FTL: Faster Than Light first crashed into our hearts in 2012 through Kickstarter, making some waves in the indie scene that are still being felt today. April brought with it a massive free expansion from the lovely folks at Subset Games, and I haven't been able to put it down ever since.
Buzzword or brilliant game design? Given the recent influx of titles with "roguelike elements" and/or "procedural generation", it's hard not to heave a heavy sigh when coming across a game that promises more of the same. That being said, FTL: Advanced Edition fully capitalizes on the potential of randomly-generated campaigns to an extent very rarely seen.
Live and Die by the RNG
Some titles certainly use procedural generation as an opportunity to skirt intelligent level design. FTL cannot be counted among them. Stock runs of FTL have served up high tension, smooth yet challenging difficulty curves, and a depth of gameplay that only the most fully developed of roguelites can offer.
Beyond anything else, the random elements of FTL enable unparalleled variety. More than most roguelites and roguelikes, FTL's RNG tends to completely govern playthroughs. Your victory, though a strategic and skill-fueled accomplishment, will certainly have been bolstered by fortunate encounters and item drops, or significantly hampered by low supplies and tough enemies.
FTL takes up the mantle of such venerable titles as the pioneering Call of Duty 4 and the impossibly popular League of Legends in expanding its campaign through a system of unlockables.
The Power of Achievements
In some genres, attempts to build meta-level progression gates off content unnecessarily. FTL: Advanced Edition on the other hand uses its achievement-based unlocks as a way to make its tantalizing difficulty curve even more powerful. Players are started off with only a single well-balanced ship to work with, each run provides opportunities to become fully immersed in global mechanics before jumping into more polarized starts.
Couple that with some ingenious ship-unlocking quests built into the dynamic events in the narrative and the possibilities really shine. That, and it all makes launching your next run all the easier.
Yet another hip indie buzzword of the moment, FTL: Advanced Edition's inclusion of permadeath might seem incidental at first glance. Dig a bit deeper, however, and it is easily apparent just how central the mechanic is to the game at large.
Just One More Run...
FTL's tone, in particular, heavily depends on its use of permadeath. Most of the decisions players make feel heavy, suffused with finality, and encounters suddenly mean a great deal. Tension mounts even coming up against what seems to be a flimsy scout ship; if that giant rocket launcher that it's leveling at your craft goes off, it could mean the end of your crew and your run.
Unless you get your hands on a cloning bay, if your crew members die they are gone for good, their names, deeds, and experience all lost forever. The dozens of lives taken throughout the campaign are gone for good. And, should you manage to win, your victory, complete with ship layout and crew roster, is immortalized in leaderboards. FTL just wouldn't be the same without such high stakes across every run.
FTL's impressive progression and teaching mechanisms blend with its game mechanics into an awesome gaming smoothie. Hybrid control systems aren't seen all too frequently due to the heavy design time needed to develop a smooth and fluid scheme, but FTL absolutely nails it. Somewhere between a traditional roguelike and a RTS, the pause-whenever-you-feel-like-it system gives players full strategic control without feeling too arcane and overwhelming.
Take a Breather
The variable pacing enhances the tension built up by other components of the title. Up against a small craft, letting time flow with guns on autopilot feels like a breeze. Staring down the horrifying Rebel Flagship, on the other hand, might take more time than the previous three sectors combined; each second counts and one mismanaged laser shot could mean that your run ends in a flaming wreck.
FTL doesn't have fancy graphics. Its indie pedigree dictates that it will likely show off 2D sprites or Unity 3D, and Subset wisely chose the former. As with everything else in the game, however, the choice to stick with unobtrusive visual design is remarkably intelligent.
Simplicity is Everything
Quiet visuals mean that the brilliant sound design and superb mechanics shine even more in their absence. On top of that, visual concision means that FTL has some of the best conveyance of any roguelite - there's no guesswork and no graphical mysteries. Things more or less make sense from the first time they show up, and the elegance of elements like weapon charge meters become more and more powerful with every playthrough.
#4 Sound Design
There's no other way to put it - Ben Prunty absolutely killed it on the FTL: Advanced Edition soundtrack. Building on his work from the vanilla edition, Prunty has managed to build one of the most memorable gaming soundtracks I've ever had the pleasure of listening to.
The Beauty and Terror of Space
Music fuels every second of play, from the glimmering possibilities of the start menu to intense crushed beats during nebula fights. I wouldn't dream of playing alongside anything else - the tracks mean that much to the overall FTL experience.
Beyond simply being an excellent soundtrack, the music provides a great deal of power to events It dynamically and seamlessly shifts from relaxed exploration to intense battle in the blink of a faster-than-light jump. Pounding electronic sounds push a tricky battle over the edge to a life-or-death test which conveys more than a loss screen.
Sci-Fi and games go hand-in-hand, and they have from some of the very earliest games. FTL: Advanced Edition follows a long history of space-based simulators and space combat titles, and in doing so, manages to weave the notion of space travel into its every inch.
Going to Space Finally Makes Sense
More than an excuse to use aliens or a way to open up creative visual techniques, FTL takes a host of sci-fi tropes and space travel concepts to its core. Fires on deck face oxygen starvation from airlocks opening, mind control is a frequent threat, fuel shortages mark devastating consequences, and jumps into asteroid fields or too near stars might mean death.
Your crew in FTL starts off in one of the game's many unlockable ships. Each of these offer several alternate layouts and starting inventories and radically unique methods of play. The hyper-aggressive Mantis sacrifices utility and weapon power in favor of starting off with an otherwise late-game system, the teleporter. Engi craft bristle with drones but lack fighting power. Each start means a completely different playstyle and a dramatically different run.
Sci-Fi Perfection and Gameplay Masterpiece
Choosing a ship only means so much in the long run - FTL's roguelike ancestry shines out the most with its upgrade mechanics. If having to manage fuel, missiles, and drone parts wasn't enough, scrap metal serves as repair fodder and currency. This ensures that each piece spent either means leaving yourself with a damaged hull or a dearth of fighting capabilities.
Even beyond the mind-boggling possibilities of wide customization, building out a ship over the course of the run requires some foresight. A craft that tears through scouts and fighters might not stand 30 seconds against the almighty Flagship, while a ship carefully crafted to defeat that leviathan might fold to a simple auto-hacking drone. If anything, FTL at least deserves acclaim for its mechanical depth.
Classic sci-fi plots and character design extend beyond stale replicas, pushing FTL into its own unique world. By pitting players against a violent rebellion, in the shoes of a galactic federation, it feels like a bit of a reversal of Star Wars This allows for some seriously interesting events and modular narratives.
Here, FTL's subtlest but strongest qualities shine. Riffing on the mechanical variety of roguelikes, developing dynamically built narratives for each run provides a sense of depth and life that just doesn't happen all that often. Each run tells its own epic space opera.
The title's brief text interchanges, though innocuous enough, give more power to every playthrough than most battles. All in a few lines of narration, players are given choice options which impact gameplay and story progression, influence metal-level unlocks and build out the FTL universe all while reflecting player decisions made earlier in a run. Hearing out a bizarre Zoltan emissary and acting on his advice seven jumps later earns you a powerful ally. Some side quests pile on consumables while unlocking new ships, all in an in-universe context. This is smart writing, and it is beautiful.