“Red Alert!” Klaxons go off in my mind as the two ships float in cross-section in front of a red giant.
I fire the opening volley: an ion blast to disable the Rebel fighter’s shields. My anti-ship drone peppers them with shots and begins to bring down their systems. My veins throb with adrenaline
Two of my best men beam over to take the fight to the enemy. They materialize in the weapons control room and start to wreck havoc.
While I was distracted with events on the enemy ship, a red flash engulfs the hull of my ship, fires have hit my life support systems. I flush the air out of the room, but not before it knocks off the only source of oxygen for the entire ship.
I need a hero - and there are no volunteers. I order the pilot to venture into the life support room to fix the system. In doing so, I lose our best chance at dodging further enemy attacks.
The noise of a heart monitor pulls my attention back to the enemy ship where my brave away team are fighting for their lives. I order them to run to a room on the other side of the ship until I can pull them out. I warm-up the teleporter and beam them over just as one of my missiles penetrates the enemy’s hull and turns the fighter into space junk…
… Where are my men? I check the teleporter room - they haven’t materialized. I was too late and now I’m down to three men. My heroic pilot and my weapons and shields officers… Three men against the whole Rebel fleet. Things aren’t looking good.
FTL is fiendishly difficult. A fine mix of roguelike gameplay and a science-fiction setting, FTL gives you one ship, a few crew members, and eight sectors to fight through before you reach the final boss - an enormous and overpowered ship. This boss, the Rebel flagship, is so monstrously difficult that I have yet to actually defeat it. FTL raises sepia-tinted images of games that you never completed as a kid.
Short gameplay, permadeath and level randomization. This is what keeps drawing me back to FTL. I can’t always sink the hours of gaming I need into titles like Crusader Kings II or Endless Space to really appreciate their epic depth, but I can drop into FTL before dinner and be done (and defeated!) in time to lay the table.
Every play-through is different - the same events crop up again and again, but the outcomes, rewards and penalties are different each time. Sometimes you make it to the final stage, most times you end up blowing up just a few sectors in. It’s a challenge which brings you back again and again.
Between the randomly generated events and stages, the pursuing enemy fleet, and the pressing need to prepare for the final fight, you are into a unrelenting balancing act. Ship after ship attacks, damaging your hull which takes scrap to repair - scrap that you need to upgrade your systems - or killing your crew who you need to keep the ship running. Every time you upgrade a system or add a weapon, you need to generate more energy, all of which requires more scrap. Every time you make a jump, your fuel depletes by one. The resource management and tactical flexibility required have a steep learning curve, but the gameplay is intuitive and moreish.
At $9.99, it offers enough to keep you coming back: beyond its integral randomization, it has ships and alternative starting layouts to unlock through achievements. These are not just cosmetic differences: each ship requires different priorities and fighting styles.
You won’t win every game - not even most games, but neither will you find yourself wanting to throw your PC out of the window. Everything feels tough but fair, and there are very few bugs to blame your failure on. It is the perfect game to play in bursts, and is absolutely begging to be brought to the iPad.
With a fine degree of micromanagement required, or as developer Justin Ma put it, “Diner Dash in space”, FTL sucks you in from the get-go and spits out your mangled corpse a half-hour later. At times it feels like masochism of the highest order, but bring me my gimp suit because I can’t get enough.
Few modern games have FTL’s mix of sci-fi micromanagement and roguelike elements.
At $9.99, you can easily get more than 10 hours of gameplay without seeing all FTL has to offer.
It’s a hard game - futile when its random elements have rolled against you - but I never once rage-quit, and I always felt hungry for more.
Replay is essential. I doubt you will even get a few sectors in on your first attempt. You will play FTL over and over and over again.