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Sunless Skies

Posted by GG Goblin On February - 20 - 2019

Flying around in a steam train.

Failbetter Games’ Sunless Skies, part narrative adventure, part roguelike journey into the unknown, is a strange game. The third game in Failbetter’s Fallen London universe, and direct sequel to Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies defies expectations for anyone who is new to this world. As someone who has never set foot in this universe before, I was wholly unprepared for what was to come.

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The game starts with the player as an officer on a steam train, which happens to by flying around. This is accepted without any explanation as, after a mission seems to have gone awry, the captain is gravely injured and it will come down to the player to guide the vessel back to the nearby hub city. Controlling the steam engine uses an Asteroids style control system, with A and D spinning the train while W and S move forward or reverse. Q and E are also involved, strafing the train left and right, which is handy for dodging incoming projectiles from the various enemies in the skies.

This early tutorial part will take the player through the basics of battle, including using whatever weapon happens to be slotted into a weapon slot on the train, and how to scavenge from any found wreckages. However, it doesn’t go into much more detail beyond that, leaving the player to work out what is going on in this strange world for themselves.

Arrival at the city will give the player some more answers. Quickly they are given full command of the train and promoted to captain. It is here that the player can tinker with the basic character creation, including setting their starting stats. The stats, which are used to roll against in many cases like a tabletop RPG, are just as strange as the rest of the game, with the likes of Iron and Veils adding more for the player to learn about and understand.

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The player can also choose their overall goal for the game, from wealth, fame or more cryptically, finding the truth. They have also been left with a mission from the previous captain, and here is where the game starts showing its true colours. Outside of the exploration, and more on that in a moment, everything is laid out in the written word. Those who would prefer not to read in their games may have to avoid this title, as there is a lot of writing to wade through. Arriving at a port will result in exploration and stories, all of which are displayed on the screen, often with choices for the player to make. Some of these choices will roll against a stat, some will unlock new narrative paths or choices, and others will just further flesh out this strange world.

The writing here is top notch, and anyone who enjoys a good book will find plenty here to sink their teeth into. Much of the gameplay loop is made up of buying and selling goods, and even something as mundane as this can have a detailed and involving story behind it, with interesting characters and strange situations. The player can hire staff to act as officers on their train, and even these guys come with their own back stories and mysteries for the player to fathom and act on. For someone who is new to the universe, there really is an information overload, especially as the player arrives at new ports which each have their own theme and tales to tell. It is very enthralling.

Despite the pages and pages of text, Sunless Skies is not a visual novel. Exploration is a large part of the game as well. From the very beginning at that first city hub, the player is presented with a largely black map, representing one of four different areas that the player will be free to explore in the game. A mission may require finding a certain place, which may be described as to the south of the city hub, but that is all of the information they will be given. As the world is procedurally generated, the locations of the different ports are changed for every game, and so the player must head off into the darkness and try to find their way to this port, travelling along various routes that open up in front of them. In the early game, this can and often does mean getting lost or coming across some kind of hazard, and being miles away from safety is a scary place to be. The player has a scout that can nip out and find objects of interest in the dark, including ports, but even that comes at a cost.

Because the player also has to manage their steam train. Players will need to carry enough food with them on their journey to keep the crew fed, as running out may result in them eating each other. They will also need to carry enough fuel, and on more than one occasion I have staggered into a port just as the engine was running out. The train has a limited hold, and so management of what is being carried is important. Upgrade slots allow the train to have an increased hold, once the player can afford it. Other slots will allow new weapons to be equipped, improved armour and the like, and there is always the possibility of buying a whole new train.

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However, no matter which train the player owns, they will still move at the same speed through the air, and that speed is slow. This is perhaps the games biggest flaw, the fact that it takes so long to get anywhere. When you take into account the fact that, at least until the map has been fully explored, the player will be travelling without knowing where they are going, players will spend a lot of time just staring at their slowly moving train as it flies through the universe.

Thankfully, that universe is really nice to look at. While often dark and foreboding, there are really some amazing things to see through the journey, and the backdrops are, at times, absolutely beautiful. There is still a simplicity to the visuals, but it is very well polished and perfectly suited to the desperate feeling of the game.

Which brings me to danger and death. Players will have to be on the look out for marauding steam engines, along with all manner of space faring nasties, as they make their way around the universe. It is quite easy to take a few too many hits and find the ship exploding. Bad or failed choices can end a captains tale just as quickly. Then there is the terror, something which is gauged and will fill as the player experiences more unnatural or horrific events. Even the uncertainty of exploring the unknown will add to the terror, and this will lead to nightmares and insanity. Cures and treatments are available, and the player would do well to keep an eye on their sanity as they progress. But death is not the end. At the beginning of the game, the player is able to choose between two options regarding difficulty, one which allows the player to continue from the last port they visited after death, or perma-death. But even perma-death is not the end, as the job of captain will pass onto another character and they will inherit at least some of the riches the previous captain had amassed, along with most of their chart showing locations in the darkness. They may also begin with a few levels under their belt, making the prospect of death a little less scary.

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Sunless Skies is an incredible game that has so much to offer. It can be tough, at least until the player understands the rhythm of the game, and it can be slow at times as the player explores the unknown. But the writing is thoroughly engaging, and the systems all work to make the universe a place that players will think about even after they shut the computer down. For a journey of risk, exploration and well written tales, Sunless Skies should be top of the list.




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