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Lost Masters is a series of articles that endeavours to take a fresh look at brilliant games that flew under the radar at the time of their release. This month Gaming Editor Andrew Carroll looks at FTL.
Space, the final isometric frontier. Plenty of games let you zip through dust clouds and nebulas as you chase another starfighter. Others have you control entire fleets as they maneuver through a star system to confront a rebel space station. Hell, Stellaris lets you control an entire space empire. But few of these games manage to find that sweet spot between tense combat and the glories of micro-management. FTL does and it does it in a variety of interesting ways.
Released in 2012 FTL was an indie hit for two man development team Subset Games. The original game’s success with Kickstarter funding of $200,000 allowed them to release FTL: Advanced Edition. The success of both versions funded their second game: the mech RTS game Into the Breach. Into the Breach which is similar in art style to FTL but is the more praised game as games that tend to beat the sophomore slump often are but my heart and my mind will always rest with FTL up there among the stars.
As the captain of a Federation ship the player is tasked with delivering information on the other side of the galaxy in order to disrupt the fascist rebels and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Beyond that relatively linear story thread everything else about FTL is often random or guided by player choice. Players choose from one of ten unlockable ships and pick their crew depending on which of the 8 different races they’ve unlocked. From there they set off into the galaxy ready to deliver their message, help those in distress, fight pirates and defeat the rebels.
FTL is the rare space faring game to make you feel like you’re not an omnipotent pilot instead making you actually feel like you’re the hard-bitten commander of a nimble cruiser. It’s a game that makes you feel like shouting “Launch photon torpedoes” or “Belay that remark” or “Get that fire out in the med-bay and get me a sit-rep, now!” at the screen. You and only you are in command. Your ship crashes and burns with you. Your crew are with you to the end.
It’s a stressful experience but it’s a feeling like no other and the ability to pause, as you would in an RTS game, helps you prioritize what to do and who has to do it. If lasers have set your O2 supplies on fire it’s best to get a fire resistant rock person to lumber in and fix it. The Mantis are great for repelling invaders and the humans are jacks-of-all-trades, as usual. Knowing who to send where when a rebel ship is bearing down on you is vital as are the decisions you make in the non-combat scenarios.
Although FTL might not have a robust main story it has enough of a skeleton that all of the connecting tissue branches off into more interesting areas. Encounters outside of combat can leave you with something as mundane as a supply station or as frightening as alien spiders. Investigating derelict cruisers or SOS signals can yield precious fuel, currency or even a new crew member. But with every reward there comes a risk. A desperate attempt to find a supply post or scattered fuel may lead to an encounter with Slug pirates or worse leave you adrift in the cold void of space. At least a fight may grant you the fuel needed to push on but when you’re out in an empty sector with the next FTL beacon so close yet so far and the rebel fleet hot on your heels there are few worse feelings.
No matter whether everything goes smoothly or things go from bad to worse in FTL there’s never anyone to blame but yourself. Your successes and your fuck ups are your own, no one else’s. FTL is a simple enough game with no enormous operating requirements lurking behind it. Its art style is lean and blocky and to the point so it’s impossible to blame a poor decision on anyone but yourself. You either die like a Captain would or you win like a Captain should. It’s the kind of attitude games like Sunless Seas or, to a lesser degree, Outer Wilds have tried and never really succeeded, for me at least, in capturing. FTL’s most endearing feature is its minimalism. In its world you can be whoever you want to be and explore the galaxy (along charted lines) as you see fit. No other detail is necessary when it’s just you, four crewmen named after your best friends and a sea of endless stars.