F.T.L. ("Faster Than Light") is an indie game developed by Matthew Davis (programmer) and Justin Ma (artist) and released on Steam and GOG.com in September of 2012. It is a fast-paced starship strategy sim in which you manage a crew of rebels attempting to smuggle secret tactical information across the galaxy before an intergalactic Alliance can stop you and defeat the rebellion. You use your F.T.L. drive to jump from warp beacon to warp beacon across randomly-generated sectors of space with the Alliance fleet in constant pursuit and must defend yourself from Alliance scouts, pirates, alien species, and the occasional non-conflict dilemma.
Table of Contents
Managing a ragtag crew on a ragtag ship
The bulk of the game consists of combat with hostile ships.
The core gameplay consists of managing the crew of your small starship as you travel through space to meet up with the rebel leaders. The main game screen shows a cutaway diagram of your ship with icons representing important ship systems spread across various rooms, as well as a HUD that shows your ship's hull strength, shields, supplies, and system energy management. You can click on crew members to move them through the different rooms, and whenever a crew member is inside a room with a useable system, that crew member will attempt to operate that system. Systems include the helm, weapons, shield control, engine, and so on, and each system needs to be supplied with power in order to function. As they perform tasks with each system, the crew members will gain experience that will make them more efficient at operating that specific system. Experience with weapon control will improve accuracy; experience at the helm will increase the chance of dodging enemy attacks; experience at the engine will reduce the time needed to recharge the FTL; and so on. So it's a good idea to try to focus each crew member on a specific system in order to maximize their efficiency. Some alien crew members will also have special abilities that can boost the effectiveness of your ship as a whole.
Your crew members will gain experience in certain skills.
The crew can also gain experience at repairing damaged systems and also in fighting (useful for repelling boarding parties or attempting to board an enemy ship).
Unfortunately, each crew member starts off as pretty much a blank slate, and none of them really have any uniqueness or personality outside of their intrinsic racial benefits (human crew members have no intrinsic advantages). Your crew also doesn't act autonomously. They will operate a given system if they are the first to occupy the room that contains the given system, and they will handle crisis in the room that they currently occupy. If the system in the room becomes damaged, they will automatically try to repair it. If the room catches fire, they will automatically try to extinguish it. And if intruders enter the room, your crew in that room will automatically fight them. But that is the extent of their autonomous action.
A varied crew will give you numerous bonuses.
Beyond that, they are entirely (and exclusively) controlled by you. They won't retreat to the medical bay if they are hurt. They won't leave a room that has no life support. They won't move to damaged rooms to repair critical systems (such as life support). They won't even step aside to let the most experienced crew member operate a system (and there's no interface to switch control of a system to a different crew member in the same room). So if the wrong person mans a particular station, you'll have to make him leave the room to let the more experienced person take his place.
Fortunately, you can pause the game at any time to examine the situation and give orders. But be careful, if you aren't paying attention, you may find your crew suddenly dropping like flies because the Life Support system died, and nobody bothered to go fix it.
Racing through a brutal random galaxy
You must travel across a tree of sectors to reach your destination.
The objective of the game is to navigate through a series of space sectors in order to reach the rebel base while managing your crew and finite resources (such as fuel, spare parts, and ammunition). Each sector will be divided into a web of warp beacons that you travel between, with many beacons containing obstacles for you to overcome (usually enemy ships to fight). The sectors and beacon arrangement and content are all randomly-generated, and each sector has a specific theme (civillian sector, alien-controlled sector, nebular sector, etc) offering a varying degree of challenges. The trick (and strategy of the game) is balancing your safety with the need to accumulate valuable resources and upgrades to make your mission easier. You may be tempted to play it safe and travel through non-hostile territories as you race to the finish line, but doing so will yield less loot and fewer opportunities for rewards ranging from ship upgrades to new crew members to additional fuel and weapons.
But you can't just plunge directly into danger either. F.T.L. is a brutally unforgiving game. Run across the wrong enemy ship at the wrong time, and you can easily find yourself outmatched and fighting desperately just to keep your crew alive and ship in one piece while you wait for your engine to recharge so you can jump away to (hopefully) safety. Some environmental hazards can also put a premature end to your journey. Nebulas will cripple your sensors and shields, asteroid fields will widdle away your shields and hull integrity with asteroid impacts, and solar flares can roast your ship like a holiday ham.
You will also occasionally run into random problems to solve instead of combat encounters. These will include assisting stranded ships, trying to cure diseases, exploring alien worlds, and so on. When this happens, you'll get a text notification describing the situation and a list of two or three options on how to resolve it. Unfortunately, the outcome of these scenarios is random and can quickly and unfairly cripple your ability to proceed in the game. If you have crewmembers with specific abilities or certain ship upgrades, you may get a bonus "blue" option that lets you take advantage of a unique resolution to the dilemma. These blue options always yield positive results, usually far in excess of what you can normally achieve, so it helps to have a varied crew and multi-functional ship. However, if a "blue" option is not available, you are usually safest to ignore these situations. Acting can often lead to your ship being damaged, resources being lost, or random crew members being killed, all without you having any control in the situation!
The first few sectors will be relatively easy to navigate unless you happen upon a nasty environmental hazard (solar flares can wipe you out, keep away from them at all costs!). But around the middle of the trip, the difficulty will start to ramp up, with enemy ships having more better shields, more damaging weapons, and vicious boarding parties.
Staying out of reach of the Alliance
Don't mistake this game for a free-roaming space RPG. This is a strategy game, with a specific goal and time limit. You can't explore the galaxy at your own leisure, stockpiling supplies and upgrades until you become an unstoppable powerhouse. It isn't Mass Effect.
The Alliance fleet is in constant pursuit!
You are constantly being pursued by the Alliance. As you jump from beacon to beacon, the Alliance fleet will begin to occupy more and more of the sector searching for you. If you want to avoid conflict with them, you must stay at least one step ahead of them. This means you often can't go backwards to buy stuff from a merchant you met earlier or defeat an enemy that you fled from previously.
You have to keep pushing forward.
You must upgrade to survive, so hope you find what you need!
As you explore, you'll be able to loot defeated ships, acquire rewards from completing quests (usually escorting a stranded ship to a specific beacon and/or defeating an enemy in another space beacon), and shop at the occasional merchant. You can stock up on fuel, missiles, and spare parts that can be used to activate drones to perform various functions on the ship, and you can acquire new crew members and special ship upgrades and weapons as well.
Your ship can be upgraded in two different ways as you progress.
The first type of upgrade is your ship's energy grid. You start out with a small amount of energy bars that you can allocate to the various systems, limiting which systems you can have active at a time and how powerful they can be. But you can spend money to increase your overall energy, as well as increasing the power of each specific system, making them more effective.
You can upgrade your ship in various ways.
You can also purchase or loot upgrade parts that can be installed on your ship. These include new weapons (must be powered in order to be used); automated drones that can automatically attack enemy ships, shoot down incoming missiles, or fight intruders, or repair damage; and other parts can offer passive bonuses. Possibly the most useful upgrade is the Long-Range Sensor, which gives you an idea of what you might find at nearby warp beacons. You can use this to prioritize where you want to go, and avoid extremely dangerous areas (like solar flares, asteroid fields, and so on). Other upgrades include a scrap-collection arm that retrieves extra scrap parts and money, a cloaking device, medical nanites that automatically heal crew member even when outside of sickbay, and so on.
Upgrading your ship is both necessary and fun. The various combinations of crew abilities, upgrades, and parts gives the player plenty of different possible strategies. Unfortunately, since everything in the game is random, you won't be guaranteed to find any given part, and even if it shows up in a merchant's inventory, you may not have a chance to accumulate enough money to purchase it. This game is really all about adapting to the situation, instead of going in with a pre-set strategy. Since you can't rely on any one specific event happening, or any one piece of equipment being available, you are required to just take what the game gives you and go with the flow. This can be very frustrating, since the game can sometimes back you into a corner with no way out, and you have to either quit or grin and bear it.
The short-lived campaigns are an addictive challenge
Fortunately, F.T.L. is a very short game. An individual campaign will usually take an hour or less. The shortness of the campaign, the brutal difficulty, the randomness of the galaxy, and myriad of options available to players all conspire to create an addictive experience. There's a real "one more game" addictive quality here. Even if you get absolutely stomped in one campaign, you'll likely want to give it another shot until you succeed, and before you know it, the whole night has gone by!
As you accomplish certain achievements in the game, you'll unlock new ship types that offer a variety of unique strategies.
As of the time of this writing, I have yet to actually defeat the Alliance flagship and beat the game (I always seem to get burned towards the end). But I keep coming back for more, and when I do, I burn hours on this game. F.T.L. is a great way for space-strategy fans to spend an hour or two, and at a price of only $5-10 dollars (depending on where you buy it), it's well worth the investment.
F.T.L. is a well-conceived and mostly well-executed little game that I highly recommend trying out!