This week, Zero Punctuation reviews FTL: Faster Than Light.
Oh game release schedule, do I just not appreciate you enough when you're rich and plump and game enough for whatever deviant ideas crossed my mind that you have to torment me with these dry spells? Well, I say "dry spell". My plan was to go to Steam and review an indie game or three, but Steam seems to be currently disgorging indie games like an unsecured fire hose, and you know how it is; you go around someone's house to find him explosively evacuating from both ends, probably not the best time to ask if he wants to play Scrabble.
Don't get me wrong, I like indie games. I like that there's a competitive marketplace for them, but I also like battered sausages from the chip shop and I wouldn't like them if they were fired en masse at my house from a butane-powered cannon. So rather than playing twenty-five space strategy games with names like The Star-Wank Chronicles looking for one worth talking about, I figured let's just do one I already know is worth talking about, namely FTL colon Faster Than Light. Presumably, the "FTL" part also stands for "Faster Than Light," but I don't want to make no assumptions.
Actually, this is timely for a not-particularly-retro review 'cos there's just been a major content patch for Faster Than Light: Faster Than Light as well as a new iPad version. If you ask me though, you can't beat the PC experience. You gotta be able to smash that space bar to pause the game and have a little breather in between the enemy launching a breach missile and it giving your helmsman an unwanted bellend piercing.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Faster Than Light: Whiter Than White is a roguelike in which you captain a ship belonging to a generic space federation and must travel across the galaxy to bring a warning of an impending attack from a rebel fleet. "Oh, you mean that one that's literally five seconds behind you? Thanks, but you probably needn't have bothered, mate!" And you have to fight the rebel flagship by yourself at the end anyway, but in truth, your goal while trekking across space is not merely to reach the end, but to upgrade your ship to the point that at the end, you can turn around, dig in your heels, face your pursuer, and then get fucking stomped into mulch, because they've got more offensive capablility than Stephen Colbert at a White House correspondent's association dinner.
Faster Than Light: Piggies in Shite's rather minimalist graphics, that look like someone was hit with Cupid's arrow while using MS Paint and fell hopelessly in love with the straight line tool, might make the game seem a bit low-key, as might the text boxes that are the only means the game have to convey the fact that, say, someone on your crew was devoured by giant alien spiders, but the game consciously drops fancy spectacle in favour of a more thoughtful experience. You can't move the ship in real time, only jump to the next junction point and the advancing rebel fleet will just sit around kissing their biceps and making mocking hip-thrust gestures in your direction until you move. It effectively combines low-pressure thoughtful gameplay with rising tension as the forboding jam of upheaval spreads inexorably across the buttered toast of space towards you.
It is interesting that the rebels are the bad guys for once, 'cos you know, the government might be oppressing your freedoms and shit, but they also run sewer systems and post offices and things won't get better just because they've been overthrown... although there might be more poo lying around.
The combat isn't technically turn-based but with the pause button to hand, it might as well be. Again, rather than moving your ship in real time, you and your opponent just stand on either side of a big wall and throw rocks at each other, tactically choosing which parts of the enemy ship to fire upon while micromanaging the positions of your crewmen to boost systems or repair damage. It'd be a great game to get someone else to play for you while you sit in a big chair behind them wearing red and black pyjamas shouting "Target their weapons systems! Divert power to main thrusters!" and have that actually mean something.
It's a game that rewards crafty tactics. If you get boarded, you could honourably duel them man-to-man with your crew, or you could seal your crew in the medbay and depressurize the entire ship, ha ha. And if the enemy AI is having one of its brain bubbles and can't seem to figure out how to coincide its laser attack with when your shield is down, you could just blow up their oxygen generator and watch them slowly suffocate, hee hee.
There's very nearly a morality thing going on. By the end of every average game, we've learned exactly how justified this whole rebellion thing is, by how many ships have said "We surrender!" and you've replied "Sorry, you're breaking up; sounded like you said 'Blow us away and pillage us for bits.'" Will you sacrifice your humanity for survival and become the very thing the rebels claim you are? As Nietzsche said, "Gaze ye not into the abyss, lest the abyss's boyfriend get narky."
Realistically though, you've got to take every opportunity for resources. The major complaint one can direct at Faster Than Light: Shit's Getting Tight is that you live and die on the random number generator. Sure, you've got a lot of agency in terms of how you upgrade, but you need the scrap first and you could easily have a run of bad luck, use up all your scrap on fuel and keeping your various bits together until you're five sectors in taking on triple-shielded dreadnoughts with a bag of dried chickpeas and a dustbin lid. But if you set out with every game expecting to smash those dastardly rebels and give them noogies with your massive chin, then you're setting course for a trail of tears, Commander Cock-monster. Faster Than Light: Riddled With Spite is a roguelike and this is what roguelikes are about: flinging your head at a wall until one or the other breaks, the sort of thing you're supposed to play over and over again.
With that in mind, a shorter game style might have been a good idea. As it stands, one or two hours is quite a lot of investment to simply let scatter into the space-winds alongside your powderised body when the rebel flagship does to you what a power drill suppository has been known to do to a swan. Then again, it's less about the big picture and more about the moment-to-moment encounters. The true lifeblood of a procedurally generated game is variance, and FTL has a lot of that. Yes, you'll probably get swan-drilled seven sectors in, but on the way, you might unlock another ship to play as and new layouts for your existing ones, and each one offers subtly different styles of gameplay to enjoy. Another handful of pick-and-mix is packed into the trebuchet to be hurled at your fucking face!
Yes, maybe you might as well be pulling the lever on a fruit machine, but it's an utterly unique fruit machine that dispenses badgers and wool!
- Bastard Is Shite: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And for all that boasting I'm pretty sure light doesn't take an hour and a half to get across eight screens
- Very few problems cannot be solved with oxygen starvation