Tactics in Space – First Impressions of FTL: Faster Than Light

Can I make a confession? Of course I can, this is my website. I’m not a big “space” guy. Science fiction stories focused on aliens and interstellar travel are my least favorite kind. Films or shows like Star Wars and Star Trek, video games like Mass Effect or Halo, most stories about spaceships and the weird creatures that pilot them really don’t gel with me. But XCOM taught me a couple years ago that if you slap some tactics on there and let me ignore the lore, I can still get into a space game as long as it happens to be tied to my favorite genre. Today I’ll be discussing a particularly special space game, one made by the same developers who made one of my favorite games of all time.

The game is FTL: Faster Than Light. It was created by Subset Games, who you may recognize as the creators of indie tactics roguelike Into the Breach which just recently received a meaty update. To coincide with the update Into the Breach went on sale, and so too did the previous title by Subset Games. I was excited to pick the game up and give it a try for myself; I’d heard the game was good but knew almost nothing about the premise or the gameplay. These first impressions are based on playing the tutorial, a failed run on Normal difficulty, and a subsequent in-progress run on Easy difficulty.

So what is FTL? In the game you control the crew of a spaceship. The spaceship belongs to a “Federation” and contains important data about a faction of “Rebels.” Your goal is to bring the data to the Federation by traveling across multiple systems, all while avoiding or defeating rebels or the various other hostile factions in the galaxy. Your crew are a randomly generated ragtag bunch of humans; your ship is set in stone at first but can be customized as you complete runs and earn achievements, slowly unlocking more and more designs as you go. At the time of writing I haven’t played with the other ship I have unlocked, so I can only speak to the experience of using the first ship in the game, the Kestrel.

Gameplay takes place in two short phases through which you move back and forth. The first is an overworld phase where you choose where to explore on your ship. Locations are represented as stars on a star map, and selecting which one to explore will cause you to “jump” to that location using your FTL Drive. Once you arrive, an event may or may not take place. These events seem to be procedurally generated and vary from combat scenarios to small opportunities to trade supplies, recruit characters, or learn more about the game world. Many involve choices but except for under certain circumstances the choices tend to be “engage with the event or don’t.” You resolve the event accordingly and then move on to the next one.

A big difference between FTL and Into the Breach is the amount of information you are working with. Even compared to something like Wildermyth, another tactics game with procedurally generated overworld events, FTL is not particularly generous about telling you what’s going to happen when you make a certain decision. When you choose a mission in Into the Breach, you know exactly what your objectives are going to be and even get a preview of the map. When you make a choice during an event in Wildermyth, if there’s chance involved the game shows you the dice roll that will determine your fate. FTL doesn’t tell you anything – a distress beacon could legitimately be a friendly ship in need of help or it could be pirates setting up an ambush for you. One node on the map may be totally empty while another one has an event that will kill a crew member or damage the hull of your ship. The random nature of the events means you cannot factor them into any kind of long-term strategy; in fact, your best tactical option might be to avoid them to reduce risk. Rather than encouraging you to make fun and bold decisions, I find this generally discourages me from wanting to engage with any events that don’t appear to be explicitly combat related.

One other key aspect of navigating the overworld is time and resource management. Your ship has a limited amount of fuel and each node traveled is one unit of fuel spent. Run out of fuel and you’ve no hope of getting your essential data to the Federation. Because fuel costs resources (the equivalent of money in this game is “scrap”) you need to blast some other ships to smithereens in order to make sure you have enough money to pay for gas. However, you can’t just explore every single node you can reach – behind you is the full force of the Rebels and each “turn” on the overworld they get a bit closer to catching up with you, represented by an expanding red circle on the star map. If you get stuck on a node where the rebel army takes you, it’s up to you to survive a difficulty battle where you are seriously outgunned until your FTL Drive is charged enough to run away. This to me is where overworld navigation is the most interesting; not the events themselves but rather the tension between moving quickly enough to avoid the rebels while exploring thoroughly enough to stay fueled up and to continue making improvements to your ship.

Your ship is the most important part of FTL. It protects your crew, carries the essential data, and is your tool for navigating the world. The ship is the primary view you will interact with on your screen. And if you like systems – lots of crunchy game mechanics to dig into and think about – boy does FTL have a little something for you. The Kestral comes equipped with multiple systems by default: an engine, weapons, shields, medical bay, a door operation room, an oxygen generator, a sensor room, the pilot’s wheel; all of these things are powered by a big reactor that has its own pool of energy to manage as well. You can spend scrap to upgrade all of these systems or to add even more, like a drone control room or a teleporter for boarding enemy ships. Some of these systems have more nuance to manage than others – improving the med bay for example just makes it heal people faster, but improving the weapon system still requires you to manage how many weapons are equipped to the ship and in what order.

Similar to the tension between moving quickly while also collecting enough resources to thrive, how you invest those resources in your ship will make a difference in your experience. In the early game there is no apparent guaranteed strategy for overcoming every obstacle – pumping everything into your shields means nothing when the enemy has shield-piercing missiles, and having your own badass missiles doesn’t matter if the enemy has a drone for blowing missiles out of the sky. It is your choice whether or not you diversify your loadout and what types of upgrades you care about. Is having a full crew more important than having a defense drone? Should you save up for a cloaking system or would it better to invest that scrap in your engine? These are the types of choices that will ultimately define your run, your personal version of the Kestral (or whatever ship you choose from the many unlockable options later on).

Your crew, too, involves a bit of consideration. Crew members are randomly generated and outside of their name, you can’t customize much about them – at least not at crew generation. What really matters are the jobs you assign them to during the run. Keeping a crew member focused on the same task consistently will help them to develop bonuses towards that task, improving their efficiency. Of course, some crew members you get through events may already have specializations, so that’s another factor to consider. The alien species a crew member falls into can change their stats as well, predisposing them to particular roles. The rock people, for example, have fire immunity and extra health, making them great for dealing with breaches or invasions, but they move at half speed which prevents them from quickly moving from one end of the ship to the other to deal with an emergency. Conversely, the engi do reduced combat damage compared to other crew members but they have increased system repair speed. Size of the crew matters as well because fewer members means fewer systems being improved by someone actively manning them or fewer repair jobs being handled simultaneously.

Having a small crew makes it that much harder to deal with it when multiple situations are going awry at one time

All of this comes together to influence the other major phase of play, combat. Ship battles in FTL are tactical affairs where your ultimate goal is to deplete the health of the ship’s hull, but you accomplish this by targeting specific systems on the ship to debilitate it piece by piece. Taking out the shield generator for example gets rid of their pesky defensive barrier, allowing you to deal damage more directly. Blasting their weapons system means they’ll have to get it repaired before they can fire on you, reducing the number of tools they have to deal damage to you. Of course, the enemy is doing the same thing to you – if your oxygen generator gets blown to smithereens during a battle, you’d best repair it quick or your entire crew is going to slowly suffocate. What systems you’ll want to prioritize vary by both the opposing ship and the objective: preventing a scout from escaping with their FTL Drive means taking out the engine, while a more aggressive foe with combat drones may need their drone control room blasted first to reduce the number of threats to your ship.

Because there is so much to juggle at once – choosing what system each of your weapons is targeting, maneuvering your crew members to repair damaged portions of the ship or to man systems you need to be working at full throttle, managing airlocks and bay doors to starve flash fires of oxygen, and more – combat in FTL can get pretty hectic. Thankfully the game has a tactical pause button which freezes time, allowing you to slowly take in the situation, make decisions, and issue orders before then putting everything back into real time. This is invaluable because during the most challenging battles, there are a lot of places for your eyes to be: the enemy’s ship and its systems, which parts of your ship are currently out of commission, whether or not anything is on fire, the oxygen level, plus the individual health bars of all your crew members. It’s a fun aspect of the game, pausing a few moments to take everything in and then watching all your little guys scurry around as they execute their new set of orders. Not every battle is this complicated, but the big ones that are end up being the ones that I personally find the most engaging.

Resolving combat can look a few different ways. The worst one is your hull getting depleted to zero, resulting in the total destruction of your ship and the end of your run. In battles that look to be going in this direction, you can try to handle them by charging your FTL Drive and making a jump to escape the match. Enemies can do this too and a decent number will try – failing to stop certain ones is implied to have consequences as they will likely report back to the Rebels about your location. Many times when an enemy is on the ropes, they’ll try to negotiate at the last minute to save themselves. This usually looks like giving up some resources like fuel, missiles, drone parts, or scrap, but occasionally can involve something a little more valuable like a new crew member. It’s up to you whether you accept these deals or blast the ships to smithereens anyway; as far as I can tell, these decisions don’t have long term narrative consequences and their mechanical impact is usually pretty minor (a destroyed ship may give more scrap but less fuel than a ship you negotiate with, for example).

So far I am intrigued by FTL. I don’t love the way its events are handled but I think the interplay between the combat and the overworld exploration creates a fun tension. And while the huge number of systems are overwhelming at first, having so many little bits and pieces to manage feels satisfying when a part of the ship you’ve poured resources into proves its worth during a tough encounter. I enjoy the hectic battles and setting all of my little plans in motion. I definitely won’t fall for this game in the same way I did Into the Breach, but I think it has something unique to offer to perhaps a more niche audience that’s still well worth exploring.

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