Faster Than Light is a design masterpiece from developer Subset Games. It’s not about flashy graphics or cutscenes or famous voices or epic narratives. It joins – in my opinion – a prestigious fraternity of design-based games I feel is swelling in the Indie realm as of now.
For me, a guy who is normally all about pushing the limits of graphics and ambiance, blurring the lines between reality and the game, so to speak; playing games like this is like visiting one of those old open air pioneer museums. You might not be interested all the time, but on occasion it’s nice to go back and see what gaming was like before High-Def.
Faster Than Light is part whimsical adventure-exploration game, part strategy game and part spaceship captain simulator. You control a crew of various species of beings each with different abilities and specializations, and together you navigate a hostile galaxy, managing your resources and pushing your luck to get an important missive to your rebel friends on the other side of the galaxy, constantly dodging enemy patrols and pirate raiders.
The great and intriguing thing about FTL is the amount of gameplay the developers were able to wring out of an incredibly simple concept: Risk versus Reward. From the moment you depart on your journey you’ll have to make Risk/Reward decisions that will impact how successful you will be. Your ship has a limited fuel supply, so in every sector you’ll have to balance the need to advance to the next zone with your need to explore for currency and upgrades for your vessel. Once you get that currency, do you hire more crew members, buy more modules (weapons, drones) or improve your ship’s base systems? You’ll never have enough resources to do everything.
Consider the following. You boot up FTL for the first time and are greeted to dulcet tones fit for a romp in the celestial sky. You’re introduced to your ship, a blocky floor plan with a cut away roof like a terrarium so you can watch your crew scurry about inside. You select your ship and starting crew and disembark from the station on your mission of great peril and strife. It kind of reminds me of the first couple of chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. There’s this huge impending doom looming over everyone’s head, but there’s still time for a little merrymaking and casual reflection.
You drift off into the black and before long you receive a distress signal from a ship that’s been caught without engine power very near an area of high solar activity. The mission should be easy enough. It’s not far out of your way and the reward from the stranded voyagers should be substantial. You decide to go.
Entering the system your shields are instantly shocked by rising solar energy. A creeping panic emerges in the back of your throat but your expert crew gets the shields back up. At this rate your luck will hold. Then you see the pirates. The SOS said nothing about them, but here they are. With your faster than light drive recharging, you’ve got no choice now but to stand and fight. From here the Risk V. Reward decisions come at you with a vengeance. You don’t have enough crew members to man all your systems. Without a pilot you’ll be dead in the water, so what other systems do you reinforce? Shields for faster recharge? Engines for better dodge chance? While you’re puzzling it out and trading blows with the pirates, a boarding party has teleported onto your ship near the sensor deck, blinding you to any room in your ship a crew member doesn’t occupy. Before long they’ll have torn your vital systems to pieces. What do you do? You could send crew members to fight the boarders, but your unmanned systems will leave you at a loss against the pirate ship and every crew member that dies is another vital resource lost. You could get creative and vent the atmosphere in the chambers you expect them to inhabit, but flying blind means a wrong guess won’t reveal itself until the bastards have started blazes all over your ship.
Bear in mind that hesitation is death. You’d better have made a decision faster than you read the previous paragraph or you’re through.
The result of this rapidly spiraling disaster scenario and every other one you’ll encounter is that this game, with its simple graphics, straightforward plot and point-and-click gameplay style manages to be more suspenseful than any gunfight with terrorists in Call of Duty or any duel against the gods in God of War. That is a marvel to behold, and well worth the $9.99 you can pick it up for on Steam.