Welcome to the world of Sunless Skies, a grim expanse of space where the people discuss matters in verbose prose, the fog grows thicker than month-old soup, and the captains are often lost, and often dead.
Trying to grapple with Failbetter’s ambitious role-playing adventure in its present state of early access opens a bevy of contrasts, a long list of ‘yes, but’ mental responses that buy into the lore, while lamenting the vast unknown that surrounds you at every turn. It casts you as the captain of an interplanetary locomotive in an alternate Victorian-era reality, one where London has been literally plucked from the planet and sent off into the cosmos. The premise behind this behooves further research into the titles that preceded it, Fallen London and Sunless Sea, but doesn’t mandate it. If you’re happy to accept this, Sunless Skies won’t punish you for your lack of context.
My first captain (spoiler: he would not be my last) was a former street urchin named Burke. I pored over the choices before me, carefully constructing his backstory not so much for the stat increases they would yield, but for the rich chronicle they painted. Before you’ve even dared to board your ship, Sunless Skies flexes its muscle and compels you to take in every detail of its narrative. The tone is absolutely perfect for a game of this nature, painting a world that reaches far greater beyond what you see before your eyes. Visually, Sunless Skies is excellent, but verbally, it is already a masterpiece. Anyone who is familiar with role-playing games, wherein a great deal of the imagery is in your head, will feel right at home here. Before you lies a smattering of lonely rocks in a dreary sky. Should you care to read more into them, they become of greater significance.
With your captain conceptualized, you then jump into the game itself. There are a lot of details for you to remember, from fuel to overheating, cargo to supplies, paranoia to influence, and so on, so forth. I took them in as best as I could (eased once again by the charm of the text), then took the controls for myself. Your ship operates reasonably well when out in the open, with a useful strafe function for sudden maneuvers, but old Burke still took some time fiddling about, banging off of asteroids with all the grace of a drunken teenager behind the wheel for the first time.
Before long, I happened upon New Winchester, the major hub, and the first port of call for prospective employment. These populated areas are your opportunity to gather information and buy precious resources, and you may find yourself staying here longer than necessary, desperate for interaction. Your captain grows wary as they drift through space, and the feeling can be mutual: the first sign of human contact is intoxicating and you can’t help but crave more.
I was flagged down at the dock by a young woman dubbed the Fastidious Inspector. Her transport had broken down, and she wanted a ride to Port Prosper, which lied somewhere to the east-northeast. She was certainly taking her life in her hands by entrusting safe passage with Burke, who just moments ago had been ricocheting off the walls, but there was no time to question the decision. Off they went, in the vague direction of ‘hopefully that way.’
They chugged along for a time, exchanging pleasantries as the Fastidious Inspector fixed a broken clock. She opened up about various goings-on, a chance to fill my head with more sweet, delicious lore. It was time time something this, politics politics something that. I didn’t expect to understand it all at once, but was convinced that things would become clearer as we reached our destination.
But then something curious happened. We simply didn’t arrive at Port Prosper, instead navigating nervously through a wreckage out in the middle of nowhere. Fuel was beginning to dwindle, so I turned the ship closer into the rubble, in hunt of supplies. A light appeared nearby, as another ship approached. I figured that this would lead to more banter, and possibly some enlightenment on where in the hell I had ended up. The response was less than accommodating, as the rogue ship began pelting us with bullets.
In a frenzy, I fumbled with the controls and manned the guns. Each shot I fired whizzed harmlessly past the assailant, while the hull began to falter and crack. Within a few moments, we were dead. The bards would not sing of Captain Burke and his exploits of heroism.
It is here that we begin to see some of the curiosities of Sunless Skies, as presently constituted. Though I attempted to commit as much information to memory as I could, I hadn’t the foggiest clue where I was going, and simply tapered off in a direction that would only lead to demise. Was I foolhardy? Perhaps. But had I been cued in by a landmark, I would have had a better chance of survival. The many bats I sent off to scout for information each came back with naught but surly indifference.
It seems apparent that Sunless Skies suffers from long periods of inactivity that lead to sudden spats of chaos. Though you are armed with two weapons, the main gun will only connect when you are aligned perfectly with your target, and will overheat constantly. Successfully felling creatures yields XP, but the actual process of combat isn’t very enjoyable, and feels more like something you do out of necessity, rather than desire.
Despite the wealth of dialogue, there is a certain rigidity to your progression in the early stages. My second captain, a dapperly dressed gent by the name of Patel, roared back to New Winchester, accepted the escort quest (fastidious as she is, the Inspector seemed to have rebounded from death exceptionally well), and set off for success. Alas, I had once again misjudged my perception of the term ‘east-northeast’ and ended up at the end of the map. Though I was presented with a choice to turn back, or press on into the great unknown, the latter option was unclickable. Captain Patel’s ambition was undermined, and he slunk back from the shadows.
It’s not that I wanted to embrace certain fatality – it’s that I wanted to feel something, anything out there, eventually even longing for another encounter with an enemy spacecraft. Sunless Skies teases you, entices you, hooks you in; at one point, I happened upon the enormous carcass of some kind of monster, the size of which was enough to send my captain into fits of terror, but nothing further eventuated. Another time, I lumbered into a beautiful little locale known as Port Avon, and enjoyed their hospitality so much the populace grew tired of me and requested I leave.
These moments were charming and whimsical, but far and few between. More often, I was left taking pot shots at space bound silverfish and watching as my supplies diminished to stale crackers and worm-ridden cans of unknown sustenance. Sunless Skies is comparatively less punishing than its predecessors, but that doesn’t make the emptiness any more tolerable. It is a stellar triumph of intrigue when you’re hobnobbing with the residents at the various ports, swapping stories and sifting through the rumors for useful facts, but as soon as you begrudgingly depart, you’re left twiddling your thumbs and setting the ship on cruise control. There are resources you can mine once you have the prerequisite skill, but farming and grinding, like combat, feel more like work than leisure.
With the Albion region already added, content has seen an increase from its barebones beginnings, and yes, there is more yet to come. If you can lump the game’s lesser elements, there is a fascinating, compelling universe for you to engross yourself in. The set pieces are gorgeously designed, imaginative combinations of steampunk workmanship and Diablo-esque horror, and though the melancholy soundtrack could use some padding, what is there is appropriately mood-setting.
Strange as it sounds, you have to be willing to enjoy Sunless Skies. To take the effort to delve into the mindset and lose yourself in the ambience. It doesn’t willingly wrest free cheap thrills, and if you’re not keen on sticking with it, you might end up writing it off prematurely. The actual tangible gameplay may be cumbersome at times, but it’s the price you have to pay if you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole.