create a sense of urgency and force tactical decision making on the player. In terms of storytelling/roleplaying; some people might say that this is where FTL falls short.
My guess would be that these people might never have taken the time to name their crew before they begin the game. I have taken to naming my crew, and they all have their individual places on the ship. Basing characters on people I know or fictional characters from other sci-fi added a deep layer of personally driven narrative for me. Each character had their own personality that dictated which room they were in and if they would be used for hand to hand combat. It also allowed me to develop a ranking system in regards to which characters were most expendable. FTL’s destinations and sectors are randomly generated each time you start a game, which adds to the overall challenge, but it also allows you to create a new narrative each time you play.
I think the biggest downfall of FTL was that the more I played it the more annoyed I became at the music. It’s not necessarily bad, but when you are playing marathon length games (intentional or not) I found that it started to grate on me. The good news is that it can easily be turned off or replaced with the music of your choosing.
Even though I love FTL I admit that it isn’t for everyone. For those of you who don’t like games that involve micro-managing or want a game with a strong narrative and characters, FTL is not for you. For the rest of us, FTL is a delightful and sometimes challenging way to whittle away our free hours.