Chasing The Clockwork Sun
There’s a certain symmetry to be found in the way that all of Failbetter games position their respective settings as sources of danger and obstacles to be overcome. However, thematically, there’s a distinction to be made between the oceans of Sunless Seas and the vacuum of Sunless Skies.
Oceans aren’t empty space. They conceal. They erode. They rise. They fall. By contrast, space feels a little more one-note. It’s big and it’s often more-or-less defined by its emptiness and desolation. And at times, those qualities work in this game’s favor. There’s rarely a line of dialogue that doesn’t sing and the game’s aesthetic is positively dripping with flavor and detail.
The sense of tone and atmosphere that the game achieves in its quieter, liminal moments is dauntless to behold. There are games with ten times the budget of this that can’t make me feel dread in the way that Sunless Skies does - let alone inspire me to keep coming back again and again. That said, I came away a little underwhelmed by the main narrative thrust. Sunless Skies is a world filled with character, color and soul but it relies pretty heavily on the player’s willingness to take the initiative. You have to work for it.
Beyond the rich premise and an initial opening mission that saw me escort a horologist from one port to another, the opening hours of Sunless Skies are pretty loose and light. There’s no central narrative hook or main plot that you can really rely on to pull you through apart from working towards your captain’s initially-humble ambitions.
As a result, my first few hours with this game were a slog. I’d die again and again, my captain destitute, my crew distraught and my ship damaged beyond repair. I’d find quests that I had no idea how to complete and dialogue problems I couldn’t see a way to overcome.
Things got frustrating real fast and, if I wasn’t reviewing Sunless Skies, I honestly don’t know if I would have stuck it out long enough to actually start to find the momentum that carried me through the rest of my time with the game. The in-game tutorial covers the basics really well but I really would have appreciated some better explanation about how the more advanced aspects of the game’s progression.
I also felt a little dropped into the deep end when it came to the setting. I wish Sunless Skies had some sort of lore codex or explainer that helped give the story here the framing it deserves and gave me a better grip on the mythology of the Fallen London universe. Some voice-acting wouldn’t go amiss either.
The other caveat here is the performance hiccups. Sometimes, the game skips like a broken record. Other times, I’d choose a dialogue option and the next section of the encounter wouldn’t appear. There were plenty of instances where these irks snapped me out of the experience, and more than enough that I wanted to mention them here. Hopefully, these get resolved through post-launch patches sooner rather than later.
The Bottom Line
This isn’t a game about the journey, nor one about the destination. In many ways, it’s a game about the very idea of “placehood” itself. Identities and ideologies intermingle as you criss-cross from the Reach to Albion to Eleutheria and then finally return to The Blue Kingdom. If you’ve lost hours to a Failbetter game before, safe to say you’ll be happy to do so again here.
But that’s just it. The effectiveness of the exquisite atmosphere, haunting sound design and razor-sharp prose in Sunless Skies are all based on a single assumption: that you’ve got to have time for this. That you’ll stick around for the long run. If you haven’t or aren’t willing to do so, the magic falls apart pretty fast. The illusion breaks down.
It’s one thing for a developer to play their cards just right and trick the player into seeing the game the way they want it to be seen. It’s quite another to maintain that masquerade. At some point, the player has to decide they want to continue be tricked. And, at some point, they have to make peace with the fact that the bulk of Sunless Skies is just flying through the same patches of empty space running the same sort of tedious errands.
If it was available on a more compact form-factor like mobile/tablet or the Nintendo Switch, maybe I might feel differently. Played on PC, the gameplay loop in Sunless Skies can feel overly geared towards slow-burn, long-term payoffs in a way that sometimes makes casual play feel tedious. It’s not a game that really respects your time, but it is one that respects your dedication. It’s the kind of game where if you don’t love it, you’ll probably hate it.
Sunless Skies is a tremendous piece of work and a more than worthy follow-up to Failbetter's earlier games. It plays its cards right, and it feels like everyone involved brought their A-game. Yet, it asks something from you in return.
Sunless Skies asks you to to overlook its sins. The near-glacial pacing, shallow combat, repetitive design and insufficient onboarding. Sometimes that’s a hard ask. Sometimes the narrative experience you get in return makes it a price worth paying. I can’t speak for everyone who tries this game but I like to think the latter applies here more oft than not.
Sunless Skies offers a world of few limits and rich storytelling but its open-ended design isn’t going to be for everyone.
Sunless Skies is available now on PC, Mac and Linux