Faster Than Light review
by Rachel McFadden
A magnificent piece of retro fun
If you’ve ever wanted to shout, “Transfer all power to the engines and get the shield generator repaired ASAP!” this is your chance.
Faster Than Light places you in the shoes of a starship captain. With a minimal crew, a pop-gun laser, and shields made out of Styrofoam, you are cast out into the void and instructed to escape the rebel fleet. Good luck with that! Faster Than Light is a game where you will die more often than not, and where narrow escapes provide most of the fun. If you are allergic to videogame death, don’t enlist.
Early in my first game I ended up with my entire ship on fire thanks to a solar flare event. As the ship filled with the scent of delicious flame-roast Mantis-engineer, I packed my 3 surviving crew members into the med bay and watched as they frantically beat out the fires which kept springing up under their feet. My ship was doomed! Then I recalled a forum post about vacuum putting out fires, so I opened the whole ship aside from the med bay up. The lack of atmosphere soon extinguished the flames. Saved! The door control was the fire’s last casualty. Doomed! I sat there for several minutes waiting for my crew to die from eventual O2 starvation. Via accidental clickage, I realised that crew members could manually open/close doors even when the automated control was broken. I sent one brave crewman out to fix the door control. He managed it, and crawled back into the med bay with his last shred of health. One click, and doors closed ship-wide. Saved! Wait – still no oxygen supply! O2 in the med bay was now less than 15%. Doomed! I swarmed 2 crew members through the ship to the O2 machine. They fixed it just before they would have died. Saved! I spent the next 30 minutes hopping around the galaxy with a hull made up of holes tied together with bits of string, frantically searching for somewhere to repair, before some inconsiderate type stuffed a missile up my tail-pipe. In between those two events I ran out of fuel twice, survived most of the encounters by pumping my shield stat to provide 3 shield bubbles so that nothing could damage the 1 HP I had left, ran out of missiles, had to run away screaming from at least three encounters, got trapped in the rebel fleet once, discovered a derelict space station, freed some slaves, got attacked by killer robots, nearly got smushed by asteroids, got lost in an entire system filled with nebula, got set on fire a second time, got boarded by rock-beings, and rescued a lone survivor from a space wreck.
And that, really, is Faster Than Light in a nutshell.
So how does the game work?
At the start of the game you choose your ship layout. Initially only one is available, however there are numerous other ship types and alternate layouts to unlock as you play. Your ship’s systems are upgradeable. This requires scrap. Upgraded systems also use more power, necessitating energy juggling and reactor upgrades. Some system upgrades are obviously useful – extra shields keep you alive, better engines allow you to dodge attacks and prepare for warp more quickly. Others are of less immediate value. Upgrading your blast doors sound exciting? Thought not. How about when your ship is filled with an enemy boarding party, and the upgraded doors slow them down sufficiently that venting the O2 to suffocate them becomes a feasible option? Some ship upgrades unlock special options during the game’s random events. These options are displayed in blue text, and always give a beneficial result. It’s frequently worth investing a bit of scrap in order to get those options. In addition to upgrading existing systems, the game lets you purchase additional systems. Does your current ship have that fun system you used in another game? No? Then visit every store you find and hope that the merchant has one for sale. With a bit of luck it’s possible to outfit your ship with every possible system in the game, though this would come at the cost of fewer upgrades to your systems.
Scrap is gained by winning battles, and by participating in events. A smart player will explore as many systems as possible before leaving a sector in order to maximise their scrap gain. Even so, there is not nearly enough scrap available to upgrade everything to maximum. Choices must be made, frequently difficult ones. Aside from scrap, there are three other finite resources to manage: missiles, fuel, and drone parts. Fuel is the most critical of those, as without fuel you cannot make a faster than light jump. There are events which permit the game to react to the player becoming stranded, some pleasant and some decidedly less so. All three of these resources are potential rewards after a battle or event, and they can be purchased from stores – if you don’t mind denting your scrap stockpile.
Battles place you in control of your ship’s systems, and you need to manage energy levels and priorities, targeting orders, crew members, and boarding parties. It’s fully pausable so there’s no need for super-reflexes. You can target individual enemy sub-systems and they will target yours. If a system is critically damaged then it will shut down until it’s repaired. A bit of tactical thought will pay dividends. Can’t penetrate the enemy shields to damage their hull? Take out their shield generator. Got a problem with ships escaping? Blow their engines up. Enemy got a nasty array of weapons? Take out their weapons control. Got a bunch of weak weapons? Focus fire. One of your systems gone down? Send crew members over to repair it ASAP!
Crew members gain experience at tasks when they perform them, and levelling them up will provide healthy boosts to your ship’s performance. The different alien races have strengths and weaknesses, so a mixed crew is stronger overall than a racially pure one. Mantis-men are stronger in combat, Rockmen are fireproof and have more health, Slugs are telepathic, and so on.
The game is designed to play out quickly. A successful run will take between 60 and 90 minutes, and with practice and the right systems it could be completed faster. Most games will not take that long. Death is final. Game over means game over, get a new ship, and start again from sector 1. It’s possible to save and quit, but not to save and continue playing. Players who are so inclined can easily save-scum the system by backing up that lone save. Faster Than Light is strongly oriented towards replay value: lots of short, randomly populated games.
In terms of presentation, the game is better than the screenshots might suggest. In motion the graphics have some charming little touches to them, such as the way Rockmen jump up and down on fires to put them out, or the way human crewmen type furiously on the computer systems. The animations are clean, and it’s always easy to tell what’s happening. The music is lively, and very fitting to the game. I particularly love the bouncy, almost Saturday morning cartoon music which played during several of my near-death experiences. It lends an air of surrealism which makes it hard not to laugh at how ridiculous the situation is.
Faster Than Light is let down by two main issues. The first is the end boss. It’s a big difficulty spike, it goes on for far too long, and it’s simply not enjoyable to fight. It also puts a bit of a crimp on your upgrade choices, as once you’ve died to it a few times you will find yourself designing your ship to survive the end battle instead of choosing what would be fun for the other 95% of the game. Secondly, the randomness itself can be a problem, and some players will be less forgiving of this than others. The game won’t always offer you what you need to survive, or if it does you won’t necessarily choose the right paths to find it. While it’s more the exception than the rule to die because you can’t find better weapon systems or drones, it’s possible. Certain ship unlocks require rather sensitive chains of random events, and locating the first in the chain is no guarantee the rest will come your way. A lot of the cooler weapons and systems are also random to discover, and so there will be plenty of games where you won’t be able to use them.
Faster Than Light is an enjoyable, oddly compelling game. It’s the type of title you play obsessively for several days, then return to for an hour every couple of weeks. Sign up for the space corps now!