Han Solo’s immortal words after introducing Luke Skywalker to the Millennium Falcon still echo in my mind: “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.” In that way, Faster Than Light is a lot like the Millennium Falcon. It’s not a visually impressive game by any stretch of the imagination, but the tactical depth and addictive and intense gameplay on offer more than make up for it.
It’s not even that the game is nothing special to look at. It actually looks deliberately dated. The graphics are intentionally pixelated, especially when it comes to text, and the sounds are simplistic and retro. It totally looks and sounds like something out of the ’80s, and that’s fine with me.
But as mentioned previously, don’t let FTL’s stripped down aesthetic deceive you. Belying its simple mono beeps, narrow colour palette, and 8-bit animations is a complex machine of a game, and it doesn’t take long before you are fully immersed, challenged and engaged.
Most of your time in FTL will be spent looking at your ship screen. The top-down view of your ship gives you a clear view of its layout. The other main screen lets you view your ship’s core systems, and this is where you are able to equip weapons and other cool gear.
From this basic interface, you command the Kestrel in a short single-player campaign that most will finish in a sitting or two. The game takes its lead from roguelikes in terms of its overarching gameplay structure. Your encounters are randomly generated, and you can expect each play through to be different. As you take the helm at the outset, your ship is being pursued by Rebel forces. You have learnt some secret that you need to relay to the Federation. You actually never find out what this secret is, not that it really matters. What does matter is that there are baddies on your tail and you need to keep moving. This means navigating unexplored star systems and making sure you don’t run out of fuel, guns and gear as you make your way across the galaxy.
The galaxy, of course, is brimming with space pirates, and each star system usually has its own unique theme. In each system you will meet traders, pop into a space station, and invariably have to fight something. As you proceed you will find or buy new upgrades for your ship. This component of the game works just like an RPG, but the ship is your character. You can channel “scrap points” into improving various parts of your ship, including life support, shields, sensors etc. The various stats present in each part of the ship determine its various offensive and defensive abilities and ratings.
Ship development is extremely important, because it directly affects your vessel’s performance in combat. You never know what you’re going to stumble into when you enter a new system, but you have to be prepared for conflict at all times. Combat itself is handled in real time, and you coordinate your crew and target strategic locations on your opponent’s ship, while they do the same to you. Different weapons behave differently as well, so choosing which ones to use in which situations is a process that carries additional tactical weight.
The sheer tactical breadth contained in Faster Than Light is what makes it a highly compelling game. It’s also what makes it a very challenging and satisfying experience. You will agonize over which parts of your ship to upgrade, and the battles bring an unexpected intensity.
My only issue with the game is that after you’ve spent a few hours playing it, you realize that there are only so many unique encounters. However, considering it only costs $9.99 [It’s $13.98 if you want the game’s soundtrack as well – Ed.], it’s difficult to stay mad at Faster Than Light for this indiscretion. I’m also really hoping that Subset Games releases DLC for FTL, and hopefully a sequel to flesh things out a bit at some point.