Shields are down. Weapons are down. Engines damaged, sensors wrecked, and cockpit a blazing inferno, my poor little ship is getting pummelled. The enemy ship is hanging out there in space, haughtily superior, all guns and drones and shiny shields.
My crew dash from compartment to compartment, fighting fires and repairing systems frantically, trying to wring enough power out of the ship for one last shot. Maxim tries frantically fixes the weapons console before asphyxiating – I’d previously vented the atmosphere out of the room in a desperate effort to repel some boarders. Notch, the only one of my original crew left, dies in a fire in the engine room. Left on his own, Geryk can do little except watch as my once mighty ship is taken apart piece by piece. He stays at the helm, a look of grim determination on his face, until a well-placed missile splits my cruiser apart in a fiery blaze…
FTL isn’t a game – it’s an 8-bit arena where battles are fought, victories are snatched and heroes are made. Superficially, of course, it’s a top-down, low budget indie spaceship roguelike, with only a few screens to its name. But take the £6.99 plunge and look beyond the simple graphics and interface and you’ll find a game with depth, replayability and more epic story potential than any AAA title.
There’s virtually no official story in FTL, but that just means that all the drama happens in the gameplay. The most memorable stories aren’t cutscenes or mo-capped dialogue sequences, they’re the ones where you scrape through a whole sector with one hull point remaining, or the battle where you win against all the odds, and limp, crew decimated, ship on fire, to the next jump – only to come face to face with yet another powerful enemy. Rock, Paper, Shotgun have run a whole series of diary-style entries about the dramas (and inevitable fiery deaths), so it must be good.
The interface is pretty stripped-back too, but hides surprisingly complex gameplay. Your ship is a flying balancing act, with a central pool of power that you can redirect towards shields, or weapons, or other equally important subsystems. A good engagement means shuffling power from system to system based on your enemy’s capabilities, focusing on your target’s weakpoints and moving crew to where they’re needed most. I like to think it also means shouting at the screen, demanding more power from the engine room, but your mileage may vary.
You can muddle through the earlier levels without too much micromanagement (or shouting), but when you reach the fabled Sector 7 your ship needs to be upgraded and organised to stand a chance – and even then, it’s surprisingly easy to bump into a single enemy who can lay waste to your best plans.
When you do die – and you will die – death is permanent, and you have to start from scratch again. It’s devastating to lose a ship and crew you’ve become attached to, but hey, there’s a whole new universe to explore every time. As a randomly generated world, there’s always a chance of encountering some cannoned-up flying fortress that kills you on your second jump – and combat can sometimes feel a bit pot-luck like that – but the payoff is a new and exciting journey every time, where you have no idea what’s around the next nebula.
If you can’t tell, I really, really like this game. I’d never have played it were it not for a chance recommendation from a friend, and I’m very glad I did. And for all its charm, depth, and ability to make me write about spaceships like a teenage Trekkie who’s just discovered slash fiction, it’s only £6. Get it!