App Review: The Best Starship Simulator Around Is Even Better On iPad

App Review: The Best Starship Simulator Around Is Even Better On iPad
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Ask yourself: “Would I be a good starship captain?” It’s time to find out.

Every person who has ever seen an episode of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica has asked themselves that question, at one point or another. Would I be a good starship captain? Would I be able to make the snap decisions required to win a space battle? To weigh conflicting options and choose the smartest path? To manage my resources and keep my crew alive, to accomplish our mission?

The brilliant starship simulator FTL: Faster Than Light offers answers to all those questions, though you might not always like what it has to say. FTL is one of the best-designed PC games of the last several years, and as of today it’s on iPad. Good news: the iPad version of FTL is every bit as good as the PC version, and in some it feels even more at home on a touchscreen.

It’s The Same Really Good Game

We didn’t really cover FTL enough back when it came out on PC, so, a brief recap. FTL was originally released in 2012 for PC, Mac and Linux. It was the result of a phenomenally successful Kickstarter and was an early success for crowdfunded game development. FTL went on to be beloved by players and acclaimed by critics, winning a boatload of awards and a legion of adoring fans.

FTL puts you in command of a starship called the Kestrel, and gives you a simple mission: You have intelligence that the Galactic Federation desperately needs. The rebels (who are the worst) are chasing you, and you must stay at least an FTL jump or two ahead of them at all times. Chart a course through the stars, defeat the rebels, and deliver the intelligence, and you’ll win the game.

The entire game is played via a top-down map of your ship, with each of your crew members as a little dude or lady that you can assign various tasks. It looks like this:

Put a crew member in the pilot’s seat, charge up the FTL drive, and the Kestrel will be ready to jump. Keep jumping toward each sector’s exit and eventually, you’ll make it home to your fleet.

Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Each sector you pass through consists of a dozen or two jump points, and each jump point contains one randomly generated encounter. Almost all of FTL is randomly generated, in fact, which means that every time you play it, your experience will be totally different.

Sometimes you’ll have the option to explore an astroid field and hopefully pick up some new gear. Sometimes you’ll have a choice as to whether to protect some settlers from pirates or keep on cruising. Sometimes, as happened to me yesterday, you’ll simply find a powerful weapon, floating in space. Nice! And sometimes you’ll run into a space pirate or a rebel advance patrol and have to fight.

Space combat plays a big role in FTL, but it doesn’t work like most space combat games. This isn’t Star Wars X-wing dogfighting, it’s much more like Star Trek — you’ll instruct your crew and man the Kestrel’s battle stations to fire on the enemy ship, re-routing power from non-essential systems and timing your shots to break through your enemy’s shields. Sometimes the enemy will beam aboard your ship and attack your crew members directly; if you get a teleporter, you can assemble an away team and return the favour.

All of this brings us to the crucial aspect of FTL that makes it such a great game — there are no saves, and no extra lives. If the Kestrel crashes, or if your crew asphyxiates, or if you run out of fuel and are set upon by scavengers, or are lit on fire by a solar flare, or any of a dozen or more other fates befall you, you simply get a game over. Time to start again. Yep, FTL is an outer-space roguelike, and even on the easiest difficulty it’s an awfully punishing game. Expect to die many, many times before even getting halfway to your goal.

I know what you’re probably thinking, and yes: FTL is one dysentery death away from being a sci-fi version of Oregon Trail.

Also of note: The game’s soundtrack, composed by Ben Prunty, is just outstanding, and earned the game a place on our list of the best game music of 2012:

What makes FTL so irresistible is that failure is rarely frustrating. Rather, it’s an essential part of the game. Each game over is a learning experience, giving you some crucial new information that you can keep in mind next time. When I first started playing the game back when it came out, I spent several hours unsure of what to do if I was boarded by enemy troops. But eventually I learned — the moment you’re boarded, you have to act quickly and decisively. Move your entire crew into an adjacent room. Then, storm the room with as many crew members as possible, and at least in the early goings, you’ll usually win.

Since everything is randomly generated and the simple graphics encourage you to use your imagination, FTL makes for some great stories. Imagine: You’re fighting off pirates when a fire breaks out in the same room as your oxygen processor. You quickly clear the room and vent the fire into space, but that leaves your O2 processor inoperative and located in a room… with no oxygen. You send a noble crewmember in to the O2 room and she begins repairs, her health bar slowly depleting as she runs out of air.

Meanwhile, the pirates hit your shield generator with a laser blast, bringing your defensive capabilities to half-power. You fire a rocket into their weapons system, bringing it temporarily offline and buying you enough time to repair your shields. You evacuate the O2 room just in time to save your crew-member’s life, and send in your engine technician to finish the repairs. O2 is low across your ship as the pirate turns tail and flees. As your ship gradually becomes re-oxygenated, you send your injured crew to the medbay, then re-deploy them to their stations. Your FTL drive is powered up, and you check your star chart. The rebels are ever closer. Time for another jump, where any of a hundred possible adventures awaits.

That’s FTL. It’s great.

The iPad Version Is Excellent

That was my spiel on FTL, a game that came out a couple years ago. It’s really good and you should play it. How about the new iPad version? Actually, I think that the iPad version may well be the best way to play the game.

The moment I played FTL on PC, I thought, “This game would be perfect for a touchscreen.” The overhead view, and the way you poke and push at your ship, the whole thing seemed touchpad-ideal.

FTL‘s developers at Subset Games haven’t cut any corners while bringing the game to iPad — everything works fluidly and intuitively. Some gestures require more getting used to than others — for example, swiping up and down to power up/down ship elements took some getting used to. Longtime fans of the PC version may always prefer the precision of the mouse and keyboard, but I came to prefer the touch controls, particularly since it’s so easy to pause the game at any time and carefully give precise orders.

(FTL is currently only on iPad version 2 and higher; the game won’t be available on phones or other smaller devices. Android users have reason to hold out hope: The game’s developers say they’re looking into bringing it to Android tablets as well as bringing the touch controls to touch-based PCs.)

Once you get the hang of the control scheme, everything feels natural and smooth. I’ve been playing for hours on my iPad mini retina, and the game feels like it was made to be played on that tablet. It recently occupied most of a lengthy, cross-country flight, then followed me onto the couch and into bed, and around the house the next day.

FTL‘s short encounters are also a great fit for mobile gaming, where you might have to stop at any time. It’s great for playing while watching TV, too. While you can’t save your game in FTL, you can stop at any moment and quickly restart from right where you left off. I had at least one instance of the game crashing near the beginning (without losing any progress) and a few times where I’d have to restart it to get the audio to play through my bluetooth headphones. But it reloads your game so quickly that it’s not a very big deal, and I’d imagine those bugs will be worked out shortly.

The Advanced Edition’s In There Too

The iPad version also contains all the just-released “Advanced Edition” content that has been included in a new, free update to the PC version. I’ve actually been so focused on finally mastering the core game that I haven’t even turned on the Advanced Edition stuff (you can opt to play either vanilla or advanced at the start of each game), so I unfortunately don’t have many impressions of what’s been added. Subset Games has, however, made this video, which breaks down the new features:

There’ll be more of everything, basically: New weapons and subsystems, new enemies, new encounters, new drones, new music, and even some new writing from special guest Chris Avellone. I shudder to think how many more hours I’m going to sink into this game.

FTL: Faster Than Light is a cinch to recommend to iPad owners. It’s immediately one of the best games available for the tablet, and I even prefer this version to its PC counterpart. Man your battle stations and guard your blast doors; it’s time to embark once more.

FTL: Faster Than Light

  • Genre: Strategy/Starship Simulator
  • Developer: Subset Games
  • Platform: iPad 2+
  • Price: $10.49


  • I Love this game.
    I also love the mod which removes the rebels chasing you. It completely changes the feel of the game from a tense headlong rush from one sector to another, to a more sedate but strategic exploration of the galaxy.

    • I might have to look into that mod, I’d prefer it be an exploration game than an escape. My dream game is basically a first person Star Trek starship simulator where you can crew or captain a ship that goes on regular missions, not always about combat, and you have free roam to walk around the ship during down time.

      • I’ve seen that one, yeah. I don’t think I have enough friends who’d be interested in playing that type of game though, unfortunately.

  • I hate being one of those “PC master race” guys who say it’s better to buy a game on PC because of the mods, but as Lapetus said above, the mod that removes the chasing rebels made this game 1000% more fun for me. I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much on iPad without all the mods available 🙁

  • I like to make intruders on my ship eat vacuum. It’s a pity that there’s no way to make them get flushed out the airlock like a xenomorph.

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