When mankind’s understanding of the world was filled with superstition and fear, sailing to the ends of the earth was considered folly. Perhaps you’d get eaten by seaborne monsters, or sucked underwater by a gigantic whirlpool? The sense of dread and foreboding and the constant feeling of loneliness was a template followed by Sunless Sea, originally released by Failbetter Games in 2015. Now, their follow-up Sunless Skies hopes to replicate that success. It officially launches today after roughly a couple of years in development.
To say that it’s a narrative-driven game would be an understatement. You are going to do a lot of reading. The game doesn’t hold your hand when explaining the setting. Understanding snippets of information — and at times convoluted but delightful and superb writing — are the only ways to know more about the world.
The Story So Far
Sunless Skies, much like its predecessor, is still set in the same universe which we first glimpsed in Fallen London — a browser-based game which eventually found its way to mobiles. Set in an alternate early 1900s, the Britain that you know is replaced with steampunk influences, paranormal creatures, and mysterious horizons.
On the death of your captain, you’re entrusted with a mysterious black box to deliver to London. You could choose to sell the box, open it yourself, ask around, or just follow the late captain’s wishes. From the first port you discover, New Winchester, you can outfit your ship (or engine/locomotive, whichever you prefer) with new weapons or inventory slots, hire more crew, pay for repairs, and so on. The rest of the game opens up as you understand more about trading goods and completing quests… and Sunless Skies has a lot of them!
Some tasks would have you side between two warring factions, others to reunite twins from the circus. A task in Carillon may lead you to wickedly toy with those undergoing rites of penance, while one in Brabazon has you help out tired workers. You’ll even have quests to know more about the officers who’ve joined your vessel.
Your final objective is to complete your ambition as a captain — retire wealthy, retire famous, or, cryptically, “find the truth.” The game also lets you pick between “Merciful” mode where you can load an earlier save if you die midway through, or “Legacy” mode with perma-death enabled. The latter, which makes Sunless Skies function more like a roguelike, gives you a new captain when the previous one dies.
Most of your gaming time will be spent traveling from one location to another to complete quests which have various dialogue choices. Some will just give you an extra dialogue option, while others can lead to results.
Quest and dialogue options might require certain checks. Your stats — Iron, Hearts, Veils, and Mirrors — determine your success rate. In a unique twist, leveling isn’t simply assigning points. You actually choose to meditate and recall your past experiences. You build your own backstory and, in turn, you receive corresponding stat boosts.
Most missions, especially ones concerning trade, require goods. Physical goods which you can find in various ports, wrecks, and hostile ships are stored in your hold (which has a limited but upgradable capacity). Metaphysical ones, however, don’t take up any inventory space. It’s a balancing act in figuring out how to manage your limited inventory space and where you need to go next.
Taking In The Sights
Knowing where you need to go next is just the first step. That’s because Sunless Skies embraces exploration… a lot! You are going to backtrack often from one port to another. Or maybe you’d go back to a major hub in case your sky locomotive needs repairs. Just remember to have enough fuel and supplies for your trips. Navigation is done via the WASD keys, and Q and A are for strafing. You can rebind these keys to your liking and full gamepad support is also being tweaked.
As you travel in each massive region — there are four in total: The Reach, Albion, Eleutheria, and the Blue Kingdom — you’ll start to feel a combination of uneasiness and wonderment as the map slowly gets revealed. Think of it as something akin to explorers and navigators of yore when going beyond the boundaries of the earth would lead to doom.
Given that the focus is on exploration, each area in Sunless Skies is beautifully rendered. Albion and London’s skies are darkened with soot and ash, the trademarks of the industrial revolution. The Reach, meanwhile, has a mix of lush, verdant forests and snowcapped mountains. Eleutheria is a broken kingdom dotted with ruins and stations atop canopies. Lastly, the Blue Kingdom which I’ve yet to discover is probably wrapped in a luminescent haze.
Some areas will fill you with a sense of wonderment and awe the first time you see them. One example early in the game is the port of Titania in The Reach. Situated atop a gigantic flower, Titania is ever on the lookout for — you guessed it — killer bees!
The Terrors Of The Skies
Part of the charm of Sunless Skies is its atmospheric feel. You don’t know what’s ahead. The game’s music switches to a low, humming tone, almost as if beckoning you to come forth. That’s when the piercing wail of a scrive-spinster — a specter flying through the clouds — shocks your senses. Monsters aren’t the only ones to watch out for because marauders and other dangers lurk in the unexplored lanes of this world.
Combatting these threats is of utmost importance. You can outfit your vessel with a number of weapons from missiles, cannons, and shotgun-like blasts. Once you’ve taken out opponents, you can salvage them for repairs, fuel, supplies, or other goods.
External threats are not your only problem. That’s because you also need to watch out for “Terror,” an in-game mechanic which continuously builds as you explore the unknown. Encountering frightening locations and failing dialogue checks also increase terror. It also leads to nightmares. The higher these stats, the more that you’d encounter random events that have detrimental effects. Some might lead you to lose your crew. Others, meanwhile, would even lead to your untimely death. You can counter this via a few events that give you peace of mind, traveling to a wonder landmark or getting cured in certain locations.
The Journey And The Destination
Sunless Skies is not without flaws. In fact, its biggest flaw might be the greatest threat you’ll face: boredom. Although the writing, visuals, and art style are terrific, and the atmosphere and ambiance are superb, the novelty wears off when you’ve been in the same places for dozens of times. I’m reminded of Sid Meier’s Pirates, a timeless classic, where exploration never once felt tedious. Sadly, it seems the same cannot be said for Sunless Skies.
It doesn’t help matters that your engine moves at a snail’s pace. Buying a better vessel wouldn’t help matters. In my playthrough roughly 25 hours in, I already have a Moloch-class liner, numerous upgrades, and halfway done with my “Wealth” ambition. This top-of-the-line locomotive’s speed is no different than that of the default ship you obtain. Most of my time was spent strafing from one location to the next. Yes, strafing is actually faster than regular movement!
Setting your locomotive to cruise control also doesn’t help. There’s no way to set a waypoint or automatically have it move to a destination without further manual input. Looking at your chart, your officer’s tab, your hold — any other panel — would automatically pause the game as well. This means a majority of the time is spent watching your ship inch slowly across the map.
In many cases, the locations of certain hubs/docks aren’t known to you although they’re required for quests. That means you’re likely to end up circling the map as you ping it with your scout (a bat) just to find it. Knowing how stately your craft moves from one area to another, it’s bound to get tiresome after a while.
Beyond The Great Unknown
Sunless Skies embraces the weird and the wonderful, the macabre and the mystifying. The influences of steampunk and gothic horror are intertwined with a creative narrative design. Written prompts filled with delightfulness, humor, flamboyance, melancholy, or dread take center stage. Exploring the unknown horizons is at times uplifting, but more often than not terrifying as your mindset changes from mere curiosity to tense foreboding.
Sadly, the more you traverse the skies less traveled, the more you realize you’re all by your lonesome. The vast heavens almost empty as your steam-powered engine lumbers towards something you’ve already seen or done in hours past.