FTL: Kickstarting Games Development into Warp Speed

“Captain, the shields are down and the engine has taken a direct hit.  I don’t know how much more she can handle!”

“Lieutenant, transfer all power to our laser batteries!  Ensign, target their weapon systems and fire at will!”

These scenarios will invariably play out in your head while playing FTL: Faster than Light.  Why? Because like it or not, the space opera genre has become ingrained as part of our culture, especially “geek culture.”  Second, I’d wager fair odds that there has been a time when watching a tense episode of Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise facing down a Bird of Prey, where you wished to call the shots from the captain’s chair.  Hell, maybe you thought you could do better.  “I could complete the Kobayashi Maru with my eyes closed and hands tied behind my back!  Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs? Pssh! I could do it in 10!”

Well, here’s your chance to strap into the captain’s chair and call the shots, sort of.  So what exactly is FTL?  I actually first learned about the game while puttering around on Kickstarter–you know, that now all too famous/infamous crowd-sourcing website.    As is the case with many indie development houses, Subset Games was a small two man crew.  The concept was to combine a mix of strategic tabletop gaming with space combat simulation.  They created a decent amount of buzz showcasing their creation around at different indie game competitions and turned to Kickstarter to finish up the project.  One of the most successful of the Kickstarter projects, the game is a testament on how to properly use the potential financial boon of crowd-sourced funds correctly: Subset improved the graphical fidelity, hired Tom Jubert to enhance the random encounter text and plot, and utilized the talents of Ben Prunty for your aural enjoyment.  FTL, released in September 2012, is the game you have in front of you.

So what exactly do you do?  You’re the commander of a “Federation Ship”  tasked with delivering vital information intercepted from the rebels to the Federation fleet several sectors away.  As you’re constantly pursued by the rebel fleet, it’s up to you, the captain, to decide whether or not to investigate that distress beacon and dodge enemy ordnance when you’re inevitably cornered.

The game is played out on a schematic of your ship out in space. Within the layout of your ship you can man different stations: weapons, engine room, doors–I kid you not, the door controls are fucking important–and other consoles you’d think were typically relevant on a space fairing vessel.  Manning a station with a crew member gives a slight boost to the performance of said station, and it also allows you to specialize your crewmen into being an expert pilot, gunner, or engineer, which adds a light role playing element to the game. Different ships and starting crews are unlocked after meeting certain conditions.

This game is not for you folks who are easily frustrated; YOU WILL DIE, and often at that.  It’s a somewhat unforgiving game in the roguelike genre.  Each session includes random encounters and loot drops (including scrap, which is in-game currency, and upgrades for your ship).  Most of the time these random encounters lead to ship to ship battle, which is where most of the significant gameplay unfolds. You’ll have to simultaneously decide on which stations to man, where to allocate power, which part of the enemy ship you wish to fire upon, and what parts of the ship to repair as they get damaged.  If this sounds hectic, it is.  There’s a nice balance between turn based (selecting where you want to travel next, which upgrades you want to make) and real time (most of the combat elements) gameplay.  The game also allows you to pause at any time during combat, allowing for more tactical decisions.

The game looks nice; it won’t win any art awards, but the simple, slimmed down graphics actually add to the game.  It’s pretty easy to figure out what each of the icons mean and what they represent.  Actually, I could see better graphics possibly making things overly complicated and hard to see, and I have a hard time trying to imagine the utility of a better coat of paint.  There’s been a rash of games lately utilizing an 8-bit aesthetic, and too often I find that devs just decided to go with that kind of art design to try and pull at our nostalgic heart strings without really bringing anything to the table.  I don’t think that’s the case here.

Where the game truly shines is the soundtrack.  It’s moody and atmospheric where appropriate, upbeat and energizing when engaging in space battles invoking feelings of exploration and discovery in the vast expanse of space.  I’ve actually been listening to it while writing this to get me in the mood.  Mr. Prunty did an awesome job, especially considering that he wasn’t sure that he was going to get paid.  The last time I’ve experienced a soundtrack this good, although I’d say better, was when I played Bastion.

So, what, if any, criticisms do I have about this game?  I had a recent discussion with a staff writer, Mr. Anthony Salvatore, about what kinds of games I choose to play (that can engender a whole other article/discussion), but one of the big factors is a compelling narrative.  Now, FTL doesn’t have a narrative.  If you remember from earlier, you’re tasked with the delivery of vital information to the Federation Fleet.  That’s about as much story as you’re going to get.  Of course there are random encounter elements which pop up some text giving you details about that specific event, and they can be pretty decent in its exposition, but a grand narrative it does not make.  With that being said, it does hook you into developing a narrative of your own, capturing your latent desire to man a starship.  Alright, that wasn’t really a criticism, more like a backhanded compliment.

Do I have any real issuess with the game?  Sure.  Although the space battles are pretty compelling, combat between your crew and enemy crew is extremely basic.  This could’ve been deepened by adding simple equipment load outs or adding hand-to-hand or ranged specializations.  The exploration and discovery components of the game could use some expansion, too.  Part of me wants more; the allure of the Star Trek series, namely the Original Series and Next Generation, was “boldly going where no man has gone before.”  Hell, if you can beam your party over to the enemy ship to slaughter them to the last man, why not beam your party down to planets to pick some plant samples or something?  Oh, and if you’re thinking that maybe you can duke it out or co-operatively combat the rebel scum, then think again.  This is a solo operation.

Perhaps it’s a testament to the game that it leaves me wanting more.  Maybe inherent in the beauty of this title is the fact that it doesn’t try to do too much.  What it does, capital ship management, it does well; distilling what it means to man a ship out in space to its base components.  Any game where you start at 3 pm Saturday afternoon and then look up and realize that you need to go to work in the next few hours is definitely a game worthy of your time.

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