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Sunless Skies Review — To The Stars

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Sunless Skies

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.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PC.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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