Faster Than Light

Relevant XKCD

There are some games, especially those with online multiplayer, where being involved at a specific point in time is an important part of the experience. Sometimes it’s engineered that way – most MMOs have seasons or expansions where older content is regularly removed or otherwise deprecated. Others it’s by virtue of the community – while I’ve heard Pokemon Go still has an active playerbase and has made significant technical and gameplay improvements since launch, there’s no way now to recapture the magic of Summer 2016 unless you were there.

In most cases, though, gaming-on-a-lag has more benefits than downsides. Besides the fiscal advantages outlined in the relevant XKCD, there’s also a bit of Darwinism in place. In some ways it’s the “Never Preorder” argument carried to its logical conclusion – a few days after launch you’ll know whether or not a game met pre-release expectations, but in a few years you’ll also know whether or not it has staying power and replayability. And you’ll know if the developer is committed to supporting it long-term.

For the record, I’m not really a strict adherent to the “No Preorders Ever” philosophy. I do prefer transparency about what I’m actually paying for, though. When I bought Minecraft back in 2010, I liked that there was a stable, free (albeit limited) version that I could play to my heart’s content (there still is, actually), and while if I wanted the latest features of InfDev I had to pay, I liked that it was obvious what I was getting was a work-in-progress from an indie dev with no promises as to project milestones. The deal was I paid a reduced price to play the unfinished version, and in return for being an early adopter, I’d have access to the final version when – and if – it ever released. I’m a lot more content to pay ten dollars for something I know is a gamble than sixty bucks for something that’s marketed as a finished product, but isn’t one. Similarly, Faster Than Light pinged my radar back in 2012 for having a Kickstarter with a low buy-in and the option to participate in the beta. Like any Kickstarter, there were no guarantees, but they were honest about what you were getting in return for your money. However, while I love sci-fi and roguelikes, I’ve never been very proficient at real-time strategy games. Watching me play Starcraft is like watching a chimpanzee play the piano. I kept an eye on it, though; it was well-received at launch, and I was impressed with the developers’ level of commitment. They released an expansion (Advanced Edition) two years later at no additional charge, and they were still actively supporting the game with updates and patches as recently as 2018. While from a business practices standpoint I found that to be exemplary, I still wasn’t sure the game was going to be for me.

In the twilight zone of meaningless time between Christmas and New Year’s last year, Faster Than Light went on sale for free. Wrapping up the 2010’s, many people were calling it one of the best games of the decade, and at that price I had nothing to lose. I claimed my copy and eagerly set out across the galaxy.

You’ve entered a poorly charted area of space that’s known to be home to the Mantis.

One of the first things that struck me was the soundtrack. On the surface it’s the same chiptuney faux-retro electronica that was en vogue for 2010’s indie games like Terraria et al, but I find it really satisfyingly complex compositionally. In places it reminds me of Disasterpeace, or if John Carpenter did an arrangement of a John Williams soundtrack. In others I get shades of one of my favorite 16-bit soundtracks, Lord of the Rings (if only the game had been as good as the music). I see why it’s netted millions of plays for Ben Prunty on Spotify.

From a gameplay standpoint, it’s definitely an RTS, but the limited number of units means micromanagement (my weakest point) isn’t as overwhelming as in other titles that cater to a more hardcore RTS audience. And being heavily roguelike actually almost entirely mitigates one of my least favorite elements about RTS games.

In most RTS games, there is an optimal strategy. Good balancing creates maybe a handful of viable options rather than just one, but a great deal of improving at the game is the rote memorization of a strat and then through repetition, learning to execute it as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’m not one to knock anyone else’s good time, but that’s not my bag. What I like about roguelikes is you don’t really know what’s coming, you’re at the mercy of the RNG, and you have to take what you get and use your wits to make the best of it. Lots of people find that frustrating – sometimes it’s unfair, you can do everything right and still lose. Consequently, many titles go out of their way to minimize the effect of RNG on gameplay. I find it rewarding, though – having to constantly adapt and make decisions on-the-fly leads to a lot more interesting gameplay experience for me.

Using a roguelike approach to an RTS means that while there is undoubtedly some theoretical optimal strategy, there’s no guarantee that on any specific run-through you’ll obtain everything you need to implement it. New FTL players frequently take to various forums and ask how to get more currency (“scrap”, in this universe), because the feeling early on is you must be doing something wrong – it feels impossible to buy the best weapons, all the systems, the perfect crew, and still have enough scrap left to fully upgrade all of it. And that’s because, barring an astronomically lucky run, it is. There is no foolproof plan of action. You can’t start with a build already mapped out, you’ve got to make the best of what you get. There’s a few universal truths – get the Scrap Recovery Arm as soon as you can afford it and then sell it as late as you can stand to – but for the most part everything is highly situational. Fortuitously find a heal bomb weapon? Maybe at the next Store beacon it’s worth picking up that teleporter and going with a boarding strategy. But if you don’t have enough crew yet to risk them, maybe it’s better to just sell it – or is it better to keep it in cargo just in case? Ten different players will have ten different thought processes. And in the end, you may never know if you chose right.

On the other hand, “save scumming” (backing up your save file so you can revert to it if things unexpectedly turn sour) is so easy to do it’s like the developers are giving you a wink and a nod. When I was a kid and I’d lose at solitaire, I’d always want to look through the stacks afterward and see where the card I needed was (because I’m old enough that when I was a kid, people played solitaire with cards). I liked trying to determine if that game was unwinnable or if it came down to some choice I’d made. With scumming, if you’re agonizing over a particular decision, there is some way, at least, to see where the road not taken would’ve lead.

The combination of the two means FTL really sits in the sweet spot of old-school, dice-rolling, permadeath RPG gaming and quicksave I’m-gettin’-too-old-for-this-shit dadgaming. Depending on how patient you’re feeling and how much time you have to kill, you can make it as unforgiving as you’d like. If you’d like to be a purist and never scum ever, it’s designed to be played that way, but if you want to cheat yourself a little, it’s easy enough to be tempting, but just cumbersome enough to require a conscious decision – today I am a scummer, may god have mercy on my soul.

On that spectrum, I tend to fall around wanting to make ‘waypoint’ when I’ve had a run of unusually good luck. On a recent (easy, non-Advanced Edition) playthrough with the Zoltan Type A, I serendipitously came upon an Ion Blast II from a Free Weapon event in an early sector. Using the Ion cannon to disable enemy shields and then cutting through them with the Zoltan’s Halberd Beam let me zip through sectors with barely a scratch. It also enabled me go easy on the missiles, so I was able to stockpile a lot of them. From various other events, I picked up Anti-Personnel, Hull Repair, and Boarding drones for free, and managed to keep all my crew alive, which lead to a big team of eight – great for keeping systems manned while performing repairs and fighting off boarding parties. Then, the pièce de résistance, in the penultimate sector I got a free Breach Bomb II.

In that instance I found scumming too seductive. I backed up my save file as an ‘insurance policy’. I’d been playing for about two weeks at this point and I felt certain this’d be the run where I’d finally beat the capital ship – I’d gotten close in the past, but never quite made it. I hopped through the final sector as quickly as possible to avoid having to make repairs, and with strategic cloaking and an endless barrage of breach bombs I ended up not needing my scum file after all.

I held on to it, though, just in case I ever want to revisit my luckiest ship yet. If you’d like to try it out, you can download it here.

Funnily enough, even though I got Faster Than Light on sale for free from Epic Games, after I’d been playing for about a week, I bought another copy from Humble (that’s an affiliate link, if you buy the game through it I get a cut). They’ve got a free web-based demo and the store page indicates purchasing it through them would allow access to the full version in web game form – and with it, the ability to play from any computer with an internet connection, no installation required. There is, indeed, a web version accessible after you purchase the game through Humble, but unfortunately the (asm.js-built, fairly impressive from a technical standpoint) web port is based on a version from 2014 and lacks some of the more recent UI improvements. Hopefully anybody Googling “Faster Than Light web version” stumbles across this and is able to make a more informed purchase. But I ended up not trying to get a refund because it also gave me access to the current version on Steam (it’s just a personal preference thing, but I much prefer Steam to the Epic launcher), and in the end I’m pleased I went ahead and forked over the ten bucks to support the developer. I think in gametime-per-dollar it’s going to come out to one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

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