The typical experience of FTL is exploding in space moments after you finally discover the key pivotal item to make that new experimental ship build snowball through the rest of the game. It’s brutal, unforgiving, and ultimately so bite-sized that it compels you to keep playing for hours on end. It’s the unrelenting tension of being hunted across the galaxy, barely making it from waypoint-to-waypoint while your engine huffs fumes, begging for even the dream of a full tank. The metal hull groans, pockmarked by laser burns and penetrated by the sharp teeth of a federation drone still poking through the fuselage, making you wonder if the life support systems will hold for one more desperate jump.
The criminally underrated Pulsar, on the other hand, is more about ensuring that new crew member you picked up at the space station isn’t actually a youtube troll in disguise, threatening to rip out your engine components while you aren’t looking to please his unseen audience of twelve year olds. If that wasn’t bad enough, imagine a prolonged session of hurtling through the galaxy at light speed in a boat that’s on fire, and your entire crew is cats using VOIP with webcam microphones, also, the cats are on fire. Welcome to the outer rim, Commander, otherwise known as the 11th circle of hell, Space Hell.
Despite the desperate struggles that take place in every session across both games, there’s nothing quite like drifting through a calm beautiful nebula in FTL in silent running, attempting covert passage as you evade the federation’s sensors and tend to your crew’s wounds. Likewise, the multiplayer co-operative Pulsar is the closest I’ve ever been to feeling like a true space adventurer since Mass Effect 1, resplendent as it is with fascinating exotic locales to explore in-detail. Even Pulsar‘s first-person oriented ships are rendered to be wonderfully over-designed, featuring futuristic cabins complete with bathrooms and showers, a small thing to add but one which goes incredibly far in making you feel at home aboard your cruiser.
FTL though, has a knack for creative spacecrafts that feel like fully fleshed out characters, by contrast the crew is far more disposable (and far less sociable) due to the way in which the game functions more like a squad-based RTS. Unique units with their talent perks come and go, but the ship you roll at the start stays much the same. Many runs often end with an entirely different crew than the one you set off with at the start, putting a fun new twist on the Ship Of Theseus.
If FTL challenges your tactical prowess, then Pulsar is, by contrast, about your ability to command and communicate with your human crew effectively. If they can’t hear your orders or even properly parse them under pressure, you are genuinely screwed in a way that FTL could never truly capture. In the latter, units follow your commands perfectly and the gaps for margin of error are quickly closed by the pause function that gives players breathing room to issue the next action, in reality you are the ship.
There’s something exceptional about ending a journey in Pulsar, there’s no grand galactic menace, merely the space trucker lifestyle with an eat-what-you-kill mercenary underpinning that you share with your team. The spoils of buccaneering is a sort of ritualistic breaking of bread with your motley crew, the command room your de facto dinner table. It’s deeply satisfying to pull together as a unit, coordinating every function of the ship with precise choreography that adapts to every situation and finally come to know that you truly understand one another.
Despite ultimately being the same game from a conceptual standpoint, FTL and Pulsar set themselves apart by the niches they fill while capturing similar feelings of excitement and planning. One is a bite-sized roll-the-dice experience, and the other is a tabletop game given immersive sim form, but together they form a complimentary duet that runs the gamut of all the possible adventures amongst the stars, sans dogfights of course- but that’s what Elite: Dangerous or Privateer are for!
Pulsar in particular has had periodic content updates ever since the game originally entered early access. So, if like me, you’ve played all the FTL there is to play and mods aren’t cutting it for you anymore, perhaps it’s time to set sail with your closest companions and carve out your own stellar narrative. See you on the other side of the singularity, commander.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice