Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Innovation Spotlight: FTL

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 17, 2012

I haven’t done one of these for a while. And while I’ve done some spotlights on some pretty old games (including one from the early 90’s!), I haven’t put the spotlight on any really new games.  That’s partly because “new” is a relative thing, and quickly loses it’s shine. But mainly it’s because I’m so busy I often don’t get around to games until they’ve been out a month or two.

But I was intrigued by this one, picked it up right off the bat, and spent a little too much time playing it over the weekend.  Based on a little bit that I’ve seen, I’m not the only indie whose productivity was sabotaged by these two guys based out of Shanghai. Let me get over a little bit of envy (their Kickstarter campaign was a huge success), and tell you about it:

Game: FTL (Faster Than Light) by Justin Ma and Matthew Davis

What Is It?

Loosely, it could be considered a real-time (ish) “Space Roguelike.” The Federation has been defeated by the violent Rebellion, and your ship possesses key information that may be the Federation’s last chance to turn the tide, by destroying the Rebel Flagship. But the Rebellion is in hot pursuit, chasing you across the galaxy as you bring this critical information back to the remnants of the Federation fleet. Each “jump node” that you travel to with your FTL drive (hey, the title has to tie in somewhere, right) brings a different challenge…  often a conflict, many times a text-based “choose your own adventure” situation where you have a decision that is not always what it seems. The map is randomly generated each time you play (a full game can be completed in somewhere between 1 and 2 hours, if you live that long). You can upgrade your ship, and change your crew as you progress through the game. Your crew will also improve their skills as they perform their duties — assuming they don’t die.

Like most roguelikes, permadeath is the price of failure, and there’s no easy way of reverting to previous saved games to back out of a bad situation. A disastrous encounter can be hard to recover from.  And sometimes – many times, actually – discretion is truly the better part of valor, and “victory” may mean simply surviving long enough to engage your FTL drive and escaping.

FTL offers multiple skill levels. Like some Solitaire games, sometimes you may get a situation that is (IMO) pretty much unwinnable from the get-go, with simply a bad combination of a lack of available resources.  Maybe I’ll eventually get good enough to pull a Captain Kirk on these Kobiyashi Maru setups, but for now I tend to just let these campaigns come to their inevitable conclusion and low final score.


FTL: Faster than Light – Trailer from Justin Ma on Vimeo.

What Makes It Stand Out?

I was originally a little put off by the screens of the game (no demo is currently available) which seemed to focus only on my ship, not the grandeur of interstellar exploration and combat. This is by design, and after playing it a little, I wholeheartedly support this decision. The focus of the game is not on space – it’s on your ship and her crew.  Space combat Star Trek / Firefly style experience,  emphasizing what’s happening on board your ship and to your crew (and to your enemy’s ship and crew). “Space” is abstracted, but every compartment and major system of your ship is represented, as well as every crewman. Oxygen will bleed out of compartments (or open hatches), fires will start, crewmen will take damage when their compartment is hit, or from fighting fires, or from combat with boarders who transport over from the enemy ship or arrive by some other situation.

The player must make tough decisions in the thick of real-time (with pause!) combat. What’s more important – fighting the fire in the med bay, attacking the remaining boarder who is sabotaging your sensors, or manning your post to keep the shields up against the enemy warship?  Sometimes you can find a more clever solution – like putting out the fires by opening the airlocks and depriving the room of oxygen (this can kinda work against invaders, too, if you’ve upgraded your doors). Crewmembers may be of multiple races – with inherent strengths and weaknesses – and develop skills over time. Generally speaking, specializing them by having the same crewmember working the same station is best, but it’s usually a good idea to cross-train and develop additional skills. Whether you like it or not, a skill in combat may be something all your crew will end up developing in time – assuming they survive.

Crew members aren’t your only scarce resources. Power is always at a premium – even with a heavily upgraded ship, you will max out your power output before maxing out the potential power demands of your systems. In easier fights, it’s not too hard – your medlab doesn’t need power when nobody is hurt yet, so you can put that extra power into your weapons or engines (better for dodging incoming missiles). Scrap is the money that may be exchanged with the occasional store or trader (or trading event). Drone parts and missiles are extremely useful in combat. And fuel is always a precious commodity – run out of fuel, and you will be at the mercy of random events until overtaken by the rebel fleet.

Speaking of the rebel fleet – that creates the other scarcity in the game, which is your freedom of movement. Sooner or later, the rebel fleet catches up to you. Once that happens, your encounters will be against heavily armed spacecraft with very little to gain from victory (because you can’t stick around to scavenge supplies from a destroyed enemy, so you usually net no more than a point of fuel). Once you jump into a new sector, you have only a few jumps before the fleet enters and slowly begins “taking over” part of the map, propelling you forward and eventually out of the sector, to the next (and more dangerous) one.

There’s a very satisfying variety of battle tactics available as you make progress – which get used against you as well.  Early in the game, there’s nto much more to do than choosing upgrades carefully, targeting an enemy’s weapon system, and judiciously rationing power and missiles to the combat. Soon, however, both you and your enemies will have far more options at your disposal, and combat can become pretty frantic (thank you, pause button!) as you fight fires, repel boarders, repair and man equipment, activate or disable remote-control drones, fire special attacks, invade ships yourself, and playing your strengths against the enemy weaknesses (while avoiding the same).

It’s not all about the combat, either. Many times situations will come up that give you a choice. Sometimes the outcome may be random – a ship in distress may actually be pirates planning a trap. Upgraded equipment (or crewmembers?) may give you additional options to minimize the risk in these situations. For common situations, you may be able to guess the potential risk to decide whether or not to get involved. Once you become somewhat familiar with the different alien races, this gets easier, although with the galaxy in such turmoil there are no guarantees.

Anyway, the bottom line is that while “Space Roguelikes” are a rare breed unto themselves as it is, FTL takes it a few steps further with a very innovative approach that better captures the experience of some movies or books. I find that as I manage to survive past the halfway point of a campaign, I begin to identify a lot with my ship and her crew. I feel a lot more like a starship captain, giving orders and making the hard decisions against impossible odds than in any other game. And they pulled it off with pretty simple 2D graphics and a bunch of text menus. Go figure!


FTL is available at their official website, and is also available via GOG.com and Steam.




Filed Under: Indie Innovation Spotlight - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • DGM said,

    Looks like everyone else is too busy playing it to even comment. 😛

  • jwmeep said,

    Very, very fun little game. First of the Kickstarters I’ve helped back to produce anything, and damn is it worth it. Now if I can only beat that final boss on easy mode.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    It is a very fun game, but the random luck part of it is driving me a little crazy. My very first time out, my first jump was to a super nova star with exploding solar flares and an enemy pirate ship. I just stared flabbergasted as the first flare caused massive fires in my shield room, taking down my shields, while the pirates got a direct missile hit that took out my weapons compartment. The solar flares and enemy weapons fire ended that first game very quickly!

    I’ve yet to reach the Rebel flagship. I did have a great run where I was getting pretty unstoppable in combat and was 7 sectors in, but I went two whole sectors without finding a store to repair my ship, then got caught in an ion storm, where I only had enough power for Oxygen, Weapons, or Shields.

    When the enemy ship sent over a boarding party they wrecked my life support system, and all my crew but my pilot died fighting the invaders and trying to put out the life support fires. The enemy ship couldn’t really punch through my shields, but I had no chance of defeating them and I had no power to make an FTL jump while keeping the shields raised to avoid being blown to bits.

    Finally, seeing there was no hope, my pilot, a fine man named Johnny, sealed the doors to the bridge and vented the oxygen from the rest of the ship. By the time the lack of air put out the fires and killed the invading crew, he would be dead. I like to think he was playing dramatic opera music throughout the ship as he sat in his command chair, slowly asphyxiating while watching the flashes of laser fire on the shields.

  • DGM said,

    Wait, why would he asphyxiate if you sealed the doors to the bridge before venting? Sounds like he should be the only one NOT having an oxygen supply problem.

  • DGM said,

    Never mind, I’m tired and I missed the part about your life support system being wrecked and not having power for it anyway. No new oxygen to replace what he was using.

  • Da said,

    I actually just bought just now.

    First two of my friends yesterday, now you. Damn… 😉

  • Why Indies Rule: An FTL Purchase Mistake | GBGames - Thoughts on Indie Game Development said,

    […] Kickstarter campaign, did well in the IGF, and seem to have quite a fan-base. Jay Barnson mentioned FTL in his Innovation Spotlight series, and they’ve gotten quite a bit of press elsewhere, […]