I started playing Outer Wilds this week.
So far, I’m only 22 minutes in.
…five or six times. You know, because the solar system explodes and time loops back around.
I don’t think I’ll be talking much about the experience of Outer Wilds as I go along, because a lot of people have gone to great lengths to not “spoil” anything. Not that I have encountered anything in-game that might constitute a spoiler yet. Supposedly the game can be completed in 20 minutes if you know the right place to go, but… of course it can. The sun explodes every 22 minutes of game time, so by definition it has to be solvable within 22 minutes.
What I will say though, is that Outer Wilds has not thus far been anything approaching peaceful or idyllic or an explorer’s dream or anything of the sort. That seemed to have been the impression I gleaned from reading other posts about it.
In my first foray in space, I brought my spaceship over to some interesting orbiting debris, took a space walk to explore, and when I turned around I realized that my ship had floated away. Or rather, was in a rapidly decaying orbit around the goddamn sun. So I chased after it, damn near skimmed the surface of said sun, and then was slingshotted out into the abyss of space where I eventually suffocated in the darkness, alone.
That was the “first death” too, so I had to watch it play out in its entirety. Kind of fitting, I guess. On all subsequent screw-ups, you can use the menu to manually reset the time loop at will. But that kind of starter experience really sets a tone.
After that, I started exploring an ocean planet with constant, horrific tornadoes that are so strong that they LAUNCH THE ISLANDS YOU WALK ON INTO SPACE. That was a fun second experience. After surviving re-entry somehow, I died walking off a cliff, not having realized a jetpack at full thrust was unable to overcome the planet’s 2.0x gravity. The next few deaths were “only” due to sun explosion as I tried exploring some other ruins. Fun times.
So, yeah. Outer Wilds. Fun in the way I imagine Alien Isolation or the Chemical Plant level in Sonic 2 can be considered fun. But I’m getting the hang of things, and hopefully the experience will improve as time goes on. And loops again. You know what I mean.
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
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.
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.
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.