Video Game Review: Story of ‘FTL: Faster Than Light’ is Stuck in Neutral

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CHICAGO – Since the advent of fancy 3D gaming graphics, it seems most space simulations believe gamers want action pew-pew. “Freespace 2”, “Wing Commander”, “X-Wing vs. Tie Figher”, and a litany of other games essentially presented classic combat flight sim gameplay *in spaaceee*. Now, all those games are excellent in their own ways. “Descent: Freespace” in particular is a *must* play if you’ve ever enjoyed anything related to Sci-Fi.

But even in “Freespace”, something was…missing; A specific kind of human chaos. in “Star Wars,” you had Chewbacca desperately trying to fix the whatcyhamacallit. In “Star Trek,” Geordi or Scotty were consistently put in danger while trying to give more power to the inertial thingamabobbers. In “Battlestar Galactica” and “Firefly,” stuff was *consistently* hitting the fan. Characters we’ve come to care about were almost always in peril, trying to get the damn ship to work right in the face of danger. Sure, it was manufactured drama and we knew more than likely the ship, and our heroes, would live to fly another day - but this human element has been conspicuously absent in the modern day space-sim - often times making games feel as cold and empty as deep space itself.

FTL: Faster Than Light
FTL: Faster Than Light
Photo credit: Subset Games

Which brings us to “Faster Than Light”, or “FTL” for short. “FTL” gives you a ship, a small crew, a ration of resources, and unceremoniously requests you traverse the wild and dangerous yonder of the Solar System. The point and click action RPG gameplay has you direct your custom named crew, manage your ever finicky systems (Engines, weapons, medbay, O2 generator, a few others), and attempt to pilot your way onward through several star systems. Along the way you’ll encounter enemy ships, outposts, shops, and the occasional sensor-dampening nebula.

FTL: Faster Than Light
FTL: Faster Than Light
Photo credit: Subset Games

FTL” is a “Roguelike” - a particularly brutal RPG sub-genre typified by permanent death, dungeon crawling, and random (and often times frustratingly difficult) enemy encounters. in “FTL”, while you’re able to pause the game and take survey of the (often times dire) situation, the game remains incredibly harrowing - in the best way. The action comes quickly, and literally minutes into a new game. You’ll be fighting a drone ship while sending a shipmate to enhance the weapons system, sending another to put out that pesky fire in the engine room, all the while attempting to keep an eye on your dwindling hull integrity - before you’ve even fired a single missile. Once boarding parties and cloaking devices get involved you’ll find yourself in a near-constant fight to the death for your life, your ship, and your crew.

So it’s a shame the crew experience isn’t more…human. Story-wise, The elements of the quintessential human space opera are all here. A ship you control, systems you manage, and most importantly, a crew you can name and customize. In much the same way a significant amount of enjoyment (and engagement) comes from the customization of your squad in “XCOM”, the inability to get a feel for the personalities and skills of your “FTL” crewmates is a massively lost opportunity. When I lose a crew member to fiery death, I don’t mourn his passing, I bemoan the lack of manpower. That’s not how something like this should work - especially with all the “Firefly” comparisons running around the net. Simple things like text-bubbles (“I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain!”) or visually distinct crew-members would go a long way to making the experience more engaging on a human level.

FTL” is a good game with unique mechanics that’s worth checking out if you enjoy Sci-fi, or particularly enjoyed the old “Star Trek: The Next Generation” games on the Sega Genesis. The cycle of fighting, repairing, and venturing forth is an intoxicating one, regardless of missed opportunities and disappointing lack of humanity.

“Faster Than Light” was developed and released for Windows and Mac by Subset Games. video game critic Paul Meekin

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