Review: FTL: Faster Than Light

FTL is a game that is intentionally punishing in the end fight, but irrespective of that, the journey to said end fight is often quite fun.  There is perhaps an over-reliance on procedural generation that can make the game overly inconsistent in difficulty, but to many, that's the appeal.  At it's heart, FTL is a simple space tactical game that uses it's rogue-like elements with decent proficiency to create that often-sought "just one more game" replayability.  It's not going to sell someone new to rogue-likes, I don't think, but it is well worth a look for fans of the genre.
Review: FTL: Faster Than Light
Date published: Aug 17, 2015
2 / 3 stars

FTL: Faster Than Light is a space tactics game with rogue-like elements developed and published by Subset Games.  Let me level with you - this is one that I missed reviewing when it first came out, and I was kind of glad that I did miss out in this way, because I feel it is kind of overrated.  That's not to say I feel it's really terrible or something - it's a fun game without a doubt - but it has some flaws I feel that both gamers and critics seem to have glossed over because they have enough fun with the game.  That's not neccesarialy a bad thing on the gamers' part - if you have enough fun with something that the problems don't bother you, that is an entirely valid position to hold, but that some of the flaws seem to have gone largely unmentioned by critics bothers me.  So lets take a bit of a retrospective look back, shall we?

The central game mechanics are pretty solid

Gameplay in FTL essentially comes down to two modes - moving between the randomly-generated systems, and dealing with the in-system encounters.  Essentially, each sector in the game is a map of procedurally-generated systems for you to travel to, and each system has a single encounter for you to deal with, or none - some of them hostile, some involving trade, and some involving exploration which has a risk/reward thing going on.

The balance a player must strike in the travel mode of the game is to visit enough systems to get the gear and upgrades they need, but balancing that against the risks of a chance poor encounter that would leave them crippled, if not destroyed.  After all, like many a rogue-like game FTL features perma-death, so there is no coming back from a bad encounter that sees your ship smashed and defeated.  And that indeed is a good bit of hand-wringing and skill in the game - in that sense, it becomes a game of "push your luck."

Combat encounters are a bit of a mix of real time and turn-based - you're basically using weapons and drones with cool-downs that keep the real-time play more akin too the cadence and pacing of a turn-based game, something enforced by the pause function built in that no doubt many a player will be making heavy use of.  Weapon variety is strong here, with a variety of different types - beam weapons that can hit multiple rooms in an enemy if aimed properly and do more damage as a result, missile weapons that require consumables but bypass shields and are very damaging, as well as EMP weapons that disable shields, and the standard laser.  As such, one will often want to make use of that pause to ensure everything is going where you want and managing it.  Were this a faster-paced game it may get a bit overwhelming, but the pacing of the recharges is quite apt here, enough to not feel slow or tardy, and slow enough that a player who wants to play without the pause function can do so.

Trading systems or quiet ones give you a chance to turn the "scrap" you get - which is basically the games currencty - into a variety of upgrades, from getting additional crew to man systems (giving them a bonus by doing so) and help repair things more quickly and repel boarders, getting more power to get various bonuses to systems, or buy new weapons and such.  While you can upgrade power levels on the fly, getting crew, weapons, and consumables is reliant on trade posts, which as with the rest of the system map, are procedurally generated.  Often, travelling to them is another risk/reward thing - do you dare go out of your way a bit for the chance of an upgrade?  For many captains, the answer is yes, and to be fair, the stores are frequent enough you won't usually have a game that you won't see a handful of them, though whether you get to them or not may be a different matter.

The second gamit of the game is you want to always be progressing forward in those system jumps, because the rebel fleet you are fleeing is slowly advancing upon you.  It's not an instant game over if you encounter them, but you're going to be facing the most difficult ships that can exist without breaking the game's rules, so it's going to be a very difficult encounter in the best of times, and as such, to be avoided if at all possible.  This keeps the game somewhat tense and skillful rather than more leisurely, and it benefits from that, certainly.

"Advanced Edition" functions add a lot to the core game

Core features being strong as they are, they were only added to with the "Advanced Edition" released some time later as a free update to it, which added many more encounters, a whole new race, new upgrades, and more challenges.  There's a lot to be had there, and it's all free.  If you decide hwoever you don't like the new changes - some really hate the new mind-control upgrade for instance - the mode is entirely optional and with each new run you can chose to disable or enable it to your liesure, which is a great option not many games which have had such free content updates have done.

Procedural generation is somewhat inelegantly used,
introducing some very uneven difficulty to the game

Chief amongst FTLs actual flaws, and really the one that gets my goat sometimes is that it has an over-reliance on procedural generation that doesn't temper it very well.  A procedurally-generated game that is using that tool well will have checks and balances to ensure that it is not being overly harsh on the player - a good example of that was the game Shattered Planet I looked at some time ago - while one that uses it poorly is going to be "purer" and not have such checks.

Now, there's an arguement to be made that this is preference and I can see the appeal of a "purist" procedural generation game, but as a fan of rogue-likes myself whose played many in her time, I cannot help but notice that the ones I find myself disliking the most are those which feel like they waste my time, and there's nothing that does that more than a game that arbitrarialy fucks you over for no reason.  FTL seems to thrive a bit on that purer, largely-random nature, and I feel that's to the game's detriment, because it means there are going to be runs that essnetially do nothing but waste your time.  Regardless of the player's skill level, you will not have a chance of success, and that's when it feels unfair to say the least.  These runs are far enough between that many will not have a problem with the occasional one,m but they exist, and really, they ought not to.  A game with fair difficulty should be beatable on any potential run, as long as you're good enough and demonstrate that skill, whereas there are runs in FTL where frankly that you just really won't be able to beat.

The final boss fight is pretty intentionally unfair

The absolute nadir of that difficulty - and from whence I speculate that it revels in that nature - is the final boss fight at the final sector if you get that far.  It is just, simply-put, unfair, and I feel that cheapens the game somewhat.  It feels like the game basically forces you to scum it in some way to get through, because even a very strong run can beat you.

My problem with the final boss fight is it's not playing by the established rules.  All of the other hostile combat encounters are all ships that function according to the same mechanics as you do - they have the same restrictions about how many weapons they can equip, what power requirements there are, and how many crew you can have.  The final boss ship on the other hand, intentionally breaks that.  It has more weapons than you could ever equip, more crew than you'll ever have, and more special systems than you can ever power even if youb were able to get that many, which you cannot.

So I mean, whether that bothers you or not is ultimately on you, but when it's not playing by the same rules as you are, it's patently unfair by the definition of the word.  Oh, and I hope you don't mind beating it three times, because even if you get through the encounter, it only warps away and you have to beat it again twice.

Theming in FTL - in the music in particular - is strong

The thing that has made FTL as endearing as it has been beyond the gameplay is definitely the way the game is themed.  It has a very charming retro sort of simplistic theme, which, if you are able to dig a little deeper, has more to it than first meets the eye, and invites you to investigate further without ever requiring you to.  It is one of those games whose story you can take on multiple levels - you can simply be that Federation ship bringing back the rebel battle plans to the fleet, or you can examine the game world of FTL in much greater detail.

Peak in the theming is the chiptune soundtrack composed by Ben Prunty, which just fits the game so completely well that it's somewhat remarkable.  I like me a good soundtrack, as many of you know, but of the various ones I've come across in my many years playing video games, the FTL one fits the game remarkably well.  The sort of pitfall of well-composed soundtracks tends to be that they're very good when listened to seperately, but they may not fit the game, or perhaps they overpower the game and draw attention away from it when you're listening.  FTL's soundtrack on the other hand fits with it perfectly, well-encapsulating various moods and themes without detracting from the game itself.

The one complaint I have with the theming is with the graphics, and I'll readily admit that's a subjective style preference, but I'm not too taken with FTL's graphical style.  The problem I have here is the juxtaposition of pixel-graphics style stuff with stuff that really isn't pixel art, such as the backgrounds, which feel like they've just been downsampled with Photoshop's automatic dithering to make them look as if they fit in.  I know there's plenty of people who like this art style, and it's hardly a game-breaking complaint, everything here is quite functional, but yeah, I'm not a fan, myself.

Meta-game progression in unlocking the various ships
is adversely reliant on a lot of random change to progress

A less-important but still note-worthy side aspect of the more random nature of FTL's procedural generation is how it affects the meta-game progression.  There's essentially two tiers to this - unlocking ships, and unlocking additional layouts for existing ships.  The latter is easy enough to get and not that bad - just get certain achievements and you unlock said additional layout.  Some of the achievements are easier than others, of course, but they're all achieveable in any given run (albeit harder or easier in some circumstances) .  The problem here, however, is in unlocking the new ships.

Unlocking new ships essentially requires the completion of certain objectives, only a few of which are reliably something you can complete (and its arguable whether the 'beat the game' requirement of the Federation Cruiser is reliable in such a manner).  Many others require the completion of missions that randomly appear and do not appear in all instances of the game runs, and so whether you find them or not (let alone be able to complete them) is pretty arbitrary.  Since they usually require going out of your way to complete them, you might not even want to, since it can cost you the current run.  Sure, that might not be a bad thing if the run was going poorly anyways, but if you have a strong run and it wants you to run dangerously close to the rebel fleet you're fleeing to get there.

FTL is a game that is intentionally punishing in the end fight, but irrespective of that, the journey to said end fight is often quite fun.  There is perhaps an over-reliance on procedural generation that can make the game overly inconsistent in difficulty, but to many, that's the appeal.  At it's heart, FTL is a simple space tactical game that uses it's rogue-like elements with decent proficiency to create that often-sought