Redshirts? We're all frigging redshirts here, man.

Captain of the Federation Ship Kestrel

FTL: Faster Than Light is a a computer game. It is described as a 'spaceship-management roguelike". If you're not heavily into gaming, let me parse that for you. 'Spaceship' - uh-huh, the entirety of the game takes place aboard (and if you're lucky, around) a single spaceship. 'Management' - yep, that's what you'll be doing; you'll be managing the spaceship's crew, systems, weapons, power, etcetera. 'Roguelike'. This is what makes it so brutally evil and yet so addicting. A Roguelike is a computer game which has certain specific characteristics which are shared with the 1980 game named (surprise) Rogue. For our purposes, a few of them are relevant and apply.

First, it's (in this case, loosely) turn-based. It's not a twitch game; although it plays continuously, you can pause the game at any time indefinitely with no penalty. I call it loosely turn-based because it runs on time blocks - in this case, seconds. Actions take time, and appear to be resolved in one-second intervals. Weapon recharging, shield charging, crew actions and so forth.

Second, its assets are randomly generated or selected, changing with each game. You can't learn the map, and you won't know what resources or enemies are placed where from game to game.

Third, it's stat-based. Your character (in this case, a spaceship and its crew) have stats (crew have system skills, ships have levels of systems). A particular stat combination is called a build, and your gameplay will vary depending on which you pursue - perhaps you will go for a missile-heavy ship? That will let you punch through enemy shields, but it means you'll need to keep a careful eye on your magazines and perhaps forego some upgrades to feed those hungry launchers. A beam build? Beam weapons can do horrific damage, but are easily stopped by shields. And so forth.

Fourth, death in the game is permanent. This is a strict roguelike, meaning not only is death permanent, but there is no saving the game allowed (unless you are quitting; you can save and resume, but the game save is removed as soon as you begin to play again). The game offers no loopholes; spending an hour making it to the 'boss' and dying means...yep, starting over.

The setting of the game is simple, broad brushstrokes of gaming memes. You control the crew of a single intrepid ship of the Federation, a spacefaring polity. The Federation has come under attack from a group known unimaginatively as The Rebels - and is losing. Your ship contains the secret information necessary for the Federation Fleet, far distant and hiding, to have a chance of defeating the Rebels! You must captain your ship adroitly, fleeing from the advancing Rebels across eight sectors of space and keeping rendezvous with the Federation fleet.

The gameplay is one of those 'simple to learn, difficult to master' things. You are presented with an overhead map of your ship, and can see and direct your crewmembers within to man stations or repair damage. You can allocate power to the various systems and weapons of your ship. You can use a few select systems directly - weapons of course, the jump drive, and doors (Doors? Yeah, doors - they're sort of crucial; more later) among them. Selecting a course across each sector, you must choose between the need to visit as many systems in each as possible to collect resources (scrap, in this game) to improve your ship before the final battle - and the ever-pursuing Rebels, who appear on the map as a red curved front of space, encroaching from the left to the right. You will always start on the left side of each sector, and will need to make it to the 'long range jump beacon' system (marked, handily, 'exit') somewhere on the right.

In each system, you will have a single encounter. You may be forced to fight another ship; you may have a chance to avoid combat, or even trade with them. You may find merchants. You might come across distress signals from space stations or other ships - folks in need of your help who are willing to reward you. But beware - some of those distress signals are traps, from pirates or Rebel scouts searching for you ahead of the fleet.

There are three consumable resources - scrap (currency, basically), missiles (ammunition) and drone parts. The latter are used when your ship has both a drone control room and an available drone schematic. Management of these resources is deceptive; although it seems like you are okay when you start out, there are curves - if you get too far behind the curve as you play, you are doomed to scarcity in the later sectors. Fuel up whenever you can, and conserve missiles; just don't conserve missiles to the point where you let other ships walk on your face.

The game is addictive. When I first downloaded it, I booted it up to have a look at the tutorial around 8pm. I looked up from the game and it was 4:30am. This is not unusual, according to the internet.

Things happen, in space. You will take combat damage, requiring you to dispatch crew members around the ship to wrench on damage. But be careful - should you send the crewmember manning your engine room? Although he is of the Engi race - good mechanics - leaving your engines unmanned slows down the drive charging, which determines how soon you can FTL-jump out, and will cut your Evade rating, meaning you'll take more damage. On the other hand, perhaps what is broken is life support - and if you don't fix it, the level of air in the ship will start dropping, and eventually your whole crew will take damage…

Or perhaps there are intruders in your engine room! They've beamed aboard and are wrecking your systems! Although you could mobilize your crew in Engineering for a pitched boarding battle, maybe it would be simpler to open the large airlocks next to the engine room and asphyxiate the intruders! That would also put out the fires they've started...and you hopefully upgraded your ship's doors to blast doors, so that they (and the fire) can't escape the engine room.

FTL is an independent game by Matthew Davis and Justin Ma. It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux computers, distribute for the former by Good Old Games and the latter two by Steam, Valve's distribution platform. It can also be purchased directly at the game's site. Best of all, it's only around $9 - in terms of dollars per hour of entertainment, I guarantee you won't find a better deal all year.

Just remember, though - if dying is something that puts you off in a game, don't bother. You'll die. A lot. All the time. I've been playing for 17 or 18 hours, and I have yet to 'win' the game (destroy the Rebel flagship). On easy. I've only seen it - made it to sector 8 - twice.

Update

After 42 hours of gameplay, I finally managed to kill the enemy flagship on 'easy' mode. This is important because I had been starting to think it couldn't be done, and that all the people on the internet claiming they'd done it were in fact using Photoshop for their proof, or cheating (you can cheat by editing the binary savefile). I did it with a Kestrel Type B, the Red Tail. I discovered some useful things about the flagship, and gameplay in general, and offer them below as tips. They're not really spoilers, but if you'd prefer to learn the game entirely on your own you might want to skip them.

  • Boarders. Getting a teleporter and a pair of burly boarding crew is a good thing. For one thing, teleporters will go through regular shields, and if you look carefully, some ships have systems in compartments that aren't connected to the rest of the ship - so you can send in your boarding crew to destroy whatever system is in that compartment without fear of reprisal. In the Slug Interceptor, the life support is in one of these rooms - so as long as your shields are decent, you can whack their O2 and just wait for them to asphyxiate (there's a chievo for that). Taking a ship via killing its crew (which boarders make much easier) yields more scrap and loot.
  • Cloaking. The cloak is expensive, but oh so worth it. As you have probably found out from facing them, for some unknown quantum wossname reason when an enemy ship is cloaked, your own weapons will stop charging. Well, works both ways. Also, when you're facing an enemy with a Big Gun (double or triple missiles, big missiles, whatever) you can time your cloak. If you hit it after they fire but before you get hit, the cloak ups your evade by 60% and it's likely they'll all miss. When you're facing the flagship, this can be decisive.
  • Weapons. It is critical to have both energy and missile weapons. Indeed, bombs may be better than missiles. You'll need bombs to take down systems when the enemy has strong shields up, and you'll need energy if you want to knock shields down. I tend to pair lasers with a beam weapon - timing the beam weapon for when the lasers have knocked down the shields. Twin burst laser II - six total shots - means you're almost guaranteed to knock down any shields in a salvo, but a burst III (5 shots) can be almost as effective for one less weapon slot.
  • System armor. It's sometimes worth upgrading systems you can't afford to power yet, because even if you can't power them those systems can absorb damage and keep working - and remember, any damage absorbed by a system doesn't make it to the hull.
  • Flagship. The Flagship is a Big Bad, no doubt, but it has weaknesses. Here are a few.
    • Most of its weapons are in isolated compartments, vulnerable to sabotage. See 'Boarders', above.
    • If you kill its crew, they don't regenerate between encounters. To do this, you need a decent weapon mix and boarders; knock out their sickbay and then send some troops over to hunt down any survivors. BUT:
    • If you kill off its whole crew, an AI activates which invisibly repairs damage and fights the ship. Therefore, it might be worth leaving one crew member in a weapons pod alive, as the AI won't activate until the whole crew is dead.

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