Various mythologies across the ages have posited the stars as gods and goddesses, holes in the floor of the firmament, ascendant heroes, and more. Those pinpricks in the night sky have been used to determine calendars and guide explorers. Some children long to explore the celestial sphere as astronauts. From the ancient world to the modern, the stars have long held sway over the human imagination. Sunless Skies, the latest project from Failbetter Games, taps into this prehistoric legacy, offering a cosmic adventure unlike any that has come before.
Although Sunless Skies returns to the bizarre, compelling setting of its predecessors (Fallen London and Sunless Sea), players need not be familiar with those earlier titles. The game begins in an alternate version of 1905, where the British Empire has taken to the heavens. While Empress Victoria controls time from her Throne of Hours, daring skycaptains seek fame, fortune, or the more ephemeral truth.
Therein lies the role of the player. These three objectives are offered as options at the beginning of play, and each caters to a different audience. Fame targets those who would spin a memorable fable from their adventures, while Wealth is for those who seek the best equipment and a comfortable home. Compared to the others, The Truth offers a slightly more linear approach, challenging players to unravel a mystery that will take them across the skies and deep into the lore of the Fallen London universe. However, even before selecting one of these paths, the player is able to tailor their game based on difficulty. Amateur captains are best off learning the ropes with the Merciful playstyle, while veteran Unterzee explorers will likely relish in the punishing permadeath mode offered by a Legacy game. As such, Sunless Skies provides an avenue for gamers of all types and ambitions, so long as they enjoy words and the core loops common to RPGs.
The process of upgrading both protagonist and locomotive should feel instantly familiar, but Failbetter has incorporated some novelty into its design. As may be expected, experience is garnered by battling foes, completing quests, and discovering new locations. However, levelling up is not so rote. Upgrading the captain means fleshing out their past; each new level presents an array of story segments that expand the history of the character, bringing them ever more vividly to life. Nevertheless, players are not forced to engage in this character building, as story branches are not locked off, meaning the option exists to improve based solely on the four skills: Hearts, Iron, Mirrors, and Veils. This satisfying fusion of narrative and classic design principles is, perhaps, the claim that stands strongest in ensuring that Sunless Skies lives up to its billing as a literary RPG.
However, in saying that, other factors should not be overlooked. Engaging, well-written stories populate the heavens, whether those be the quests that players undertake or the port reports that can be gathered at almost every stop. If one complaint is to be directed at the writing, it is that the high-brow aspirations can border on pretension at points, but players should expect the demand of a fairly high reading level before going in. As a result, so much greater is the shame that Sunless Skies focuses so heavily on couriering. Some quests do take place entirely via choose-your-own-adventure-styled text selections, but most involve ferrying items or individuals across the skies in exchange for currency and resources with which to buy new parts or sell on to amass ever more money. To be fair, the relatively simplistic exploratory gameplay does not invite innovation, but the overwhelming impression is that more diversity would better maintain player attention.
Thankfully, this fault (if it may be called that) is offset by the sheer pleasure of piloting vessels across the sky. A common complaint levelled against Sunless Sea was that the ships moved too slowly, but that issue has been rectified. The skytrains are hardly bullet trains, but they clip along at a brisk pace that ensures they can be a match against even multiple foes. Their manoeuvrability is further enhanced by a strafe function that proves invaluable for dodging enemy projectiles and moving while attempting to conserve fuel.
That latter quality also forms part of a delicate balance that players must be aware of while sailing the skies. Not only must the train have enough fuel to reach its destination, but the crew needs to be fed lest cannibalism becomes an imperative. However, these resources take up space in the hold, which might otherwise be reserved for cargo. The desire for profit therefore weighs against the necessities for survival. Perhaps even more important than the physical factors are the mental, for traversing the skies brings a mounting Terror that can be more damaging to the train’s fortunes than even a prolonged battle. Nevertheless, Terror is, for the most part, one of the more manageable variables, being automatically reduced by docking at ports and undertaking similar activities.
For all the in-game concerns about horrors and nightmares, the spaces of Sunless Skies are, in fact, stunning. The multi-levelled parallax backgrounds provide an impression of immeasurable depth to sell the fiction. Meanwhile, the environmental art itself is a sublime blend of unsettling and engrossing, not to mention wildly varied. From nightmare mutations of the natural world in The Reach to the industrial megametropolis of Albion and even more varied climes beyond, the game never wearies of presenting breathtaking visions, all wrapped up in a steampunk aesthetic that skirts realism. Matching the visuals is a gentle soundtrack that tends to foreground environmental sounds rather than the score, except in combat when the lonesome guitar strings twang, bringing to mind Firefly more than anything else.
The comparison to Joss Whedon’s short-lived television series is apt, with similarities extending beyond the music to the genre-bending space adventure and focus on stories that explore humanity in straits. Imperialism, the value of time, the tenuous nature of reality, and the mysteries of the cosmos are just some of the themes that emerge in the strange world of Sunless Skies, contributing to a tapestry of a richness almost unparalleled in the world of video games. The overall pace of the game is staid, but its brilliant simplicity is to be commended, and, come year’s end, it could prove enough to make Sunless Skies a strong Game of the Year contender.
Reviewed on PC.