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Questionable Space Battles

Sometimes I find myself inexplicably drawn to building spaceships and watching them explode. With Steam having a 75% sale on the Gratuitous Space Battles DLC this past weekend, it seemed as good a time as any to try and get that fix.

The problem is that I am having a hard time convincing myself that the game isn’t complete bullshit.

You can read my original review here, but suffice it to say, GSB is essentially a game about building spaceships and nothing else. I think one of the DLCs or patches gave you the ability to change orders mid-battle at the cost of high score tracking or whatever, but under normal circumstances you design ships, give general orders, and let’em go. I mentioned in the review that I quickly came across a strategy that essentially wins 100% of the time – basically missile spam with occasional target painter that makes missile 100% accurate – but it seems clear to me now that it has been nerfed to oblivion. Anti-missile tech existed in the vanilla game already, e.g. guidance scramblers and Point Defense batteries, although it seems much, much stronger than it ever was so many months ago.

It is fine having counters to things, whatever. When I was looking at alternatives to missile spam though, I kept running into problems with the ship building aspects. As you might imagine in these sort of games, you have to juggle each component’s energy usage, crew requirements, weight, and so on. Except… all roads lead to the same max-level components and heavy mixing of weapons. It feels… banal. If I want an all-beam ship, let me build an all-beam ship without gimping on shields or armor. The weakness of specialization is supposed to be being vulnerable to counters, not it being nigh-impossible to actually specialize.

Or maybe I’m just all sour grapes because this happened:

Was totally wiped out, killing zero enemy ships. They all had ~20% HP or less.

Was totally wiped out, killing zero enemy ships. They all had ~20% HP or less.

I will continue plugging along with Gratuitous Space Battles for a while longer, but in the meantime, if you have any suggestions for spaceship designing/battle games, let me know in the comments below. I was obsessed with an ancient game called Stars! back in the day, and spent 40+ hours most recently on Space, Pirates and Zombies; dunno if FTL really counts, but I spent a lot of time with that one too. It can be a 4-X game, it can be FPS, it can be whatever it is, as long as it has a ship-designing component. And, preferably, no bullshit.

It just can’t be EVE. I have little interest in experimenting resulting in the destruction of weeks of game time.

Review: FTL: Faster Than Light

Game: FTL: Faster Than Light
Recommended price: $9.99 (full) / Bundle
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~2.5 (or 25) hours
Buy If You Like: Harsh roguelikes, micromanaging space ships, indie games

This happened during the FIRST BATTLE in one of my playthroughs.

FTL is absolutely one of those games which, had I not forced myself to dig beneath the brutal, unforgiving crust, I would have written off as awful after the first four hours of playing. While this may have been par for the course for roguelikes, I had hitherto been spoiled by The Binding of Isaac, which not only had a more generous feeling of incremental progression, but a more direct correlation between skill and outcome. With Isaac, awesome twitch-skills is nearly enough by itself to propel you to success. With FTL, success is largely determined by how many coin-flips you win early on.

At least, it seemed that way at first.

…actually, no, coin-flips are still pretty important.

The basic premise is that you are a Federation ship with secret knowledge trying to outrun the advancing Rebel army. Each “turn” you move to an unknown point on the star map and either encounter an enemy ship, a text scenario of some sort, a Store, or possibly nothing at all. Combat takes place in real-time, although you can pause as much as you like. When attacking, you can choose specific ship systems like Weapons or Shields to disable them, or perhaps continually attack their O2 rooms to suffocate the enemy crew. Meanwhile, the enemy is doing their best to repair your damage and blow you up in turn. Some encounters can take place with environment hazards like asteroid fields, solar flares, or ion storms. Defeating enemies randomly gains you Fuel, Missiles, Drones, Scrap, or even ship components. While combat is pretty nuanced and skill-heavy, the text scenarios are the coin-flips where you either win needed materials, or lose big, without much room inbetween.

Once I realized that the game is meant to be played on Easy instead of Normal though, FTL blossomed like an origami flower. Getting more Scrap (upgrade currency) and less ridiculously-armed enemy ships granted the breathing room necessary to learn about juggling power supply, the importance of simultaneous weapon fire to pierce shields, which weapons can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and so on.

I also was able to get a handle on which events were riskier than others, and how many of them can be mitigated with certain ship upgrades or items. Since failing (i.e. losing the coin flip) events typically results in losing a crew member, I began to understand that outside the beginning few levels (where restarting is less painful), it just wasn’t worth the risk. But it was that precise lesson in risk management that eventually started turning every Easy run into a full clear, and then doing the same in Normal.

Blue options are always better.

At the time of this writing, I have 45 hours logged in FTL. Part of what keeps me coming back is the cohesion of the overall package, from the 16-bit graphics to 16-bit sound. A bigger part is the very randomness I despised originally. When you start the game, you have access to just a single ship. Getting 2 out of 3 ship-specific achievements will unlock a different configuration of that ship type; these alternate ships not only have different room layouts, but also different starting crew races and weapon loadouts. Entirely new ship types, each with their own alternate layouts, are further unlocked via gameplay. There are a total of 9 different ships, which means 18 different configurations.

What all of this combines into is an extremely slick, subconscious form of progression. Your games with the Engi’s drone-focused ship are going to be much different than your Rockmen’s missile-focused ship. While most ships are going to look basically the same upgrade-wise by the time you get to the final encounter – the ridiculousness of the flagship sees to that – the getting there becomes a game unto itself.

That is sort of the whole point of roguelikes, of course.

Will I make it? Spoiler Alert: Yes, because I’m awesome like that.

Ultimately, I am recommending this game at full price or Bundle price because it comes down to how much early frustration you are able to handle before giving up. You have no idea how close I was to uninstalling after I died in the screenshot at the top of the review, for example. If scenarios like that make you leery, I suggest waiting for FTL to hit Humble Bundle or Indie Royale as it inevitably will.

If, however, you are the type of person willing and able to muscle through rough first impressions to get at the delicious marrow in the bones of your enemies, buy FTL right now. Not only will you be getting a pretty ridiculous hour-per-dollar gameplay ratio (get 240 hours from a $60 game lately?), but you will be supporting one of the first indie game Kickstarter successes.