FTL: The best game I ever hated

FTL Logo

Or “Game Design: Are we learning yet?”.

FTL: Faster Than Light, despite the slightly self-referential title, is a superb game. That’s all I’m going say by way of a review, because let’s face it, FTL came out years ago and has been in so many bundles and Steam sales you probably own half a dozen copies without even realising it. It’s been reviewed, is what I’m getting at.

No, this isn’t a review but a tantrum.

Space-time difficulty curve

In so many ways, FTL is an exemplar of game design. The slow but inexorable advance of the rebel fleet serves to push you ever onwards, and while clever routing and use of events or nebulae can eke out a few extra stops the mechanic puts an upper bound on how long you can spend in any system and gives the game an unsettling sense of urgency, even for experienced players.

The unlockable ships are a great way of letting – even forcing – you to try new strategies and tactics thanks to the varied starting configurations they come with. Never tried the cloak? There’s the stealth cruiser. If, like me, you didn’t give the teleporter and boarding strategies a try then the Mantis cruiser opens up a whole new range of gameplay options to you.

It’s a cruel, unforgiving charm, but to many it’s heavily addictive

On a macro scale the difficulty curve is sharp but predictable. The number of shields enemy ships have increases steadily as you advance through the game, and new hazards start to appear along the way, adding variety and challenge as you go. The curve is well-tailored: a relatively easy early game, the struggle through sectors three and four where you simply don’t have enough money to buy everything you need to be comfortable, then the surge that comes after as you start to put together your end-game crew and arsenal. On a micro scale though, the difficulty varies wildly. You can encounter a ship after your first jump that is all but impossible to defeat with your starting configuration, putting you behind the curve to an extent you may never recover from; you can get an amazing weapon right off the bat that trivialises the early game. Finding the weapon pre-igniter in an early store is literally game-changing.

This unpredictability is what divides people on FT. To some there is too much randomness, the idea that even the best player can die in the first sector is anathema. Unfair. I can understand that point of view, it’s completely valid, but FTL is actually quite restrained on that front compared to some Roguelikes. In NetHack it’s possible to die unavoidably on your very first step. To others, this unfairness is what gives FTL its charm and replayability. It’s a cruel, unforgiving charm, but to many it’s heavily addictive.

We’ll learn as we go

FTL does an excellent job of teaching you as you go, introducing the concepts and mechanics piecemeal. In general enemies operate on the same principles as you do, which becomes more apparent as you upgrade your sensor systems and peer ever closely inside them during combat. As the game progresses you’ll face enough types of enemies that you’ll certainly have experience of dealing with boarders, missiles, drones, hacks and special hazards by the time the end arrives. Towards the end of the game you’ve put together a ship that came take on anything and even on your first attempt the game does a good enough job of teaching you the lessons you need to get you right through to the end boss.

The lessons of war

And then you might as well throw it all away. Buy a new keyboard, you’re going to be biting through yours in a fit of rage. The end boss is hard, infuriatingly so. Forums are full of people weeping into their computers, begging for tips and tactics, and just as full of smug players dispensing wisdom.

But this isn’t a complaint at the boss fight being hard. It isn’t even a complaint about the fact that the first time I had areal chance of beating it, when I went into its final phase at full health it insta-killed my weapons and put me so hard on the back foot I never got a shot off before dying.
No. That’s all fairly standard stuff for roguelike boss fights.

What this is a complaint about is that the boss ignores the game’s own rules, betraying the lessons you’ve learned so far. If someone tells you that they beat the boss on their first attempt without any outside information they’re either lying, astronomically lucky or such an extraordinarily skilled gamer that they’re essentially irrelevant to any discussion involving us mortals.

In a lesser game the boss would just feel cheap and lazy

Oh flagship, how much do I hate you? Let us count the ways. So far you’ve been able to take down weapons systems by targeting a single room. The flagship has four weapons systems, each powering a single weapon, making neutralising them near impossible. Understandable for a boss fight, but it does pull the rug out from under you.

Speaking of weapons, it has a triple-shot missile launcher, the first and only time you’ll see one. There is literally no way of knowing until it’s too late that this is your single highest priority target, unless you’ve got a ship configuration specifically designed to mitigate it. If you can’t deal with those missiles, well, goodbye.

The second and third phases also have special attacks both of which are easily mitigated, but again only if you’re ready for them. A drone swarm that can’t be disabled by taking out the drone systems? A super laser that isn’t tied to the weapons systems? It makes sense in-world but again, betrays the lessons you’ve been taught so carefully.

Even within the fight itself the boss misleads you. Between phases the ship recovers hull and shields, but not crew members, which might lead you to think that the game is hinting at killing the crew being a viable tactic. But no, kill the crew and the ship’s AI takes over and in many ways is even more dangerous. Screw you, game.

Rebel scum

The flagship is killable, and once you know what to expect and plan for, it’s even consistently killable. The layout of the last sector might be random but the flagship isn’t, only the RNG in the fight makes it different. It’s just that you need to die pointlessly – or resort to external help – before you learn the real lessons of FTL.

In a lesser game the boss would just feel cheap and lazy, but in a game as well-designed as FTL it’s almost unforgivable. You simply can’t win the game purely using the lessons it teaches you on the way to the end.

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