Battles between spaceships are pretty common in the video game industry. Not as common as Zombies, sure, but they're not too hard to find. Scroll to the side and destroy the enemy as quickly as possible with plentiful lasers and missiles is usually the drill. Far less common are games that force you to think not only about killing your enemies but dealing with all the dangers that come with fighting in space, like enclosed quarters and the possibility of hull breach. FTL: Faster Than Light is one of those games.
The set-up is simple: you man a federation ship which has received vital information about the rebels and you're attempting to travel to federation headquarters to deliver the intel. Your crew members are named randomly and you probably shouldn't get attached to any of them anyway, so that's about it for the story. You'll encounter little mini-stories at the star systems you pass through that give you a context to a choice you have to make, but narrative is far from the focus of FTL. This game is all about the real-time space combat.
Normally I'd assume that in any game focused on space combat the player is meant to be the pilot of the ship, but since you can see all of the crew and none of them are singularly vital to the ship's functions, I think of FTL as a game where you play as the ship itself. Dealing with the crises that inevitably occur during space travel requires quite a bit of management; limitless reactors are a thing of fantasy so you only have a certain amount of power to split between your ship's systems, which include obvious things like the shields and weapons, to systems that are a lot more important than they first appear, like automatic doors. Power management forces you to think about how you upgrade your ship with the scrap you win from battles or happen upon, and I found it best to tinker with the power settings during calm periods to get a set-up that works for almost every situation, but even then you can't depend on it totally.
Ramping up your oxygen production after you repair a hull breach or switching from one weapon to another to facilitate your battle strategy are examples of things you'll have to handle on the fly. Even worse are some areas with conditions that force your power output to half its norm. Times where you have to decide between oxygen and weapons are when you really appreciate how difficult power management can be. Battles are always against a single opponent, but that's probably because every enemy is going to take your undivided attention to defeat anyway. Enemy ships also have different systems that you can target individually and this forms a large part of the strategy of combat. Do you use your ion cannon to lock down their shields while a drone attacks their other systems randomly, or go for a more direct but costly approach of using missiles and lasers? It's often just a matter of taking out their weapons and shields as best you can, but wrinkles can and do present themselves.
Most of the time your shields will probably protect you from the brunt of incoming damage, but when things go bad they can go to hell a lot quicker than you'd think. Your ship is presented as a simple configuration of rooms with blast doors separating each room and important systems, as well as tiny crew members working to your commands. It's not the most impressive visual presentation, but again that's not really what will keep you playing. Fixing damaged systems requires you to not only manage your crew, but also the doors in the ship. Let's say that you get boarded and the enemy starts attacking your engines. While sending all of your crew to immediately defend the vessel seems enticing, it might be best to just open up that section of the ship to space and let the lack of oxygen do the trick. It's not an 'instant win' option, but it'll soften them up before they get to your crew.
All of this comes together to make a really interesting gameplay system that focuses not only on combat but dealing with the damage caused by said combat. Ship to ship combat in and of itself can get a bit repetitive, since similar strategies work on the majority of your enemies, but the tense feeling of never knowing what you'll be dealing with at the next star system is quite enthralling.
It's often said that during travel you have to make sure to enjoy the journey and not just your eventual destination. That goes double for FTL because you probably won't make it to the destination anyway. After a while the rebels will start to catch up with you and sweep across the sector from the side you started out on. You have to try your best to explore and gain as much scrap and equipment as possible, but you always have to keep in mind the rebel advance and ditch the sector before they catch up to you.
Space travel is as simple as jumping from one star system to the next, assuming it's close enough on your map. One of my major qualms with the game is the lack of an indicator to show how close a system has to be in order for you to make the jump; it's simple enough to tell what systems you can jump to from your current location, but it's tough to map out a path across the sector without that one vital parameter. Too many times I'd work my way across the sector only to find myself in a star system that just barely doesn't connect to any of the star systems I thought it would and I have to work my way backwards through an increasingly dangerous sector filled with rebel activity.
Going back into enemy territory is especially irritating when you realize that death sends you all the way back to the start of the game without any of your hard-earned weapons and upgrades. It's a tough pill to swallow sometimes. Each attempt at beating FTL took me about two and a half hours, assuming I got to the final stage, and I put a total of seven and a half hours into it before writing this review. Completing certain objectives during any given playthrough can award you with new ship layouts and starting equipment/crew, which is a nice way to keep you going, but new ship layouts seem too few and far between.
Even with all that said, FTL is a steal at its pricepoint of $10 (though it's on offer for $9 on GOG.com and Steam at the time of writing), even if you only make a couple of attempts before tiring of being sent back to the start of the game. So put on your frakking red uniform and feel the force, because I will continue ramming sci-fi references into your ears until you cave in and buy it, you smeghead.
This review is based on a GOG.com digital copy of FTL: Faster Than Light, provided by the publisher