Ask yourself: "Would I be a good starship captain?" It's time to find out.
Every person who has ever seen an episode of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica has asked themselves that question, at one point or another. Would I be a good starship captain? Would I be able to make the snap decisions required to win a space battle? To weigh conflicting options and choose the smartest path? To manage my resources and keep my crew alive, to accomplish our mission?
The brilliant starship simulator FTL: Faster Than Light offers answers to all those questions, though you might not always like what it has to say. FTL is one of the best-designed PC games of the last several years, and as of today it's on iPad. Good news: the iPad version of FTL is every bit as good as the PC version, and in some it feels even more at home on a touchscreen.
It's The Same Really Good Game
We didn't really cover FTL enough back when it came out on PC, so, a brief recap. FTL was originally released in 2012 for PC, Mac and Linux. It was the result of a phenomenally successful Kickstarter and was an early success for crowdfunded game development. FTL went on to be beloved by players and acclaimed by critics, winning a boatload of awards and a legion of adoring fans.
FTL puts you in command of a starship called the Kestrel, and gives you a simple mission: You have intelligence that the Galactic Federation desperately needs. The rebels (who are the worst) are chasing you, and you must stay at least an FTL jump or two ahead of them at all times. Chart a course through the stars, defeat the rebels, and deliver the intelligence, and you'll win the game.
The entire game is played via a top-down map of your ship, with each of your crew members as a little dude or lady that you can assign various tasks. It looks like this:
Put a crew member in the pilot's seat, charge up the FTL drive, and the Kestrel will be ready to jump. Keep jumping toward each sector's exit and eventually, you'll make it home to your fleet.
Of course, it's not as simple as it sounds. Each sector you pass through consists of a dozen or two jump points, and each jump point contains one randomly generated encounter. Almost all of FTL is randomly generated, in fact, which means that every time you play it, your experience will be totally different.
Sometimes you'll have the option to explore an astroid field and hopefully pick up some new gear. Sometimes you'll have a choice as to whether to protect some settlers from pirates or keep on cruising. Sometimes, as happened to me yesterday, you'll simply find a powerful weapon, floating in space. Nice! And sometimes you'll run into a space pirate or a rebel advance patrol and have to fight.
Space combat plays a big role in FTL, but it doesn't work like most space combat games. This isn't Star Wars X-wing dogfighting, it's much more like Star Trek —you'll instruct your crew and man the Kestrel's battle stations to fire on the enemy ship, re-routing power from non-essential systems and timing your shots to break through your enemy's shields. Sometimes the enemy will beam aboard your ship and attack your crew members directly; if you get a teleporter, you can assemble an away team and return the favor.
All of this brings us to the crucial aspect of FTL that makes it such a great game—there are no saves, and no extra lives. If the Kestrel crashes, or if your crew asphyxiates, or if you run out of fuel and are set upon by scavengers, or are lit on fire by a solar flare, or any of a dozen or more other fates befall you, you simply get a game over. Time to start again. Yep, FTL is an outer-space roguelike, and even on the easiest difficulty it's an awfully punishing game. Expect to die many, many times before even getting halfway to your goal.
I know what you're probably thinking, and yes: FTL is one dysentery death away from being a sci-fi version of Oregon Trail.
Also of note: The game's soundtrack, composed by Ben Prunty, is just outstanding, and earned the game a place on our list of the best game music of 2012:
What makes FTL so irresistible is that failure is rarely frustrating. Rather, it's an essential part of the game. Each game over is a learning experience, giving you some crucial new information that you can keep in mind next time. When I first started playing the game back when it came out, I spent several hours unsure of what to do if I was boarded by enemy troops. But eventually I learned—the moment you're boarded, you have to act quickly and decisively. Move your entire crew into an adjacent room. Then, storm the room with as many crew members as possible, and at least in the early goings, you'll usually win.
Since everything is randomly generated and the simple graphics encourage you to use your imagination, FTL makes for some great stories. Imagine: You're fighting off pirates when a fire breaks out in the same room as your oxygen processor. You quickly clear the room and vent the fire into space, but that leaves your O2 processor inoperative and located in a room… with no oxygen. You send a noble crewmember in to the O2 room and she begins repairs, her health bar slowly depleting as she runs out of air.