Sunless Skies review-in-progress: There and back again
- 31 January, 2019 23:00
Sure, most games have a target audience but Failbetter Games feel like a developer with a very specific kind of player in mind all the same. They’re after players with an appreciation for worldbuilding, plenty of patience and more time than money.
The British studio are most well-known for their browser game Fallen London but they later expanded into the wider indie games space with Sunless Seas in 2017. Now, they’re expanding the Fallen London universe again with Sunless Skies.
Like its predecessor, Sunless Skies is envisioned as a harrowing adventure game that blurs the lines between survival roguelike and branching RPG and casts you adrift in a world of Victorian-era decorum, cosmic horror and space trains.
Now, two quick digressions before I jump into the review proper:
Reviewing Sunless Skies is my first real exposure to the Fallen London universe. Sunless Seas has been on my radar for a long time but I never quite managed to find the time for it. There’s just a lot of context here I just don’t have as a newcomer. As a result, there’s probably a bunch of stuff in this game that diehard fans will be thrilled by that’s going to go right over my head.
Like space, Sunless Skies is large. We’ve already sunk over a dozen hours into the game thus far and get the sense we’ve still got plenty to experience before the credits roll. As such, we’re tentatively listing this as a “review-in-progress” and plan to update it later down the line.
Getting stuck into it, Sunless Skies is a storytelling-focused survival RPG set in an alternate version of history where the Victorian imperialism expands into the stars through eldritch means. You’re initially cast as the first mate on a ship that begins the game returning to the frontier of The Reach after an expedition gone awry has left your vessel damaged and your captain on their deathbed. Before long, you’ll find yourself promoted and set loose among the cosmos.
Though compelling, that open-endedness ends up being both the root cause of both Sunless Skies’ highest highs and lowest lows.
Sky's The Limit
Out of the gate, you’re given the choice of adding choosing your captain’s attributes (stats) and ambition (win condition). Fulfill that ambition (or die trying) and the game will end. You can either leave things there or continue playing as a new captain. If you do perish, you’ll inherit some your items and most of your world-state. Like Sunless Seas, Sunless Skies offers multiple endings and additional ambitions are unlocked as you play along.
Death is a part of the Sunless Skies experience but you’re rarely without the opportunity to pick up the pieces. Each captain is a blank slate waiting to be filled in. You can become a soldier of fortune, a thrifty smuggler, an overeager explorer or an agent for one of the game’s factions.
Regardless of which path you choose to go down, the gameplay in Sunless Skies breaks down into two halves. The journey and the destination, if you like. The first part of the experience encompasses flight, navigation, combat and exploration. When you’re out in the black, you control your ship (space-train?) using the keyboard/controller and fire your weapons (when necessary) using the mouse. Combat isn’t especially complicated or deep but it does mesh well with the vibe of the piece.
The trick is to pay attention. Running in guns blazing will cause your ship to overheat, leaving you vulnerable. The most effective approaches tend to involve playing things smart and weaving out of the way of enemy fire and chipping away at their health. Like I said earlier, Sunless Skies is foundationally a game that rewards patience.
In line with the premise, there’s a gradual arc to the way you experience each region in the game. To start with, the map will be one big unknown. You never know what will be around the next corner. Every adventure is just that. Then, once you’ve begun to fill in the map, you start to optimize your journeys. Need to go from A to B? You’re able to plot a course that’ll minimize both the time, fuel and risk involved.
Pursuing questlines and exploring each of the game’s four diverse regions will net you experience. Leveling up allows you to augment your character by filling in bits of their backstory with Facets. They might be better at Iron challenges because of a near-death experience in their past. That sort of thing.
The Facet system in Sunless Skies feels very inspired by tabletop RPGs in a way that I really dig. If you’re keen to roleplay your character and pick the facets that make the most sense, you can. If you just want to see the numbers go up, that works too.
Whenever you dock at one of the game’s locations, or stumble upon a wreck, the game transitions to a choose-your-own-adventure-style interactive fiction experience. Sometimes the outcomes here are driven by your choices. Other times, they’ll be dependent on your Captain’s stats.
There’s a certain symmetry to be found in the way that both Seas and Skies position their respective biomes 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. At times, those qualities work in the game’s favor. The sense of tone and atmosphere that Sunless Skies achieves in its quieter, liminal moments is breathtaking to behold.
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 and find those things.
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.
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.
Things got frustrating real fast and, if I wasn’t reviewing Sunless Skies, I don’t know if I would have stuck it out long enough to actually start to find momentum with it. It feels like Failbetter have opted for a less is more approach here in an attempt to not overwhelm players. However, having a little more structure beyond my character’s initially broad motivation to would have gone a long way towards making the early game a bit more enjoyable and a little less of a grind.
I also wish the game had some kind of explainer for series newcomers like myself that would help give the story and setting here the framing it deserves and explain some of the mythology of the setting.
This review is already pretty long but there’s a few things that I want to highlight before we forge ahead and start to wrap things up. It feels like everyone involved in Sunless Skies has really flexed when it comes to the art, writing and sound design. There’s rarely a line of dialogue that doesn’t sing and the game’s aesthetic is positively dripping with flavor and detail. Which is why it’s such a shame that Sunless Skies suffers from the performance hiccups it does.
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. I never encountered anything outright game-breaking but there were plenty of instances where these niggles snapped me out of the experience.
The Bottom Line
As someone who never found the time to dive into Sunless Seas but has always been in envy of the enthusiasm of those who have, I relished the chance to try and experience the Fallen London universe for myself here.
However, in spite of the impeccable atmosphere, sharp dialogue and rich setting, I couldn’t help but feel a little turned off by the apparent-disrespect that Sunless Skies seemed to have for my time. If it was available on a more compact form-factor like a smartphone or the Nintendo Switch, maybe I might feel differently. Played on PC, the gameplay loop here feels geared towards long-term payoffs in a way that sometimes makes casual play feel tedious.
Everything that works about this game hinges on the assumption that you’ll be okay with that. After a dozen or so hours with it, I get the sense that Sunless Skies is fundamentally a sink-or-swim experience.
If you don’t love it, you’ll hate it. If you’re someone with an appreciation for world-building, plenty of patience and more time than money, the cons get bumped into the other column. If you don’t fit that mold, you’re going to be stuck with a whole bunch of negatives.
For some, Sunless Skies is going to be an arduous journey. For others, it’ll be a vivid destination.
Sunless Skies is available from today on PC, Mac and Linux