Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Rogue Starship: Faster Than Light (review)

The roguelike subgenre has experienced a tremendous surge in popularity over the last few years. Blending heavy RPG elements with the constant threat of permanent death and success often at the mercy of a random number generator, the appeal of roguelikes rests in fast gameplay and the player accepting that victory is anything but assured. While I have not personally explored the roguelike genre heavily, the space opera setting of FTL, developed by Subset Games, was enough to finally bring me over. Today I provide my (belated) review for FTL.

The Short
+challenging but (mostly) fair
+surprisingly deep gameplay
+fast paced and genuinely entertaining

-sub-par graphics and sound
-final boss is a bit cheap


The Long
Because a complete game in the roguelike genre seldom takes more than an hour, it is imperative that gameplay be compelling from start to finish; the structure simply doesn't allow for a meaty exposition or plodding middle. From the get go, FTL instills a sense of urgency. The plot revolves around the crew of the space ship Kestrel escaping from a looming rebel fleet to bring vital information to the home world to defeat said fleet. Through a series of sectors, comprised of about 20 points of interest, the player is tasked with rapidly making progress to an exit point before the pursuing fleet catches up. The rub here is that each successive sector ramps up the difficulty and the only way for the Kestrel to increase in power is to make diversions from the main route salvaging scrap parts (currency) to exchange for upgraded systems. Consequently, each sector is a balancing act between quickly reaching the exit while deviating to points of interest. The game can be paused at any moment which expertly allows the player to focus on each agonizingly tense decision without ever feeling like they were rushed into it.

Upon arriving at a point of interest, the player is effectively subjected to a dice-roll event. Sometimes the Kestrel is thrust into combat, other times a choice is presented to intervene in an ongoing conflict, and, still others, the player is offered a the option to purchase items from a shop. The majority of challenges are combat based which demands the player to assign crew members to various tasks such as manning weapons systems, fixing hull breaches, and defending against boarding parties. At the same time, the player must manage weapon systems and choose targets on the enemy ship. Solid strategy usually revolves around using missiles to take out an opponents shield system and following up with energy beams to cut through the hull. Conflict usually takes a few minutes to resolve and, after some repairs, the player moves to the next point of interest on the map. This pacing provides for little downtime and the overall experience benefits greatly from it.

Decisions Decisions
One of the difficulties of the roguelike genre is in offering up a wide variety of decisions without inundating the player. Here, FTL performs admirably. With limited scrap, the player must decide which of numerous ship systems to upgrade (all of which have a tangible impact on play style) and which weapons to equip (which are varied but all useful). Depending on what the shops offer, one play through may see the Kestrel outfitted with a cloaking device and relying on boarding parties to incapacitate enemies and the next might warrant the outfitting of heavy pulse lasers to obliterate the opposition. In this way, there are multiple paths to victory and each new game provides a bevy of experiences and challenges.

Random Number Generator vs Strategy
Roguelikes are often criticized for success being primarily through lucky dice rolls over all else. While FTL ultimately requires the rolls to go right to achieve victory, I seldom found myself encountering insurmountable encounters until at least the mid-game. This is simultaneously a positive and a negative. It is heart-wrenching to see your perfectly constructed ship fall to ruin through the simultaneous bad luck of an ion blast knocking out shields, a solar flare setting fires everywhere, and a boarding party taking out your best engineer. On the other hand, most games develop to the point where some attachment is made with the Kestrel and her crew and victory often feels tantalizingly close to the players' grasp. In fairness, most failures are rarely due to a single catastrophic string of bad rolls as opposed to poor or inefficient decision making by the player.

The major exception to the above is the final fight against the mothership which takes place in three consecutive stages with each representing, by far and away, the most difficult fights in the game. Breezing to the end game to only be dramatically outmatched by an opponent is infuriating the first few times but also teaches the value of properly upgrading the Kestrel along the way. Indeed, while each sector is an increased challenge, the final battle is a true test to see if the player became complacent in upgrading along the way. Given that the process, instead of victory, is the major draw of roguelikes (failures can often feel nearly as satisfying as victory), a cheap final boss isn't a major issue and barely detracts from the overall experience. Also, it is important to note that the final boss is certainly far from impossible; it just requires solid planning from start to finish.

Graphics and Sound
Graphically, FTL is serviceable in a faux-retro style but not particularly memorable. Everything is somewhat cartoonish but fails to convey much personality. On screen action is easy to understand but nothing really pops. For example, ship fires are handled through a basic sprite animation; it serves the mechanical purpose of letting the player know that they have an issue to attend to but nothing more. Compared to other recent indie titles which have found innovative ways to present otherwise simplistic graphics, FTL is a bit of a letdown. The same criticisms for graphics also apply to sound. The elevator music fades to the background and laser/missile effects are distinct enough to register hits and misses but little more. All told, the presentation is unfortunate because it might be off-putting enough to cause some players to miss out on the fabulous gameplay.

Priced at $10, FTL offers a ton of value. Fans of the roguelike genre should absolutely not miss it. For those, like myself, who are curious about this style of game, FTL represents an excellent starting point. Personally, I have been inspired to pick up a few more roguelikes based on my experience with FTL. Don't let the mediocre graphics and sound deter you, the gameplay is compelling enough that you won't even notice after the first 15 minutes. Only those who absolutely detest roguelikes should avoid this one.