Shields, weapons, life support, and more. There are many things to keep an eye on during a space battle in FTL: Faster Than Light.

Shields, weapons, life support, and more. There are many things to keep an eye on during a space battle in FTL: Faster Than Light.

First-time indie game developers Subset Games have a lot of guts. You have to be pretty brave to make a game in which many players will be brutally killed off in their very first fight.

FTL: Faster Than Light is a proud participant in the difficult game renaissance, characterised by games such as Dark Souls, Spelunky, and Super Meat Boy, among others. This is not just a game in which it's hard to do well - many players, even seasoned video game journalists, die in their first fight. Some have given up and walked away from it in frustration.

You control a starship that has to venture across a series of hazardous star systems on a vital mission to save the galaxy from a destructive rebellion. Your ship is represented on-screen as a top-down map, a series of rooms connected by sliding doors, with different ship systems housed in different rooms. You have a handful of crew members, who you can order into different rooms to work on different systems, such as engines or weapon targeting.

Game over. You will be seeing this often when you play FTL.

Game over. You will be seeing this often when you play FTL.

When you get in a fight (and you will get in many) your enemy pops up on-screen as another top-down view. If your ship has decent sensors, you will be able to see where the enemy craft's vital systems are housed so you can target them, and with powerful enough sensors you will even be able to see the locations of the enemy crew.

Fights generally come down to smart targeting of the enemy ship's systems, and carefully managing your own resources. Power is the most important, as your ship's power plant has limited output and it must be assigned to shields, life support, engines, and so on. Let's say you find a powerful new weapon on a destroyed pirate craft - do you install it and run on reduced shields and life support, or just sell it at the next spaceport?

Both your own systems and your enemies' can be individually damaged, and this can be vital to doing well in battles. If a small recon craft is trying to escape and alert the rebel fleet to your presence, you should target its engines, but others are less clear cut. If a powerful craft is pummelling you, should you try to take down its shields first, or go straight for its weapon controls to give you time to make hurried repairs?

There are many ways to die. A hull breach will make your ship break apart, but you can also lose your crew to hostile boarding parties, suffocate when your life support system is destroyed by enemy weapons fire, or explode when your engine takes too much damage.

This is a brutal and unforgiving game that demands alertness and quick thinking. Battles are real time, and a single mistake can leave your ship a cloud of drifting space junk. In one battle, a weird electrical storm inside a nebula halved my power output. After I won, I jumped to the next star system along, not realising that my medical bay was still powered down. When we were boarded by raiders in the next battle, I sent my crew to be healed, and realised too late that I had not turned the medical bay back on after the power was restored. Game over.

Every game is completely random. Your ship is constantly being pursued across space, so you have to jump from star to star, until you reach a jump point. This allows you to jump to the next star cluster and start the process again. After eight or so star clusters, you reach your destination and the even more difficult end-game begins.

Apart from straight-up star battles, you can also encounter a wide range of other random events. You may encounter damaged starbases that need to be evacuated, or find two ships locked in combat and have the choice of helping one or the other. Amid the pirate attacks, rioting mining colonies, and drifting craft damaged by asteroids, you can find loot, gain new crew members, or suffer negative effects like damaging your ship or losing crew.

While you can save your game when you quit, there is no other saving or loading in the game. Dying is permanent, with no option but to start again with a new ship. Permanent death coupled with the game's random nature means that FTL can be brutally unfair.  As I wrote above, it's not unusual for a first-time player to start a new game, encounter their first fight, and immediately die. While the star systems tend to get gradually harder as you get further into the game, there is no easy tutorial area. It starts hard, and it only gets harder.

There is one concession given to players who don't want to be treated too ruthlessly: the game has an easy mode. While "easy" is a relative term, this is a much less harsh version of the game, and it can give you a great opportunity to learn the game's systems and develop some strategy before braving the normal difficulty mode.

I am torn as to whether I should recommend FTL. It has a lot going for it, but many players will find it just too difficult to be fun. It's frustrating to spend an hour or two building up an excellent ship and a highly skilled crew, only to see the whole thing wiped out in seconds because of some bad luck. On the other hand, many gamers thrive on this kind of challenge.

Either way, it's a cheap indie game that you can get for Windows PC, Mac, or Linux for just ten bucks on Steam or GOG.com, so it's hardly a big investment. It also has charmingly retro visuals, reminiscent of the early days of PC gaming and titles like Star Control, as well as an excellent electronic soundtrack.

I have rage-quit FTL on multiple occasions (such as after the incident with the turned-off medical bay I described earlier) but I keep coming back to it. Maybe it's the urge that keeps people buying lottery tickets year after year.

"Maybe I'll get lucky this time..."

 - James "DexX" Dominguez

twitter DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez