Hey guys! A Kickstarter game came out! And it’s actually good!
Seven months ago, when we all came down with a terrible case of crowdsource fever, I don’t think many of us imagined that we would see the fruits of our investments anytime soon. Despite Obsidian’s earthshaking Project Eternity announcement, Faster Than Light has not been overshadowed; it has reared its head as the flagship of what’s quickly becoming the Kickstarter generation of PC titles.
But is it actually worth playing? Our beloved Marcus seems to think so, but given that he’s been splitting his time between FTL and Black Mesa, I thought I could go a bit more into detail on what makes this game work.
While many have called FTL a roguelike, I don’t feel that it does justice to either FTL or roguelikes. For the uninitiated, a roguelike is an outwardly simplified RPG, with a world of depth beneath it. They’re typically turn-based, randomly generated, and feature permadeath. ASCII graphics are another staple of the genre but are hardly a necessity to qualify as a roguelike. While FTL features permadeath, random generation, and is semi-turn based, there are many crucial differences that place it outside the roguelike genre. Like The Binding of Isaac and Dungeons of Dredmore before it, FTL is a roguelike-like game that tries to harness the better qualities of a genre that many find rather obtuse.
What you’ll first notice is the remarkably easy to understand interface. I have to applaud Subset Games on their design for the menu systems. Even though FTL offers a tutorial, there’s almost no need for it since the game’s menus tell you everything you need to know in such a concise manner. This is in part due to the simple mechanics that underlie the the game itself. In spite of its RPG heritage, the combat of FTL has only one unpredictable variable: dodge chance.
Speaking of combat–it’s damn-near perfect. While having your primary weapons on a long cooldown might seem like a recipe for a completely passive experience, there is always something to be managing in FTL. Manning different stations on your ship can give bonuses such as decreased weapon cooldowns, increased dodge chance, or faster shield recovery. Since you’re only given one layer of shields at the start of the game, critical systems on your ship are damaged in almost every encounter early on. Also, nearly every system on the ship serves an essential function during combat, so you’re going to have to get crew members off their stations to perform repairs. You might not think much about having your airlocks disabled, but just wait until fire breaks out on your ship and you can’t spare the manpower to extinguish it. Beyond simply managing your crew, your ship’s reactor is worth tweaking even in mid combat. Why keep your med-bay running when nobody’s injured and that power could be diverted to the engines? As you upgrade your ship you’ll come across even more dilemmas regarding your ship’s resources.
Progression is another meticulously designed element of FTL. It may seem completely random at first, as every new encounter is picked from a large pool of content, but a great deal of effort has gone into balancing each sector, and there is almost no situation that can’t be dealt with through proper planning. There are some general rules to follow–such as not investing in a high tech sensor system when you’re travelling through a sector filled entirely with nebulae, or upgrading your ship when you desperately need to repair–but the logic of rules like this won’t be lost on an experienced gamer. Even if you do come across an encounter you’re simply not equipped to handle, you can always try to hold out as long as possible and then jump away from the sector.
What Subset has really achieved with this game is a sense of qualitative progression. Upgrading your doors may be the last thing on your mind when you think of improving your ship but your mind will change quickly when fire breaks out or you get boarded. At their base level, anyone and anything can move about your ship unimpeded. With one point in door control, you can slow down intruders and fires but you’ll still have to deal with the former at some point. With two points in door control, you’re given just enough time to suffocate an enemy boarding party completely. Even when you’re just adding another layer to your shields, you’ve altered the offensive strategy of your opponents, as anyone with a beam weapon will have another layer of shields to penetrate before being able to damage you. The only thing that comes off as completely random is, again, dodge chance, which can be disabled completely if you target the engines or cockpit. Everything seems to fit nicely into place in FTL while still leaving enough room for the unpredictable.
Now after gushing this much, I have to say that FTL is not as robust and engrossing as it could be. The pixelated aesthetics of the game may be off-putting to indie game veterans, who have seen this cheap fall-back design many times before. While the chip-tone music is great, it’s also typical for the indie “genre” that’s infested the modern market–as is the game’s overly simplistic and uninspired story. The cheerful and whimsical reaction to the grim-dark nonsense of modern AAA titles has had a good run, but stick a fork in it already!
Having seen how much love and great game design has gone into FTL, I sincerely hope that it will be a stepping stone for Subset. With a bigger budget, they’d be capable of something great.