What’s FTL short for? Because it’s so difficult and its longevity is predicated on repeat playthroughs.
That’s a joke by me, about one of my favourite games about flying through space.
FTL may as well be short for fun times lovely, but instead it of course means faster than light, the speed at which your ship leapfrogs from beacon to beacon in an attempt to outrun the steadily advancing front of the rebel fleet. It’s wonderful and difficult and death comes swiftly and unexpectedly and unfairly, with restarts plopping you right back at the game’s beginning, with nothing but experience to show for your previous efforts.
FTL is a indie roguelike in which you randomly encounter enemy ships and amass upgrades on your journey from left to right across sectors and nebulae. Your systems all require power to be manually routed to them, from your shields and weapons down to your sensors and door operation, each can be powered up or down on the fly depending on circumstances. Redirect power from the medbay to your weapons mid-fight to increase their recharge speed, or turn off your life support momentarily to give your engines the fuel-injection they need to increase your ship’s dodging capability. Everything’s upgraded with scrap, which you earn from skirmishes with other ships or by selling in deep space marketplaces.
Individual crew members can be moved from room to room, becoming more skilled in operating their post as the mission continues. Fires can break out and airlocks can be opened to suck oxygen from rooms and starve the flames. This kills crewmembers who have lungs and can’t reach an oxygenated part of the ship in time. Usually they can, decompression is slow and legs are fast.
You might know most of this, as FTL came out years ago, back when we were all idiots. But recently the game quietly and modestly upgraded itself to FTL: Advanced Edition, a stack of free content for owners of the original. It adds things. One of those things is an even higher difficulty setting for players who somehow didn’t find the medium, or even easy difficulty settings challenging enough. To date I’ve won just one game of FTL, so the higher difficulty setting isn’t my most anticipated new feature.
No, more interesting to most returning FTL players will be some of the new ship systems that have been added. Mind control is one of the more striking additions, a system that plonks itself into an empty room your ship and requires a unit of power to operate (at its base level, upgrades come with higher power demands). This system allows you to temporarily turn an enemy crew member into an ally, at which point he’ll do helpful things for you. Immediately, he’ll begin to attack and damage the enemy ship’s systems. It’s useful to mind control shield operators, as they’ll sabotage the ship’s defences and allow you to get laser shots to their hull without wasting a shield-piercing missile or the like.
Once mind controlled, a turned enemy crewmember will attract the attention of his furious crewmates, who’ll begin fighting the imposter. They’ll kill a hypnotised crewmember, as FTL’s universe is presumably one in which handcuffs don’t exist, so mind control is also a handy way of depleting the crew numbers aboard an enemy ship. This is also helpful if you’ve adopted the underused tactic of clearing out a crew to salvage a ship in its entirety, rather than plucking through its remains for missiles and scrap.
Conversely, some enemy ships now have the ability to mind control your crew, though by applying your own mind control system to a hypnotised ally, you can turn them back. Slugs (the sentient spacefaring race rather than the common or garden pest) can’t be hypnotised because their telepathic abilities render them mentally shielded, obviously.
What else? Well the two of the three core subsystems can now be manned to give them an artificial upgrade. The sensor room can be manned to bump it up a level, which is really useful as this means you’ll always be able to scan the insides of enemy ships and find targets to mind control. The door controls can be manned to increase their resilience against intruders, allowing a cruel anti-boarder tactic of depressuring the room into which the enemy teleported and watching as they claw helplessly at the locked door.
In Advanced Edition medbays can be upgraded into cloning rooms, which respawn lost crewmembers at the expense of some of their skills. In making this upgrade you lose the ability to heal your staff, instead all members of crew are partially healed with each FTL jump, a compromise my brain refuses to accept and so a system I haven’t fully experimented with.
There’s a new race, the Lanius, who have magical opposite lungs that suck all of the oxygen out of the atmosphere. This makes their ships difficult to board as they’re suffocating, but it also makes them difficult to employ as crewmembers as it renders one room on your ship inaccessible to the Lanius’s air-breathing colleagues. In the FTL universe you cannot pop a plastic bag over a crewmember’s face. It’s disrespectful, or something.
Also introduced are hacking drones, which latch on to an enemy ship’s systems and disable them, locking all doors into the affected room in the process. Some other things made their way into the Advanced Edition too, some new weapons and augmentations, a much tidier user interface that clearly shows which resources you’re losing and earning, some new ship layouts unlockable with ship-specific achievements.
As a roguelike FTL: Advanced Edition is still structured to trip you up. You’re only ever a dice roll away from encountering an enemy who’s simply too powerful to defeat, whose shields replenish too quickly or whose armaments pound your hull to oblivion before you can begin to react. The most skilled player can play a game of FTL in the most optimal way and still find defeat on the journey’s doorstep, but it’s that element of luck, that punishing roulette wheel that gives FTL its harsh-edged appeal.
You can absolutely bolster yourself against the tides of fate, strip mine sectors by visiting as many beacons as you can and upgrading your ship as much as possible before moving on, but the uninvited element of chance can cut you down and scatter your efforts. I think I like that a lot. FTL is poker in space, a game in which so much control is taken out of your hands that the tiny amount of wiggle room your skill gives you becomes terribly important. Failure can be traced back to bad decisions and risk can result in huge rewards.
Is it too difficult? Yes, it probably is. The final flagship boss is an utter pain in both vanilla and Advanced Edition FTL, requiring that you’ve managed your ship upgrades in a specific way to even begin to have a chance at victory. That feels counter to the broadly customisable nature of the game, but such harshness does inevitably result in mind-smearing elation should you actually manage to snatch victory.
Now’s a good time to revisit FTL. New players can switch off the Advanced Edition features if they’d like to take a swing with the basic feature set first. There’s also this, the Captain’s Edition mod, which introduces a slew of changes and enhancements: new races, new weapons, a huge number of new encounters, story-powered sectors, the ability to accept surrender but then brutally slaughter the capitulated sucker, the ability to surrender yourself. It’s a sheer pile of stuff for veterans looking for something new, and something I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of.
Go play FTL in whatever form you see fit. No matter which version you choose, I think you’ll find it’s fun times lovely.