on Oct 1, 2012
In the past I’ve talked about my love for Starflight. To this day, I still habitually type the name as starflt, because that’s what the DOS executable was called. It’s what you had to type to run the game, back in the days when you had to do things like type words to make a computer do something. I’ve spent years thinking about how the design could be updated and improved. As luck would have it, FTL ends up looking a lot like that mental design document.
And yet, I can’t stand it. I really can’t.
Note that a lot of people love this game. Josh and Jarenth talked about it almost constantly, even while we were playing Guild Wars 2 together. If you’re susceptible to the particular charms of this game you ought to be able to enjoy a prolonged period of obsession like they did. I wanted to like it. The game is a labor of love by a two-person team with some seriously retro sensibilities. Normally that’s the short route to my heart.
In FTL you command a ship. It has a floorplan where you can place systems. These systems can be upgraded. The game has flying around in space, shooting at other ships, and looting them. You jump from system to system in a branching path. At each system you have an encounter. Maybe you’ll face a pirate ship. Maybe someone wants to trade. Maybe someone needs a rescue. Maybe you’ll find salvage. Maybe the system is empty. Deal with the thing and move on. There’s no save / load system. This game flows more like your typical roguelike, where you’re making regular decisions and living with them. (Or, more than likely, not living with them.)
The problem is, FTL doesn’t have the strategic depth I’m looking for, because the gameplay is ruled by the random number generator. This isn’t Starflight, where you can roam around freely gathering resources and building up as you see fit. This isn’t like Civilization, where you’re choosing a particular methodology to overcome your foes. The closest comparison I can make is that it’s a bit like Oregon Trail in Space, where you’re guessing at what you’ll need and hoping nobody abruptly dies of dysentery this time. It’s Oregon Trail except longer, harder, and random-er, and you can’t control any of your starting conditions. Your initial ship configuration is completely fixed, and the only thing you can “customize” is renaming your doomed crew. If you play the game long enough you’ll unlock some options, but those are just other fixed-configuration craft.
You can make strategy-type decisions, but you’re not playing against a specific foe, you’re playing against a system of unpredictable encounters. Hm, do I buy more fuel or more missiles? You don’t know. Maybe the next three space-jumps will have you getting ganked by strong foes and you’ll really, really need those missiles to survive. Maybe you won’t have another chance at fuel for a long time, and if you don’t buy it now you’ll run out. You can’t see ahead so you don’t have the information for this to be a meaningful decision.
This frustration is compounded by the fact that you can’t backtrack very far. There are powerful ships chasing you, and it’s pretty much game over if they catch you.
There just isn’t very much for a player to do here. Oh, the game keeps you busy, sure, but there aren’t nearly enough meaningful decisions to make. You can’t see jumps ahead of time, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find a shop, and there’s no guarantee that the shop will have what you’re interested in. If you’re struggling, you can’t linger in an area to gain more power. The only time you get to really do something decisive is when you’re choosing something arbitrary: Do I jump to this unknown system to the right, or the equally mysterious system to the left?
At one point I encountered an asteroid field where I could mine, but I didn’t have a mining laser. There hadn’t been any opportunity to equip one at any time in the past, either. If I had a mining laser, there would have been no reason not to use it. There wasn’t a decision to make here, this jump was simply a payoff for a choice I’d never been offered. And since you can’t backtrack, I couldn’t come back here later to take advantage of it. The same goes for running into stores that have items slightly out of your current price range.
The result is that I mostly felt like I was playing out a hand of solitaire, not a strategy game.
Even the final boss seems to be designed to punish you for having the audacity to make choices. The end boss has a very specific set of attacks, which requires a specific build to counter. A build which worked fine for the first 99% of the game could be completely invalid at the end. You have to know the right build ahead of time, and you have to be lucky enough to have those components offered to you on your journey. And even if you know what to build and have the opportunity to build it, there still seems to be a lot of randomness in that final fight.
Now, I never reached the end of the game myself, but this thread paints a pretty clear picture. If you can read through the trolls and idiots and people saying, “You suck!”, you can see the mechanics of the final fight revolve around a super-boss with a couple of supremely devastating attacks. If those first couple of swings don’t connect, you have a chance. If you do get crippled in the opening salvo, it’s probably game over. I just can’t get behind a game where the outcome of two hours of play all hinge on a coin-flip like this.
Note that I’m basing my assumptions of luck on exchanges where one player says, “Using X really crippled him and I was able to win!”, while another player says, “The boss disabled X before I could even use it.”
That final boss thread is really frustrating for me. Some people luck out, conclude it wasn’t that bad, and then strut around proclaiming their greatness. Other players might have really bad luck, and have several well-done play-throughs end in defeat. So you’ve got a group of really frustrated players versus a group of swaggering jackasses. And all of this ire should be aimed at the mechanics, rather than at each other.
In a situation like this, I usually put a game on “easy”. Except, I’d already done that. Everyone plays this game on easy. Even Josh, who likes to play Civilization games on deity level. Even the people arguing about the end boss in that thread admit to playing on easy. I honestly don’t know what “normal” is for. This is a game balanced for a very specific type of masochist.
Understand that I’ve played a lot of Nethack in my day. I don’t have a problem with a challenging game if I’m given the tools and choices to make a go at it. This is not hard in the way that Dwarf Fortress or Nethack are hard, where you can look back and see your mistakes. This is “beaches of Normandy” hard, where you can make all the right decisions and die anyway, because screw you, player.
I can see why some people like the game. It does create the feeling of uncertainty where “anything can happen next”. Your next jump might bring a boon! It might be an easy fight! It might be a ridiculously powerful foe that will end your game! There’s a certain tension in uncertainty, but to me this is like playing D&D with a Deck of Many Things. There is a little strategy here and lots of chaos. The best planning can still end in ruin. You can play like a clueless rube and still make it far. Your fate belongs to the random number generator.
This is not the game for me. On the other hand, it might be the game for you. It’s only $10 on Steam, so you might want to take a gamble on it. And if you’re not one for gambling? Then this probably isn’t the game for you, either.
EDIT: As Primogenitor pointed out below, you can get a DRM-free version from the webite, which even comes with a Steam unlock code so you can have the best of both worlds. (Ownership AND convenience.)
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.