You might never have heard of this spaceship management simulation/roleplaying game, but chances are pretty high that someone you know is playing it with obsessive fervour. One of the first wave of games greenlit by now-ubiquitous crowd-funding service Kickstarter, FTL proved upon release that it resonated with an enormous audience despite sounding very much like a niche game.
If the words 'spaceship management simulation' had you about to click away, then you've got the wrong impression entirely. FTL is about managing a spaceship, but it's fast, accessible and acutely tense rather than a dry matter of pulling levers, mining asteroids for hours and crawling across endless empty space. This is cartoon Star Trek, but with far greater threats than Kirk and Picard ever ran into while boldly going where no-one had gone before.
Each 'jump' you make to a new star system will hold a surprise outcome. Maybe there'll be a ship in distress, which you can choose to help or ignore, maybe there'll be a shop at which to buy upgrades, fuel and repairs, or, most likely, there'll be a heavily-armed enemy ship that immediately starts bombarding your fragile ship and its handful of vulnerable crew with lasers, missiles and attack drones.
Winning the fight means managing your armaments and energy. You can power up a laser or Ion Blast, but you might need to reduce power to shields as a result. Or you might have all the power you need, because you upgraded your reactor recently, but the sods manage to beam a team onto your ship and start taking down your shield generator, engine, medbay, or whatever else they feel like.
At no point is FTL not a desperate scramble to survive against apparently impossible odds. Every victory is hard-fought, and as a result absolutely euphoric. If you've looked at the crude 2D art and thought 'nah', once again you've got the wrong impression. FTL does have a certain charm in its simplicity, but moreover the last thing you're caring about when half your ships on fire is the graphics.
It's unbearably tense, each new jump steeped in risk but the beautiful promise of reward. Your ship and crew grow and evolve as you race across the stars, across randomly-generated systems, making each journey unique even if there's not all that much to the game. It's a fast, small, instant thing, not a vast space epic.
Battles last a handful of minutes, and complete games will be done and dusted within an hour. Because, you should know, you will almost certainly fail in your mission to reach the other side of the galaxy and take down the leader of the rebel fleet which forever snaps at your heels. This is a game that's not really there to be beaten - your challenge is to survive as long as possible, to beat your previous achievements, to boldly go back to where you got blown into tiny, smouldering pieces far too many times before.
FTL is fresh and immediate, offering something genuinely novel that nonetheless taps into the same risk/reward/personal story aspects that make roleplaying games such a perennial favourite. It could stand to be more fleshed out, as despite offering a raft of unlockable ships you'll see most permutations of its challenges fairly quickly, and the end boss is an unfair, underwhelming grind of a fight that somewhat undermines everything you've done in the run up to it (if you indeed meet it - which most of the time you won't).
But hey, that's what sequels and expansions for. At this price, you're getting a fantastic amount of frantic, tense space strategy and action for your seven quid. FTL will take over your life, we guarantee it. You will meet with calamity time and again - and then you will start another voyage straight away.
FTL has come out nowhere to become one of 2012's most essential games. It takes old and slightly stuffy concepts, then transforms them into something high-speed, immediate, entirely fresh and filled with near-masochistic thrills.