Review: FTL (Windows, Mac, Linux)–The Story of Sim Starships in a Universe of Permadeath

FTLGame 2012-09-20 21-15-09-80Today we share a special review for a very special game. Revisiting the storytelling style from our Skyrim review, GUO is proud to present the grand space adventures of the Federation starship Otaku Childe. Staring the cast of our humble little corner of the Internet and produced by the technical wizardry of FTL’s game designers Matthew Davis and Justin Ma of Subset Games, we hope you’ll find today’s feature presentation entertaining and informative.

What follows is the True to Game accounts of the men, bugs, and cyborgs of the GUO Otaku Childe.

A tear welled up in my eye as the pirate fighter faded from sight. It’s Faster Than Light engine carried it away from the sizzling ray of our Pike Beam that would have split the ship asunder and, hopefully, allowed us to salvage the precious engine fuel we so desperately needed. Our final hope faded from sight along with it.

“But… but we finally had them,” I stammered in disbelief. We gained nothing, save a few more holes in the already weakening hull of the valiant Otaku Childe. Worse, we were now completely out of the missiles used to firebomb any hapless suckers foolish enough to stand between us and our goal of reaching the Federation fleet. A goal we were even farther from making progress on than before the pirate ship responded to our emergency beacon.

“Can’t we just throw The Great One’s corpse into the engines or something?” I ask to no one in particular. The Mrs. rolled her eyes and made for the aft of the ship to repair an oxygen leaking hull breach. Mr. Fish chittered softly and sauntered back his post in the engine room, dreams of tasty hamsters dancing in the giant bug-man’s mind.

“I’ve become really good at this piloting thing,” ryte2byte babbled cheerily, “but I can’t exactly do it without fuel.”

So… Here we are. Still. Out of gas. Out of missiles. Soon to be out of hull armor. Out of our minds and out of luck. Here we are. Sitting, quite literally, on top of the jump beacon that would carry us out of this pirate ridden sector of space. To say nothing of the Rebel fleet pursuing us that drew closer with every passing day we sat here hoping some good Samaritan would wander by with a spare fuel rod. Out of time and out of options, I sighed, flicked back on the distress signal, and began to wait.

One unit of fuel. That’s all it would take. No more pirates. A fresh lead on the Rebel armada. The possibility of locating a shipwright. Hope. If just for a single unit of fuel. How did it end up like this…

FTL is, in the words of its designers, “A spaceship simulation real-time Rogue-like".

For the uninitiated (i.e. gamers born before 1980), the term  “Rogue-like” refers to a subgenre of dungeon crawling RPG games. Popularized by the game Rogue for Unix, this style of game is usually characterized by randomized levels, steep difficulty, and the concept of '”permadeath”, where the player’s save game is deleted upon failure. Second chances don’t exist and you’ll never play the exact same game twice. It is a uniquely re-playable formula that emphasizes the journey over the destination while raising the stakes with every decision. It is a heritage that FTL wears proudly on its sleeve. You play, you have fun, you lose, you learn something, you come back later and start fresh in a new, randomly generated world. It is the way games were played before they became the carefully controlled ‘interactive cinematic experiences’ of today.

FTLGame 2012-09-19 17-48-07-69Browsing through the shipyard for the starting build of our shiny, new home, only one model stands out as being fit to fly under the flag of Growing Up Otaku: the Engi Torus. Built and crewed by the cybernetic techno-wiz Engi race, this strange, square donut eschews the lasers and missiles of other races in lieu of a more eclectic mix of a subsystem disabling Ion Cannon and a deployable Anti-Ship Drone designed to circle around foes while autonomously zapping them. It is a strange, hi-tech vessel whose race gains a bonus for repairs yet suffers a penalty in combat. With the click of a rename button, the Otaku Childe is christened. It is the perfect design for our pacifistic ‘I’m a fixer, not a fighter’ crew.

Speaking of crew, we have three fresh-faced saps with which to journey into the unknown: GUO’s infamous, phone flushing Mrs, the AniMaiden herself, Elizabeth (Mrs) as our Engi officer in charge of keeping the shields and engines running; Out of This World Weekly columnist and resident space case, the walking wiki himself, The Great One (TGO) as our Engi weapons officer; and a human with no special abilities, former GUO video producer and current dumpster dweller, ryte2byte (r2b) as our pilot. May God have mercy on our souls.

r2b: So, who’s up for a jaunty round of the Macross classic “My Boyfriend is a Pilot”?

I groan loudly and shake my head. “Everyone was sick of that song twenty years ago. And didn’t I fire you?”

r2b: Yes. Twice. It is only through brilliant perseverance achievable by one so gifted as myself that-

“Get out.”

Mrs: Aw, be nice. Let him come. We’re all marching to our deaths anyway. Let’s go, we’re late.

TGO: Actually, time may be the one thing we have plenty of. When dealing with the theoretical realities of faster-than-light travel it has been demonstrated…

“Fine! But he’s staying in the cockpit. It’s small and no one else ever goes in there.”

r2b: Just like my cardboard casa back home!

It was going to be a long voyage.

FTLGame 2012-09-20 14-12-29-77Each of FTL’s starting ships differs as much as character classes in a role-playing game. From the sturdy, missile based Rock Bulwark, to the Artillery Beam brandishing Osprey, to the Zoltan Adjudicator that’s partially powered by the alien energy of its own crew, each ship poses a unique experience. One ship may have an extra weapon slot or super shields, while another carries a powerful engine and cloaking device. In addition, each of the nine ship models has a variant which can be unlocked by completing achievements specific to that ship. For example, the B variant of the Enji Torus, the ship we chose for this mission, is crewed by a single individual but starts with a large number of automated drones. With 18 different models to choose from, and the ability to upgrade each in very different ways throughout the game, FTL supports a huge number of playing styles.

The goal of FTL is simple to describe, if not execute. Plot your course across eight sectors of the galaxy and link up with the Federation fleet for the final showdown while staying one step ahead of the Rebel fleet chasing you. Jumping one system at a time on a turn-based navigation map, you’ll switch to real-time encounters involving everything from pitched battles during fire-starting solar flares, sensor disrupting nebulas, story decisions that can end in shrieking crewman death or fat loot, and frequently engaging in FTL’s amazingly deep, simple to control, ship-to-ship combat.

The first sector of our journey passed easily enough. A few skirmishes against automated Rebel scout drones, a few loot scoring story interludes. We even managed to add an additional member to our motley crew: a marooned, man-sized praying mantis warrior. The random name generator had seen fit to dub our new bug-eyed friend Kevin Fish.

FTL, while overall a hard game to win, has a near perfect difficultly curve across its eight sectors. Not that you won’t loose a number of ships to bad luck, tactics, or just plain cockiness in sector 1 from time to time, but the game is manageable if not forgiving. It is a soft beginning that gives players a chance to come to grips with the needs of your ship’s energy consuming systems, learning when to enable or disable the auto-fire setting, and score some much needed swag for the challenging path ahead.

FTLGame 2012-09-20 14-37-25-58Learning to swat the pause-inducing space bar like a sugar crazed nine-year-old at a whack-a-mole machine is also a must. The real-time combat feels FAR too fast until you’ve gotten a couple dozen games under your belt. FTL has no options for speed adjustment, auto-pause, on-screen pause button, or the ability to remap pause to a mouse button. In fact, veteran PC gamers will be seriously underwhelmed at the lack of most commonly expected system settings, like alternate resolutions. It is a strange and ironic omission for a game packed to the gills with tactical options and focused on choice.

…But that was then. This is sector 3. This was where the afterburner meets the void. We are pretty well set in terms of gear, but painfully short of Scrap, FTL’s currency used to buy everything from ship stat boosting attribute points, to fuel, to repair services. Still, the crew’s spirits were high and there had not been a challenge we failed to master in short order. Until now.

Mrs: The slavers say they’ll let us go if we give then one of our crewmen.


Mrs: You can’t just-


r2b: But I’ve become good at this piloting thing!

FTLGame 2012-09-16 13-16-06-42I mouse over right2byte’s name placard on the left. Sure enough, his experience bar for piloting is almost fully green. Our evasion chance has gone up a number of points over the past few engagements, and soon he’ll be progressing into the gold rank. A crewman learns by doing and ryte2byte had never left the helm. Experienced crew can be priceless, adding bonuses when manning the stations they’re familiar with. This is particularly helpful when a ship’s systems has fallen behind the level curve, like the Otaku Childe.

I lean back and stroke my beard pondering whether the loss of an veteran pilot is worth being rid of the failed video producer. The Mrs. gives me That Look. If you’ve spent any time as a married man, you know the one I’m talking about.

Mrs: Look, we only have two choices: Draw straws to see who goes or open fire.

TGO: We do have plenty of straws. In a microgravity environment such as this, astronauts must be very cautious of…

Mrs: And we still have that new Pike Beam to try out.

The Pike Beam! A bit of scrounging had scored us the new gun just a few encounters earlier. While most weapons in FTL are targeted at a specific room of the enemy’s ship, the Pike Beam is a Babylon 5 class beam cannon. Pick your target point and place a line across the enemy’s floor plan. Every room touched takes damage! It was a devastating weapon. Provided our opponent’s shields were down. Fortunately, our Ion Cannon equipped Engi ship was rather good a taking down shields. I grinned evilly at the though of unleashing the beam blaster for the first time.

“Lock Ion Canon on the enemy shields and launch the Anti-Ship Drone. We’re going in!”

Most of the randomly generated star systems in a game of FTL will provide you with a choice. This frequently amounts to ‘Shoot this guy in the face (Y/N)?’ Still, they are well written and add flavor to the universe. Other, more involved events will setup a sector wide fetch quest, or prompt you to make the choice of risking the ship to save distressed civilians in the hopes of a reward. Hidden options are available for many scenarios depending on crew composition or the gear fitted to your vessel. The above scenario with the slavers is a no-brainer. Trade an extremely valuable crew member for safe passage, or engage in FTL’s core game, the spectacular starship combat.

Of course, by putting even such an obvious decision in your hands, FTL makes it very clear that, for good or ill, it’s all your fault.

“Status report!” I bark, as ryte2byte throws our ship to one side, narrowly evading the slaver’s beam cannon.

r2b: I told you I was getting good at this piloting-


FTLGame 2012-09-16 13-47-24-04A glance at the display revels Elizabeth and The Great One back-to-back battling a great wall of fire in the weapons room. Prior battles had let us casually whittle down our enemies bit by bit. Never had we faced a foe that had us so outgunned. A few unlucky shots has changed the crew of the Otaku Childe from liberating heroes to cowering dupes.

r2b: I don’t think they can hold the fire back. Even if they do, that inferno across the rear airlock has a very good chance of catching up to them before they get the weapons back online.

I watch the life indicators above the brave Engi firefighters’ heads dwindle for a moment before making a call. “Pull ‘em back to the medical bay.”

Engi ships like the Otaku Childe are equipped with a special augment that allows the medical bay to sprinkle healing nanites to any wounded crew via the air supply. Shame I sold that at the last star base for the Scrap needed to upgrade our reactor.

The Mrs. and our space expert arrive in medical a moment later. Green sparkles flow over them as the nanites do their work.


Mrs: Well, death seems like an easy way out.

TGO: Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion.

“I don’t think this is the time for Wikipedia links.”

The Great One stares as me coldly for a moment. I blink twice. Finally, he sighs and continues:

TGO: No oxygen, no oxidation.

I blink three times.

TGO: Open the damn airlock.

Of course! I open the ship’s outer doors and every connecting door to the weapon’s room. The affected areas turn from white, to pink, to red on my display as oxygen drains from the Otaku Childe’s flaming quadrant. The weapons console explodes in a final act of indignation as the fires die out.

“Liz, try to keep our shields up for more than half a second. Mr. One, I want you fixing that weapon system the second I close the airlock. It shouldn’t take long before life support restores air to-“

FTL fireThe ship lurches violently under the enemy’s assault.

r2b: Direct hit on life support. It’s out.

One brief face palm later, I readdress the crew. “Like I was saying, Liz, you fix the life support system. Spock…“

TGO: The Great One.

“Tomato, tomahto. Potato, potahto.”

TGO: Let’s call the whole thing off.

“I want you fixing those weapons in 3…2…1…Go!”

I mash on the button to close all doors and the crew springs into action.

Bossing around your crew couldn’t be simpler. You can select them from the list on the left side of the interface, click on them directly, or drag-select. Right-clicking on any room of your ship sends them on their way. Orders cannot be queued, but can be issued while paused. There is no autonomous movement. Your crew will always take the most direct route and won’t move again until directed to do so. This makes for ‘last stand’ heroics and ‘oops, I suck’ moments in equal measure. Characters will automatically handle issues in their room following a hardcoded order of priority: First fire, then hull breaches, system repair, and, finally, manning the system in the room. It is an elegant and simple interface that works well, a pleasant change of pace from most titles that attempt to simulate starship functions with a confusing morass of menus and spreadsheets.

FTLGame 2012-09-18 03-13-06-94In another strange technical omission, hotkeys (such as the unused F1-F8) are not mapped to your crew. The number keys are set to your weapons, yet nothing for your men, bugs, and ‘bots. The tiny people on your ship need a great deal of micromanagement as they commence repairs, fight fires, battle boarding parties, and rush to the medical bay to avoid death. It is a bewildering polish issue with minimal impact on the game proper. Much like the enemy ship in prior couple screenshots being labeled as an “Energy Fighter” instead of being properly named “Zoltan Fighter”.

TGO: Breathing, the process that moves air in and out of the lungs, is extremely difficult to achieve in a vacuum.

“If you don’t get those weapons online, we’re all going to be breathing in a vacuum!”

The slaver’s beam streaks across our hull again. The aft corridor breaches, venting a room full of perfectly good oxygen into space.

Mrs: Life support restored!

TGO: Weapon… power… partially… gasp

“Excellent. Elizabeth, back to shields. Mr. One, keep going. Let’s see if our pals out there are hungry for some just desserts.” I have just enough power in the weapons system to beam a fire bomb directly into the enemy’s life support chamber. I retarget for a second fire bomb in their weapons room before turning back to the situation aboard our own vessel.

“Mr. One, where’s the rest of my weapon power?” No answer. “The Great One?” The Engi weapons officer no longer appears on the display. Um… Oops, I suck.

I peek in on Elizabeth as she finishes tightening some sci-fi flavored doodad in the ship’s shield room. “Uh… Sweetie. I need to you finish up fixing the weapons, please.”

Mrs: I thought The Great One was doing that.

“Um… well… he… kinda needs a hand. He’s having a little problem with death by asphyxiation.”

Mrs: But the life support systems-

“Yeah, well, they’re working fine now. They’re just not working that fast. We lost a lot of O2, and then the hull breach-“

Mrs: Is there air in there now?

“A little.”

Mrs: What do you mean “A little”?!

The flash of a third fire bomb detonating in the enemy’s shield control center sparks my brain to life.

FTLGame 2012-09-16 13-53-57-07“Just go! I have an idea!”

If we can vent oxygen into space, then maybe we can vent oxygen into an oxygen-free room! I open all of the doors across the ship, excepting the newly breached chamber. The ship’s floor plan dims to a light pink denoting the lack of air. More importantly, the beleaguered weapons room brightens to a much less deadly shade of red just as Elizabeth begins repairs. As our weapons come back to full power, I realize how long it’s been since we’ve been shot. A full screen message interrupts the Otaku Childe’s passion play to confirm my suspicions.

FTLGame 2012-09-16 13-56-05-14

Your problems don’t necessarily end with the cessation of hostilities in FTL. I have witnessed more than one ship win a battle only to watch the crew succumb to a raging wildfire or lack of oxygen moments later.

Retreat is always an option, provided your FTL drive has recharged and someone is manning the piloting station. Just expect to bring your problems with you. Damaged systems, hull breaches, and even enemy soldiers that beamed aboard are all coming with you.

In a grizzly parallel to the fate we very nearly suffered, the slaver crew had succumbed to fire and a lack of oxygen. Inside we rescue a human prisoner. Neglecting to check the color of his shirt, I welcome aboard our new crew member, a Mr. O’Regan, and offer him a job manning the weapons console.

O’Regan: Uh, what’s with the dead Engi in the corner?

“He’s not dead. He’s resting.”

O’Regan: No he isn’t!

“Yes, he is! He’s just resting.”

O’Regan: No, this Engi is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. This is a late Engi. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, he rests in peace.

“Look New Guy, you wanna be a troll,” I point to the charred rear door of the weapons room, “there’s the airlock.”

r2b: Why does a cybernetic life form need oxygen anyway?

“My very special, vacuum sealed offer applies to ALL trolls, Mr. byte.”

The helmsman’s head snaps back toward the view screen. He begins softly humming the theme to Buck Rogers.

What’s our new crew member like? Doesn’t matter. He’s dead thirty seconds later.when, in the very next system, this happened:

oregans fate

Easy come, easy go.

The battle against the slavers would mark a turning point in our adventure. From here on out, things were not going to go well. The hull of the Otaku Childe had certainly seen better days. The only known port we could put into for repairs was too far behind now, swallowed up by the Rebel armada on our heels. The only course was forward, into unknown territory.

The nav computer was eager to confirm my bleak thoughts.

ftl navigation

My decisions had led us across the galaxy through the most friendly of sectors. The jump to our fourth sector would be different. Pirate space.

Mrs: We’re all going to die.

r2b: But I’ve become so good at this piloting thing!

“No choice. If we take the shortest route possible and keep our noses clean, we can do this. Mr. Fish,” the salivating, predatory insect warrior who had been leaning disturbingly close to the back of my head snapped to attention, “we’re counting on you to keep those engines turning.” The bug-man clicked in acknowledgement and left the bridge. The door swished closed behind him.

r2b: At least we’re not going through Mantis space.

For the first time since our journey began, I felt no urge to shut the helmsman up.

We stuck to the plan. Hidden Rebel supply cache? No thanks. Civilian transport under attack? It’s their own fault. Backwater Station is crawling with giant, alien, space spiders? Sucks to be you. In five short jumps, we had reached the exit node to this unfriendly chunk of void. We had even stumbled across a wayward trader who patched some of our damaged hull in exchange for our meager supply of Scrap. Spirits were lifting. We were little better off than when we entered the sector, but we were alive. We had arrived at the exit node. We were…

r2b: Out of gas.

I blink at the unusually stoic Mr. byte.

“Bwuhuh?” It was the only ‘word’ I could muster.

He points to the sector map. Sure enough, giant red letters broadcast our predicament so plainly that even the dimmest of starship captains could understand: NO FUEL. I slump back in my chair, defeated.

Mrs: So… What do we do? Short of dying, of course. Call Triple-A?

Without a word, I point at the troll silencing airlock.

FTL no fuelEvery decision I made led here. Our pitched battle against the slavers, my mad dash across this pirate infested sector, my choice to spend all of our scrap to fix the hull, my carelessness in not looking at our fuel reserves. This was no bad dice roll. I had been antsy, overeager, and careless.

Activating the distress beacon, we waited.

It was not long before one of the locals showed up. The locals of this sector being, of course, pirates. It could have been worse. It was a small fighter. We detonate fire bombs inside its weapon and shield rooms using our last two missiles.

“Route med bay power to the Pike Beam! We got the S.O.B!” I dare to crack a smile. I would not, could not consider the possibility that fuel might not be among the salvageable wreckage. Or that the enemy ship would turn tail and run. Which it did.

A tear welled up in my eye as the pirate fighter faded from sight. It’s Faster Than Light engine carrying it away from the sizzling ray of our Pike Beam that would have split the ship asunder. I think. We had never actually managed to fire it.

“But… but we had them,” I stammer in disbelief. We had gained nothing, save for a few more holes in the hull and an empty missile bay. “Can’t we just throw The Great One’s corpse into the engines or something?” I ask to no one in particular.

The Mrs. rolled her eyes and made for the aft of the ship to repair an oxygen leaking hull breach. Mr. Fish chittered softly and sauntered back his post in the engine room, dreams of tasty hamsters dancing in the giant bug-man’s mind.

r2b: I’ve become really good at this piloting thing, but I can’t exactly do it without fuel.”

I indulge myself and smack the snarky video man in the back of the head.

So… Here we are. One unit of fuel. That’s all it would take. No more pirates. A fresh lead on the Rebel armada. The possibility of locating a shipwright. Hope. If just for a single unit of fuel. I knew how we got here. I made every choice that led to this moment. Out of time and out of options, I sigh, flick back on the distress signal, and begin to wait.

The next ship to find us was no pirate. It was the Rebels.

FTLGame 2012-09-16 14-16-16-00

Mrs: I surrender!

r2b: Me too!

Fish clacked his mandibles together in agreement.

I launch the Anti-Ship Drone and begin raining Ion Blasts into the enemy’s shields.

r2b: But I’ve become exceptional at this pi-

The Rebel fighter raised its heat rays and melted the Otaku Childe’s valiant heart.

FTLGame 2012-09-16 14-21-58-94There are thousands of such stories waiting to be discovered in FTL. Gumpo, the brave Zoltan who held off a Mantis boarding party by firebombing his own ship then smothering the flames by turning off life support. Geryk, the Mantis who once conquered the Rock using only drones. Even an alternate version of the crew of the Otaku Childe that ended in victory.

This is what FTL gets so right as opposed to most space games: It’s about people. Most games involving spaceships put the emphasis and action squarely on the technological gadgetry as opposed to the crew behind it. Sure, we still have giant hunks of metal throwing energy blasts at each other, but the real drama unfolds as your pilot struggles to restore helm control to your battered ship or your engineer tries to rebuild a destroyed life support system before he runs out of air. FTL puts the personality back into sci-fi by putting the people back into the game.

FTL lacks a few technical niceties we’re used to seeing in PC gaming and its control scheme will appear slightly schizophrenic after repeated play-through. Still, these are fairly minor issues. While the lack hotkeys for something so important as crewmembers or on-screen pause button for mouse-only players are annoying, these are not factors that prevent interaction with FLT’s beautifully informative and versatile interface.

Where FLT excels is delivering all the drama and technical trails of commanding a fantasy spaceship with none of the cumbersome interface conventions or jargon that has plagued space games before. All of your favorite sci-fi geekery like power systems, crew experience, oxygen levels, and subsystems are laid out on a single screen clear enough to be accessible to all gamers. The ruthless difficulty may turn some off, but when a full game of FTL only lasts between 30 minutes and 3 hours, the ‘One more try’ mentality will leave very few discouraged for long.

More than just a Firefly simulator, FTL is the Firefly of space games. Small, fast, spunky, and remarkably charming, if a little rough around the edges.

FTL is available directly from Subset Games (or your favorite digital distribution site) for $10. Ordering directly includes versions for Windows, Mac, Linux, AND Steam.

Reviewer Rating: 4/5 – Fly Me to the Moon and Let Me Play Among the Stars


For more on FTL, check out our strategy guide and spoiler laden walkthrough for the final boss battle.

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