FTL takes the basic elements of the Roguelike genre (dungeon crawls with mostly randomized elements) and fuses it with the job of a Starfleet captain. The setup is that you're the captain of a Federation ship containing vital data that must make it back to Starfleet HQ or whatever, but there's a full-on civil war going on and the Rebels are onto you and in hot pursuit.
Each new game starts you out with a barebones ship and a skeleton crew. You'll have to progress through a number of sectors. The basic goal in each sector is to just get to the opposite end without getting killed, but since your ship is so jankity and perpetually Low On Everything you'll have to balance that with stopping to explore the sector further, answer distress calls and take on side quests to earn fuel, missiles and scrap. Scrap is the catch-all currency that is used to both upgrade your ship and purchase repairs and fresh supplies. Each time you jump from point to point in a sector, you trigger a random encounter that might throw you into battle, lead you to a treasure cache or to a shop or roaming merchant who are the only means of repairing your hull. When the ship's hull is destroyed or the whole crew is killed, that's game. You can't simply hang about in the sector exploring every corner and stockpiling resources, however, as the rebel fleet advances a little every turn. If you travel to a point that they're occupying, you'll find yourself in a really difficult battle that you'll probably be lucky to escape from. Two or three of those in a row and you're sure to be toast.
Combat is a matter of micromanagement of all aspects of your ship in the midst of being fired on, and thankfully gives you the ability to pause at any time while still being able to give orders (otherwise the learning curve would be impossible.) The ship has a finite amount of power that has to be routed depending on the situation - for example if you're trying to escape from a fight you'll want to pull power from the weapons and give it to the shields and the engine (which takes a certain amount of time to charge up and allow a warp jump depending on its upgrade level), but if you encounter a rebel scout threatening to jump out and give the fleet your location you'll want to assign as much power as possible to the weapons to try to blow out their FTL engine before they can escape.
In addition to managing power you also have to give orders to your crew. Having them man certain stations like the engine and weapons gives boosts to your ability to dodge and charge times. But you start out with not enough crew to man every station, and opportunities to recruit new members are few and far between. Crew members can also be injured or outright killed if an enemy attack hits the room they are in, and they'll have to be sent to manually repair systems that are damaged by attacks. Oh, and if that wasn't enough to juggle, there's fire. Enemy attacks will sometimes set sections on fire, which will spread to adjoining rooms if left unattended. Crewmembers can put out fire, but if every square of the room is on fire they'll rapidly take damage while doing it. Fire can be put out by opening airlocks at three ends of the ship (and whatever series of doors you need to get the sweet vacuum of space hooked up with the burning room.) The trouble with this strategy is that deoxygenated rooms also rapidly kill any crew that are in them.
So! Given all this to deal with and the fact that more turns than not bring combat with them, you'll soon find the odds are massively against you and a play session in which you make it more than a couple sectors is a fortunate one indeed. Part of what makes roguelikes an obscure/cult genre is that it's very tough to balance the randomness factor and people have varying tolerances for it. I had a hard time getting into FTL as I felt the odds were just a little TOO weighted against you, even when you set the difficulty to easy. The best roguelikes - or at least the ones I enjoy - reward a substantial run into their depths with at least something small that helps with future playthroughs, so they aren't a total timesink and you actually feel like you have some hope of completing the game someday. Shiren the Wanderer is probably my favorite of the bunch so far, and that one allowed you to stash a finite amount of good equipment at rest stops along the way that could be retrieved in future playthroughs as well as making any companions you found rejoin you randomly on certain levels in new games. Another one I actually sat all the way through was the Ancient Cave in Lufia II, in which you could find certain "marked" weapons and armor that could be brought back in future ventures. FTL does allow you to unlock better ship types, but the requirements for the majority of these are so obscure and reliant on random events good luck ever having that happen unless you're willing to sink 200 hours into the game. And even if you do get new ship types some of them only give you iffy advantages from the outset anyway. Other than that FTL ain't giving you shit between sessions.
So the game cants a little too much toward "slot machine" gameplay style for my tastes; even if you're doing everything right you'll still probably lose. Your mileage may vary, thus the 3/5. I'm guessing it takes some combined tendency toward both masochism and OCD to get the most out of this game. But it's a really neat premise that I feel just needs a little tweaking to be a truly great game, and I'm looking forward to future endeavors from Subset Games.
* FTL Mods
- Worth noting that the game is very openly moddable and of course people have gone to town with the Star Trek and the Star Wars and etc.