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Review of Faster Than Light - The PC Game

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It is often that when a gamer takes up a game, the goal and intention is to explore the content, go along for the ride, with some testing of their skills. In Faster Than Light, for once that is not so much the case. It is a game of survival, where every instance of a game tests and challenges the player not just to do well, but to survive with cunning strategy and hard earned resources. Faster Than Light doesn’t hold mechanics like a regular survival game would, requiring the player to manage the heat, the cold, the need for food and sleep of whatever character they are controlling. Instead Faster Than Light pits the player against a series of obstacles across the galaxies on a mission to save the Intergalactic Federation from the tyrannical force of the Rebels that is sweeping across every sector, while all at the helm of the player’s own space cruiser.

Though the rebels are the primary antagonist, the sectors are rife with hostile encounters of space fighters from the multiple intergalactic species, and pirates that are a hodgepodge of races under one common goal: to pillage and profit. Every corner the player turns, there is a new adversary to overcome, or else face bleak demise in the emptiness of space, by way of their space cruiser exploding in an erupting inferno strewn with chunks of shrapnel.

Decisions and Difficulty

  • Not one in the same.

Faster Than Light is a game of careful strategy at the helm of the player’s own space cruiser. As a part of the game’s unlockable content, there is a slew of space cruisers to choose from in the Federation hangar that have their own specialties and equipment, hailing from an assortment of design teams that are either a conglomeration of a work effort between multiple races or derive directly from one race’s technological design. To begin with, the player only has one space cruiser to choose from, the Kestrel Cruiser. It looks relatively plain and uninspiring, but it is the space cruiser that is used as the forefront representation of this indie game.

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The space cruiser that the player chooses is the one they stay with for as long as their game instance survives. Unlike many games, Faster Than Light does not have a concrete start to finish point, like a campaign where the player follows the story from the beginning to the end, where it may be possible to play the whole game all over again, the continuous stream is broken when the player starts from the beginning once again, with a likely risen difficulty if there is some form of replayability given to the game and its story. In Faster Than Light every journey the player undergoes to save the Federation is considered a game instance, as beginning a game involves generating randomized and dynamically ordered content where variegated sectors interconnect across the intergalactic map and beacons - the nodes that the player’s space cruiser can faster than light jump to - from unique networks. Though at the end the boss will always be the same, with set armaments and special attacks, the rest of the journey will not be.

The player has little control over what they will encounter through the course of the gameplay, except in some core places. The first one would be choosing the difficulty, which dramatically alters the challenge and harshness of the gameplay itself by altering enemy strengths and weaknesses, as well as scrap rewards. The second one would be two fold, which is merely choosing the path and direction to travel in.

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There are two types of maps in Faster Than Light, the first one is the beacon map that shows where the player has to choose from in their sector to travel to and the second one is the sector map that shows the interconnecting array of sectors until all paths converge upon the Last Stand, the final sector. The goal is to reach the Last Stand, in order to save the Federation and defeat the rebel forces in a battle that will turn the tides of the war, and no matter which of the many forking paths the player chooses to take, they will all end up at the Last Stand. This is presuming of course that the player manages to survive the game instance, and even should they, if their space cruiser is not suitably equipped and their strategies are put to ill execution, then they will fall in the end under the might of the Rebel Flagship, the most formidable and tenacious enemy there is in the scope of the game. Choosing where to go, from every beacon and to every sector, changes drastically the outcome of every turn, and how well the space cruiser will be outfitted, and even survive.

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The space cruiser the player is stuck with is theirs to upgrade, repair, and augment as they desire. In order to make modifications to the player’s space cruiser, the major resource of scrap is required, as scrap acts as the game’s currency. The use of scrap is rather universal, as players can apply it to systems on board their vessel in order to increase their upgrade level, with each subsequent level needing incrementally higher quantities of scrap, and shop merchants the player visits at beacons (commonly called shop beacons by the FTL game guide) have goods for sale just for scrap.

To be able to add systems onto the player’s space cruiser, they will need to buy them from shop beacons, as well as any equipment they would otherwise like to acquire, with the exception of being rewarded equipment from defeating enemies or from random events. Shop beacons will not always carry systems for sale though, as what their stock is will also be randomized. With the Advanced Edition update for Faster Than Light, there is now two pages per shop beacon as opposed to the previous just one page, giving players a wider selection to choose from for every shop they visit. However shop beacons will only carry a limited quantity of items for sale per category, and so there will never be a full selection of every item in the game, even should every single tab on each of the shop’s two pages be offering to sell weapons for example.

Faster Than Light’s gameplay acts like a turn based strategy fighter, but it is only that way based on the delays on all space cruisers’ weaponry so that there are set intervals of weapons fire depending on what they have armed. The player then only has their own crew members to control, and any other systems, such as the hacking station that will deploy a drone through space to latch onto one of the enemy space cruiser’s systems and turn it against them. Most things are just mechanisms to deploy, and sometimes to aim at precise locations. In the end, it all involves tactics and strategies, but a carefully planned pace that can be paused without consequence or limitation. What the player’s space cruiser has when the fight first starts out, is what they will be stuck with for the duration of the fight, unless the player chooses to run away by jumping out with their faster than light drive. The player can only upgrade their space cruiser when their vessel is not in some kind of danger, either from another space cruiser attacking or from some environmental hazard like flying asteroids. They also cannot repair it on the fly either, as the space cruiser has a limited quantity of health represented by the green HULL bar.

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Instead to be able to repair the space cruiser, this service must be done only at a shop beacon too, and for the hefty price of a few scrap per point. So the more damage the player’s space cruiser takes from a battle, the more scrap they are going to have to expend in order to bring it either back to full or to relatively safe levels where it is not likely in the matter of a couple battles their space cruiser will be ripped to shreds and explode, causing the game instance to end. And by spending increasing amounts of scrap on just repairs, the player will have increasingly smaller amounts of scrap to be able to spend on upgrades, equipment, and systems, making their ship progressively weaker as they proceed further across the intergalactic map. And with a space cruiser that is too poorly outfitted, the odds are increasingly likely the player will not even survive until the Last Stand, and so it is necessary in order to play skillfully to be able to survive, let alone perform well.

  • There is an absence of control over the narrative and ‘world’ that the game generates, but Faster Than Light would be a drastically different game if the player had that kind of control over what was spread out for them to explore.

There is more reason than just challenging yourself to increase the difficulty in Faster Than Light, as there is a scoreboard system in place that tallies up points for every game instance, which is then recorded into your general save file that will always be available for record. As you may have guessed, the higher the difficulty is set, the higher the score is going to be, but the more likely a player’s game instance is going to end shorter and result in a smaller score because they did not make it that far. The game does only have three difficulties of easy to hard, with no customization offered over the game instance itself beyond that when configuring the game from the hangar, so you really can hardly consider it any kind of configuration at all beyond that of choosing the difficulty and a space cruiser from those that have been unlocked.

This is in particular comparison to another randomly generating game like Don’t Starve or Minecraft, with Minecraft being the extreme. Both involve aspects of survival, but on two drastically different spectrums that Faster Than Light does not touch on. At the same time, both of those games are also indie games, or at least Minecraft originated as one. Don’t Starve actually allows for arguably the most degree of the gameplay’s customization, as the player is able to choose what kind of enemies will spawn, in what frequency from none to very often, and what kind of resources will be available, all the way to the length of seasons and the span of day to night. Minecraft is similar, but most of the choice prior to playing the actual game is placed on the world’s seed number, which that number is the basis of what the game uses to create the randomly generated world. Certain seeds across certain versions will create identical worlds, but since there are millions of possibilities, this results in random generation just about; furthermore periodically when versions change with certain types of updates, the same seed number will no longer create the same kind of world.

  • Faster Than Light is difficult, but at a certain point, enemies and events are so randomly encountered the player has no control over them, and can seem to end up with a negative, even game ending outcome by way of what seems like rotten luck.

A large part of Faster Than Light’s difficulty is from the string of hazards that come your way, that growing in increasing vigor with crews that increase in number and armaments that become more high powered and ferocious, all while managing a limited budget of scrap between every device the player has at their disposal to be able to maintain their space cruiser. Fail to sufficiently upgrade your space cruiser, and the enemies that you encounter will outpace the defenses and offenses of your space cruiser, crushing your ship because you cannot even pierce their shields.

It can be harsh at times, but Faster Than Light would be severely lacking in entertainment if it lacked a high difficulty rating, as without that the strategy game would be rather lackluster with a tendency to just flat out bore the player. There’s no twitch movements to dodge laser fire, or stunning visuals to stand out amongst the herd of video games. There’s just a turn based strategy game where the player has an overview of their space cruiser’s layout, and then the other half of the screen is taken up by the player’s view of the enemy space cruiser. You can actually see inside their space cruiser too, and what their crew members are up to as precisely as you can see your own, but only when there isn’t a nebula about as those block sensors to a degree.

The game can also be cruel, spinning out a form of difficulty that is more accurate to be called bad luck than a mechanic that just makes things more challenging for the player. It is when a game roams into that territory that the player can feel unjustly wronged, or irritated to the point that they give up, even if they had a considerable amount of time invested into the game already. You see much of the randomly generated content in Faster Than Light is not just hostile ship encounters, but that of events where various outcomes can come about. Many of these have choices, that either have a set outcome depending on what is chosen, or have a chance of succeeding. When there is just a chance of succeeding, such as exploring an asteroid field, there is almost always a greater chance of failure which will penalize the player. Some of the time that is just some risk for reward, but more often than not, the player is not given anything of value and instead is penalized by losing HULL health or randomly having a crew member killed off. The outcome is so frequently negative that what possible reward there could be simply does not justify the risk.

Crew members are a rather precious commodity, and are all but necessary to be able to play the game, as they are able to repair damages to the ship and man systems to increase their effectiveness, like a crew member manning the engines will increase the space cruiser’s dodge rate depending on how skilled they are at it. Losing a crew member will sacrifice all that experience they earned, and will leave a vacuum in their place that will have to be replaced by a recruit that will cost forty to sixty five scrap. That is not a small sum for the typical reward that comes from taking a chance on those random events, which also necessitates that the player finds a shop beacon in order to recruit a crew member at all anyway.

Such a scenario is actually under some measure of control by the player, as they can choose to just not venture into the asteroid field, averting any potential harm. However that is part of the problem, as it is negative in itself if the player is unable to receive any scrap from beacon to beacon, as even though their space cruiser is technically surviving and not taking any hits to their crew members or the HULL, it also is not improving and that is detrimental for further gameplay viability. So players tend to take the risk anyway, in hopes that they might actually get something, get the negative outcome, and then the same exact thing at the next beacon, and then get the same exact negative outcome again too. It forms into chains, and despite having a decent game instance for a couple sectors, it is all but completely ruined by such a string of rotten luck.

That is partly the nature of randomly generated content, that anything can happen within the reign of possibilities, but in this case since it is usually going to be negative, it has a habit of rolling out bad numbers. It could be worse though, it could be a lot worse, like it is in Spelunky the game where one twitch of a mistake ends a whole game of excellent gameplay, making it absolutely unforgiving to the player.

The Rebel Invasion

A strongly contributing factor to the path the player takes across the beacon map is the rebel invasion. They are a more immediate threat than just the continued existence of the Federation as a whole. The rebel faction are aware of the important data the captain (the player) of the Kestrel Cruiser recovered, and are right on your heels. After a few beacons have been visited, depending if any of those were nebula or not, the rebel faction will start to encroach on the beacon map, taking control over anywhere their perimeter overtakes. Whatever the rebels gain control over will automatically be converted into a territory that is crawling with the rebel fleet, so any quests and shops will be lost to their invasion.

This does seem like an incredibly aggressive method of finding your space cruiser with its vital information that exposes a weakness about them, and perhaps an exaggerated one by the sheer speed in which they sweep across the map. They invade the map so quickly that they are a persistent concern by the player, as getting caught by them yields no scrap at all and more than likely incurs heavy losses to the HULL’s health. The general goal every time the player visits a sector, is to explore as many beacons as possible, in order to get as much scrap as possible, while not getting your space cruiser blasted apart. Each consecutive sector grows increasingly more difficult, awarding more scrap but having stronger enemies, and so by getting as much as possible early on and then throughout the game instance, the space cruiser is better built to withstand such obstacles.

Although the sheer velocity of the rebel invasion does seem unrealistic, this is a game about traveling faster than light after all, which has yet to be proven to be possible in you know - real life. The unending encroachment of the rebels’ invasion of the sectors is a necessary mechanic to prevent turtling, and to maintain balance of difficulty. To not be surprised when the rebels take a beacon, the map will always show how far the rebels’ invasion will reach in the next turn, and if the jump that is taken by the player’s space cruiser will fall into that red territory.

Graphics Style

Being an indie game, Faster Than Light doesn’t have the graphics engine to push out a physics enabled environment in three dimensional rendering with realistic lighting and multiple tiers of antialiasing on a plethora of models, both terrain and humanoid. In fact it scarcely has animations at all, but what ones it does have plays a strong role in the space battles. Though the graphics simply just do not compare to triple A titles, that still does not diminish the quality nor integrity of the game itself.

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Faster Than Light has two dimensional graphics in a pixel based style, as can be seen in the image above. The art is simplistic and minimal, but sufficient to illustrate the environment. Since models aren’t glaringly rough edged like retro games are with their low polygon count, or their eight bits, it doesn’t feel or seem like you are playing a game made a decade ago, repeatedly jarring you from immersion. While models are small, their details are not sparse for their size.

What the game shows you is what the gameplay focuses on, which is battles in space with the futuristic technology of lasers and drones, and alien species fighting each other on their ships with teleportation. There are no cutscenes, you never once see a model of a unique character in the story, let alone one of the player himself or herself despite being named as the captain. Frankly Faster Than Light just isn’t a game tailored to be personalized, and so if you are looking to connect with the hero of the story like you would in Mass Effect or even Saints Row, Faster Than Light does not offer that.

That isn’t to say there isn’t story though, but it is rather confined to a few central things, those being the mission of the game to save the Federation, mentioned in the text interactions in events aside from the beginning and end parts of game instances, events revolving around unlocking space cruisers, and interactions on the Federation’s behalf with other species, whether full of strife or diplomatic.

Strategy

  • More about what you choose, less about what you do with it. Can’t find that weapon you want, you’re just out of luck if you don’t cut your losses soon enough. The world is a place of scarcity.

Faster Than Light’s grounding is in its strategy, there’s little of a random number generator between blasts of lasers and soaring missiles that crash into space cruisers. That is to say that most of the weapon damage values are static, and will always hit for the same amount, so any strategy involving manipulation over those numbers is not present. Players do still have influence over how much damage their space cruiser intakes, if indeed any at all, by way of two factors, but still there is no damage variance of a single laser blast on the same weapon throughout hundreds of game instances across multiple copies of the game. If the burst laser says it inflicts two damage per blast, that is what it will always be. There is not even another system that will augment how much damage it inflicts. If anything, there is only mechanics that will reduce that damage, but will not have a direct interaction.

Those mechanics are the same thing that the player can use to mitigate damage, which is the shield systems and the engines. The engines are what enable the space cruiser to evade anything, and while the player has no direct control over it, like manually dodging, it will evade with the displayed percentage. The shields will form a multiple layer barrier around the space cruiser, going anywhere from one bubble to four. Each barrier is capable of withstanding one blast, regardless how hard hitting it is.

There are other ways to influence how much, or how little, a player’s space cruiser takes, but that all involves equipment of some kind. This could either be upgrading the shields to level six, so that the space cruiser has three barriers worth of defense, or it could be purchasing a cloaking system to be able to slip into invisibility and prevent enemy armaments from locking onto the ship. It could even be drone schematics that periodically release a super shield around the space cruiser, or a drone with its own propulsion engine orbiting the space cruiser, shooting down any missiles that soar at the ship.

Like I said, it is more about what the player or the ship has equipped, than what is done with it. There is little variance in what a piece of equipment or a system can do, it is just a series of interactions that cascade from what parts are in play. A defense drone, whose purpose to shoot down incoming missiles, cannot be ordered to shoot down either lasers or missiles, it will only shoot down missiles. A boarding drone, a schematic that deploys an android into the opposing ship to attack the crew, cannot be directed to destroy systems, cause fires, or even target a specific system. It will just attack whatever is attacking it, or is in closest proximity.

The problem is there is just a lack of detailed control. What equipment you have will always function in the same way, just with variances on how potent and capable it is depending on its upgrade level if it is applicable, which it isn’t for weapons and drone schematics themselves as only systems can be upgraded.

So while Faster Than Light is a strategy based game, the strategy is rooted in what equipment is acquired, what systems are upgraded, and what kind of crew members you have. That all is enclosed around the type of space cruiser that is chosen from the hangar, as that sets the mold for a playstyle build through what equipment works well with that layout and ship.

There is more to the game than that though, between encountered events, chosen equipment, and upgrade paths on a very limited budget of the scrap resource. Crew members provide the greatest real time control over the interior of the space cruiser, and perhaps the systems themselves. They cannot move while the game is paused, as nothing is able to go on, but they are able to be commanded to perform actions while it is. More parts of the space cruiser can be damaged than just the HULL, and that would be the systems. Systems can be damaged anywhere between partially functioning, to completely nonfunctional, represented by the consecutive colors of pale orange to bright red.

Damaged systems need to be repaired, and only crew members can perform that function, with some minor exceptions that happen to act in a similar way that a crew member can, such as the system repair drone that is a robot on a treadmill with a sparking laser and a clamp for a hand that inexplicably mends components. Crew members cannot man system while they are repairing something, but if a system is damaged, they couldn’t anyway. Repairing is actually such an important function and mechanic to the game that crew members are able to increase their skill in it by the number of times they have completed a repair.

Some races are quicker at it than others, and some races have an abysmal pace of repairing, but that is part of the depth crew members and their races do add to the game.

Focus

There is a definite boon to the pace Faster Than Light is set at for certain people that most games just cannot have. Since there is little, if anything, gained from maximizing the game window of Faster Than Light, and the game is able to be paused at any point while any events that occur have no sort of time delay, it can be played at entirely your own pace. You can pay as much and as little attention to the ongoing game as you want to. Even if multitasking does not appeal to you, then the sheer ease of playing the game for a quarter of an hour, stopping, and returning to it an hour later without any effort on your part might.

Faster Than Light is setup in such a way that there isn’t any kind of real time events except when a battle is ongoing. And when a battle is, you are free to pause the game indefinitely, and it will not negatively impact the continuity of the game at all. You could even quit and save from the middle of battle and start off exactly where you were last the next time the game is launched. That sort of functionality wasn’t always present in the game, as before you could not save in the middle of some kind of hazard, be that an asteroid field or an actual enemy encounter, but with the Advanced Edition update it was.

Advanced Edition Update

Faster Than Light was released in 2012, and in the first quarter of 2014 an update equivalent to downloadable content was made available. It changed the game in some fundamental ways, but it mostly added a heaping of unique systems, a new race, a new sector, and even more random events, as well as an additional layout for every single space cruiser but the elusive Crystal Cruiser.

Since it introduced such an alteration to the gameplay of traditional Faster Than Light, in the hangar there is an option to enable and disable it, so players who would rather the less intensive and original form of Faster Than Light can still partake in it with relatively little change since the update. Some things are altered still, like the anti-ship batteries the rebel forces can sometimes use, which makes being caught by the rebel forces particularly game ending.

Usually an update of such size may require some kind of fee, but there just wasn’t for Faster Than Light, to the point that the game was likely automatically updated on most steam accounts.

Conclusion

For the amount of entertaining and challenging gameplay that Faster Than Light has to offer, combined with its low price and ease of availability across multiple operating systems by steam download, places this game at a high value for those that are interested in this style of game. This game is a strategic simulation about space battles with an upgradable ship about a quest to save the united Federation against the dominating force of the rebel faction, whom seeks to conquer the intergalactic civilization under the boot of the human species.

It definitely isn’t a game with an in depth story with compelling, relatable characters, nor one with much customization over the world the player steps into, but it will keep you interested for as many hours as you are pitting yourself against its rigorous journey. One time you may just get lucky and be awarded a Glaive Beam from one of those nefarious slug mercenaries that give up in the face of an overwhelming adversary.

And for as much as the gameplay relies on procedurally generated content, the mechanics between clashing space cruisers are balanced, reliably so. Likely the lack of variability weapons fire can have bolsters the game’s ability to have balanced equipment, but such a degree of balance is a hallmark of a quality game.

Out of a rating from one to ten, ten being the highest and one being the lowest, Faster Than Light earns itself an 8 for this review.

Should you be interested in trying Faster Than Light out for yourself, it can be easily found for purchase at: Faster Than Light on Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux.

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