Sunless Skies is the follow up to Sunless Seas and in the world of Fallen London from Failbetter Games. In Sunless Skies you have to stay alive. As part of the crew on a locomotive that’s travelling in space, that’s not an easy thing to do.
The game starts off in fairly bleak circumstances… your Captain is dying, your vehicle is damaged and your crew are hungry. As your Captain dies Sunless Skies teaches you that life is precious when you’re exploring the stars and life outside the locomotive is a dangerous place. It’s now your job to explore, find provisions for the crew and keep the train running.
Death is common in Sunless Skies and with each death comes a new beginning and new opportunities to be a successful captain of the ship. The character creation mode is detailed where you can pick the name, title, background and motives of the captain. You can choose to seek fame, fortune or the truth however that comes later. The first priority is your crew and staying alive in this hostile environment.
Sunless Skies mixes an engaging narrative adventure with a top-down roguelike RPG. As you travel through space you scavenge for loot left behind by other unlucky space travellers and engage the citizens of the floating cities you encounter. Find out the latest in the war effort, learn how to trade and earn money and follow leads. Every port you find there’s a host of interesting characters to speak to, and here is where the game’s ‘loot’ really lives, in the quality of the writing. Whether you meet these characters in a local pub or in the street each person has a unique story to tell. They may test and tease you and it’s your job to tease out the detail whether that be secrets, lies and even murders.
Gameplay switches between engaging conversation, picking up clues with a rich science fiction story to exploring and fighting for survival out there in space. Your locomotive chugs away through space and early on you pick up a gun turret that you can attach to the front of the train to battle potential enemies that you come across. Be careful however as you’re fragile whether that be from enemy attacks or overheating from firing your gun too quickly. The fragile nature of your locomotive adds risk to your adventures and raises the stakes meaning you can’t necessarily charge into battle each time. Taking it slow and picking off your enemies at the right opportunity is the name of the game. There’s something quite unsettling navigating the dark, depths of space to come across an enemy ship or even two warring factions ready to turn on you if you get in their way. Be careful out there!
The writing in Sunless Skies is excellent with branching narratives. The game presents you choices that really mean something. For example, early on in the game when your Captain lays there dying in front of you she desperately asks you to fulfil her dying wish. You have the option to promise blindly, approach the bed and ask her to rest or too slowly back away from a potentially contagious disease. I chose to ask her to rest – and she wasn’t happy. Although I did get a mysterious black box out of it, so it’s all good.
Even though you die a fair amount, all is not lost as experience from your previous Captain is handed down to the new Captain. Each time you play your turn is shaped by the type of Captain you choose at the start (Soldier, Priest, Scholar, Doctor and more) and what motivations and characteristics you set. Each decision you make informs your adventure which gives the game great replay value. If you find the dying hard to stomach, then you can adjust the difficulty settings. However, embracing the transient nature of your captains feels part of the game and one I didn’t want to let go.
Sunless Skies lives in the same universe as it’s predecessor Sunless Seas. Fallen London is a huge, sprawling wasteland. The society in Sunless Skies is built around a clockwork sun with many warring factions at each other throats and after each other’s resources and loot. As you progress through Sunless Skies you can choose to side with different factions, although the lore is deep, complex and sometimes tricky to get your head around. That isn’t a huge criticism; there is a well thought out, detailed world here and understanding the politics of the day is interesting.
Sunless Skies is unique in its delivery of narrative as you travel and battle from port to place. It offers something different to many games out there with witty, funny and intriguing stories. Exploration and battles seem secondary to the delivery of the narrative, so be prepared to read more than the average game. However, it’s great fun and well worth giving a go.
Sunless Skies is out now on PC for £18.99.
Developer: Failbetter Games
Release date: January 31st, 2019