Friday, December 14, 2012

Review of FTL

I haven't gotten to finish my full treatment of combat systems in gamebooks yet, considering a lot of the experimentation done this year in Windhammer. So instead I'll post a review I wrote up recently.

As a gamebook author, I bridge a gap between writing and game design, often filling roles of both. To that end, my reviews will often be gamebooks, but at other times will be of straight novels or of pure games.

This review is for the indie game FTL. Please enjoy :)

FTL is a great little game. It was strongly recommended to me by a friend a little while back, but I don't play many video games, so I back-shelved the suggestion at the time. Well, this weekend, when I finally budgeted a little time to zone out with a game, I saw the 40% off sale on Steam and remembered the suggestion, so I went ahead and downloaded it to give it a try.

The game is simple, yet elegant. If you aren't familiar with it, the premise is that you are the captain of a Federation starship, carrying data vital to putting down the Rebellion. You must traverse known space in your little vessel, carrying this information to the Federation High Command without getting shot, blown up, burnt to death, or asphyxiated along the way. Yes, all of those are possible ways you can die. Meanwhile, the rebel fleet is chasing you, so you've got to stay one step ahead of them.

The place the game shines is in the direct management of your ship. You control each of your crew members individually, directing them to this or that task on the ship, or to repair damages. You control each of the weapons and sub-systems, including where you direct the reactor's power to keep different systems powered up and active. Damage to the ship can damage systems (you then direct your little guys to repair the damage) or start fires (hurts the little guys.) But you can open the doors to vent the oxygen from the rooms into space, putting out fires (assuming your automatic door-opening system hasn't been damaged.) Of course, then your little guys can't use that room until the oxygen replenishes, which, of course, requires your Oxygen system to be powered up and undamaged.

The user interface is fantastic. You're managing a lot of systems, but after 5 minutes of practice it feels as natural as breathing. The tactics are interesting, with good choices in combat (what weapon loadout you bring, which systems of your own you direct power to, which systems of theirs you try to target, or if you want to just go for the hull and try to destroy them). It's because the interface is so easy that the combat is so fun.

On the other hand, the place where it does not succeed as well is in the broader picture. The minigame of ship combat is excellent, but the rest of the game is little except a platform to take you from one fight to the next. You explore as you go, but most encounters are either a fight, or not a fight, with only slight differences in flavor text, challenge, and loot. It gets predictable pretty quickly.

There are a few things to heat it up. The pressure of the Rebel Fleet behind you adds a nice bit of tension to keep you on your toes. And there are a few quests. But there's no real story, not even in the quests.

The game could have been much more powerful if they'd brought a writer on board, not just to write flavor text and simple, one-step quests, but... well, honestly, to do the kind of writing you see in gamebooks. I would like to see another version of this game done in an open ended world, with a metaplot, but freedom to explore as you will. The ability to bring cargo aboard your ship and make money trading would be a very nice touch. But mostly, I'd like to see more story. Both in the main plot, and in the side plots. I'd like to see chained quests coming together to form whole plotlines.

FTL, sadly, delivers none of that. Don't look for much by way of story; you'll be disappointed. Otherwise, it's one of the most fun space combat simulations I've ever come across.


  1. Interestingly, they did hire a writer, whose blog I follow. I haven't played FTL or anything else he's written, but he takes his craft seriously. And of course, he could only write what they asked him to.

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