Last July, I wrote about FTL: Faster Than Light (see “FunBITS: FTL: Faster Than Light,” 19 July 2013), an award-winning space simulator for Mac, Windows, and Linux, and lamented that there wasn’t an iOS version. In my 2013 FunBITS roundup (see “FunBITS: 2013 in Review,” 3 January 2014), I was happy to announce that not only was an iPad version coming, but it was arriving with an expansion for all platforms, FTL: Advanced Edition. The developer, Subset Games, has now released both, with FTL for iPad available for $9.99 in the App Store, and Advanced Edition also available as a free update for other platforms (it’s included with the iPad edition). FTL for iPad is a 173 MB download and requires iOS 6.0 or later and an iPad 2 or later.
For those of you who haven’t yet played FTL, here’s the summary. It’s a space simulator in the vein of roguelikes such as the venerable NetHack. You take control of a single ship, chased by the evil Rebel Fleet, jumping from system to system and trying to stay one step ahead. Ultimately, you want to reach the Federation base, but you have to destroy the Rebel Flagship before you can make it to safety.
FTL is unique in that you control every aspect of the ship: power levels, oxygen generation, doors, and even where to station your crew members. And you have to pay attention to everything so you can respond when something goes wrong. And boy, do things ever go wrong: fires, enemy boarders, hull breeches, failing systems — if something can go wrong, sooner or later it will. Murphy would have loved this game.
FTL is one of the most brutal, unforgiving games I’ve ever played. It does not suffer fools, and even with the best possible plan, your journey can end quickly. I’ve lost entire crews to oxygen deprivation, boarding parties, the Rebel Fleet, running out of fuel, and in some cases, just not having powerful enough weapons to defeat my foes. Of course, not every random encounter is bad; sometimes friendlies appear randomly to give you supplies and upgrades, and even some enemies offer generous surrender terms. If you need help (and you do), I recommend the YouTube tutorial series by Jeph Jacques.
So what about this new iPad version? I’ll put my cards on the table: FTL for iPad is my version of choice. It’s a game that is best played on a tablet, where you can take it with you wherever you go. Though it requires intense thought, it doesn’t provide the sort of immersive, cinematic experience that makes you want to sit in a chair for hours, like BioShock Infinite. It’s more like chess, where you might want to pick it up, make a few careful moves, then be able to put it away when it gets frustrating. However, there is no iPhone version, and the developers have told me that there never will be, because the controls won’t work on a tiny screen.
The iPad version’s controls work great, but there are some necessary adaptations to make up for losing the precision of a cursor. For instance, you can’t just click on a door to open or close it. You must first select the door controls in the lower-right corner, tap a door, and then deselect the door controls — and you can’t interact with anything else until you’ve deselected those controls. At first, I found this irritating, but after playing a few games, it made sense. Fortunately, the game pauses automatically when you select the door controls or crew members, so you won’t get blown up while tinkering with the details. After I got used to the iPad’s mechanics, I actually came to prefer them, as they’re somewhat more forgiving.
For those who didn’t get enough of the original FTL, Advanced Edition is a free expansion that comes with the iPad version, and is also available as a free update for all other platforms. If you don’t want the new stuff, don’t worry, there’s a switch to disable the expansion when you start a new journey.
Some of the new things in Advanced Edition include a new race — the Lanius, who don’t need oxygen to survive and actually drain the oxygen out of a room; the clone bay, which clones dead crew members; a new mind control system that turns enemies into allies; and a hacking system that lets you take control of enemy ship systems. You can find a full list on the FTL Wiki. These things are more likely to be used against you than vice versa, so unless you’re bored with the plain vanilla FTL, I recommend turning Advanced Edition off.
The iPad version and Advanced Edition are wonderful news for FTL fans. However, it hasn’t been great news for my wife, who has to put up with my muttered curses every night. And for good reason, as FTL is one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever played, and I think the iPad version has given me a neurosis.
So why do I, and so many people (as I write this, it’s number three in the App Store’s Top Paid list) keep tilting at FTL’s proverbial windmill? First, it’s never the same game twice. Each attempt is a whole new experience, and the game is sufficiently complex that there’s a lot of variety. Second, actually beating the game is a major accomplishment in and of itself. Third, a full game from start to (all too often) agonizing finish takes only an hour or two, so it’s not a huge commitment. Finally, since you have so much control, you feel responsible for whatever happens. Sure, there’s plenty of bad luck, but you always think that, if only you had taken a different approach, you could have scraped by.