Friday, December 28, 2012

FTL: Faster Than Light / The Binding of Isaac



FTL: Faster Than Light is a fun little surprise. It's a simple game, but difficult. You're on a Federation starship traveling across the sectors to deliver very important information about the Rebels. But instead of giving you the best they have, the Federation gives you a tiny pea shooter and leaves it up to you to upgrade that ship on the way to survive stronger and stronger enemies.

It's more about strategy and system management than action. The only way to upgrade your ship is by collecting scrap. You don't get very much of it, so choosing how to spend it takes skill. Learning when to upgrade which system, when to spend scrap on hull repair, when to spend it on a shield upgrade, when to buy a new weapon, when to upgrade the doors.

You only get the bare minimum of scrap so you must choose very wisely. Exploring as many nodes as possible is the only way to get scrap, but it will also mean fighting lots of enemy ships, so you must also get good at combat. It's superbly balanced.

The final boss is ridiculously unfair, but not impossible.

Don't expect a story though. It makes no sense. If the information you carry is so valuable, why the hell doesn't the entire Federation fleet help you take the flagship down?? Why are you and your tiny-ass starship the only one able to stop the rebels??!!

It's a challenging game and I enjoy it, but I question it being a roguelike. The game is randomly generated, and once you die, you die, and it's back to the beginning. This makes the difficulty very steep and frustrating. You can get all the way up to sector 7, then have one bad random encounter and lose a great ship. You just spent an hour upgrading that ship, protecting the crew from hazards of all kinds, only to lose it to a couple intruders.

Speaking of randomly generated gameplay, this leads me to another roguelike called The Binding of Isaac.



This game is more akin to the dungeon-crawling sections of a Legend of Zelda game. The dungeons are random, the items you find are random, the enemies you face are random. The game is never the same twice. It's also a fantastic game, but the difficulty of making it through to the end so many times without dying is too much for many players.

Roguelike games have a great plus, which is also their greatest fault: procedural generation. Having the game randomly generate itself every playthrough allows for unpredictability and infinite replay value. However, because much of the game is random, the majority of gameplay comes down not to skill, but luck.

Do you keep playing the game until you've mastered it? To an extent, yes. That's especially true of The Binding of Isaac. But because it's all random, there will always be playthroughs that are unwinnable.

You may not find the right weapon upgrades to do well in boss fights. You may keep ending up with bad upgrades. In the case of Faster Than Light, you may not find any weapons at all, or if you do, you have taken too much hull damage to afford them. Or you may find plenty of weapon upgrades, but you don't find enough scrap to upgrade your weapon systems and reactor to use them. Or you might find plenty of that, but have to neglect shield upgrades. Or you may even upgrade all of that, but none of it matters because a random enemy has two missile launchers and takes you out in spite of every upgrade you fought so hard to earn!

This means you just have to keep playing the game until you get a great setup that happens to allow you to win. A lot of people don't like this; they want more control, they want winning to be in their hands, not luck of the draw. I understand why.

It's not all random though. In FTL, there is a great deal of skill in managing upgrades and learning how to be effective in battle. In Binding of Isaac, if you are careful and master combat no matter what upgrades you find, you can get very good at taking as little damage as possible.

But by and large, it often feels like you're just waiting for a great random setup to take you to the end. This is my biggest complaint with games like this.

I've played FTL for 30 hours, and only beaten the game twice. I have resigned myself to knowing I will never reach the end of The Binding of Isaac because I'm not hardcore enough. I beat the Cathedral and Sheol one time each, and that's as far as I've been able to get. Winning is not completely in my control; a lot of it depends on the setup the computer throws at me, and I don't always like this. But damn it, sometimes it's fun to take what you're given and try to make the best of it.

FTL is worth the price, and so is the Binding of Isaac. They're challenging, fun, never the same twice, and addictive.


Play the Binding of Isaac Demo
Check out the FTL official site


Listen to FTL's soundtrack, too.

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