Long before gaming or cinema, reading was the portal through which adventurous minds could escape to other worlds and realities. Ironically, it has often been films and gaming that have prompted me to read literature. Hearing Doc Emmet Brown in Back to the Future talk about Jules Verne always made me want to seek out these inspirational books that have stoked the creative minds of so many writers. Even in a household like mine that is steeped in gaming culture, it is wonderful to unplug, read books with my son and watch his eyes light up as his imagination soars over infinite possibilities.
These last few weeks I have been, once again, rediscovering my love for reading and all thanks to a game called Sunless Skies. I have unfortunately never played the previous game from the indie developers Failbettergames, although to my shame it has been sitting in my gaming backlog for what seems like an age. So let me tantalise you with my exploits into this dark and enchanting world.
The Big Smoke
Sunless Skies is a sequel of sorts to Sunless Seas, which came out in 2015 to critical acclaim. Both of these games are actually based in the world of Fallen London, which started life as a browser-based text adventure (which you can still play!) The city of London has now taken to the stars in this fantastical version of a Victorian city in the sky. Stepping into such a rich and detailed world for the first time can be quite intimidating, however, this feeling of not knowing what to look at first is also part of the motivation to discover more. Even trying to understand what events transpired before this game has been something of a delightful journey across various wikis, forums and fan sites.
As a new captain, you must assume command of a steam engine capable of space fairing flight (Doc would be proud) and it is your task to keep your vessel shipshape. Like Sunless Sea, the game is played from a top-down view of the world with exquisitely drawn backgrounds. The game world that you play in is actually space, but not as we know it. Space in Sunless Skies is more of a concept and certainly not based on the freezing vacuum we have above our heads. You will start the game in the Reach (one of four massive areas), which is made up of a plexus of narrow passages and cavernous openings. Soon you will gain the ability to navigate one of the relays and visit the other areas like Albion. The High Wilderness, which is what all this space is collectively referred to, seems almost like a dreamscape at times and often reminded me of the end sequence in Labyrinth. Albion especially is fragmented, fractured, with many of the landmarks of London now spinning on the void. Maybe this is post Brexit? (Sorry I couldn’t resist).
Sunless Skies is set ten years after the events of Sunless Seas, in which players navigated the sunken seas known as the Unterzee. Very quickly the exemplary writing that drives the experience forward makes itself known. In the opening few minutes, I came across a damaged and seemingly abandoned ship. As my crew boarded the vessel a wonderful an intriguing chain of events was conveyed to me and my decisions being sought at key points. Should we walk through the ships disintegrating hold or shimmy across the frozen hull exterior? My decision turned out to be a bad one and a crew member along with my score ended up plummeting into the void. It is amazing, even the very first boarding attempt had me hooked with good writing and well-implemented risk/reward mechanics.
Supply and demand
Your ship requires fuel and supplies to function. These resources both deplete as long as you are not docked or don’t have one of the game windows open. You have a ship page showing your cargo, what equipment you have installed as well as various other pertinent information. There is an officer window which shows which of these unique characters you have aboard and if they have been assigned to their specialist role. There is also a ship's log which does a dandy job of letting you know what quests you still have unfinished. I do wish these could but split into subcategories because right now everything gets lumped in together and it can be difficult to keep track of where things are, but this is a very minor complaint.
As you uncover more of the map you will find a variety of locations (which are then marked on your navigation charts), one of the most important of which are ports which give you shelter from the dangers of the High Wilderness. Each port comes with its own visual personality and story, with various characters to interact with and opportunities for the brave. You may, for example, find someone wishing to buy safe passage to another location. Maybe an influential figure could require you to perform a service for them. Many of these interactions lead to small stories in their own right, with various outcomes and consequences. You could lose crew, gain a special item or find out a secret about one of your officers.
In addition to the story tab, there is also a shops tab which gives you access to the various services on offer at that particular port. Here you can buy or sell items, pick up bargains that can be sold for a profit or fulfil one of your prospects. You can have four prospects active at any one time and these are basically item requests by a specific port. As you get a grip and where things are you will learn where certain resources are produced and inevitably start making a good profit. Working trade into following story leads will also become part of a satisfactory gaming loop, drop a passenger off, deliver that cargo of wood and then pop in to see the Queen for a round of cucumber sandwiches.
Captain Nemo does London
So in between hosting tea parties, organising political coups and figuring out who has been murdering crew members; you will need to explore. While chugging around the High Wilderness you will come across various other vessels and creatures, most of which will try and nobble your ship. Your vessel has basic controls and the ability to thrust sideways which comes in very handy for dodging incoming fire (the cruise control is also a godsend!). As you take hits your hull value will deteriorate until it hits zero and then you are brown bread. As mentioned, you can fit your ship with various weapons from mines, rockets and simple projectile canons. Each time you fire a weapon this raises the ships internal heat and as you might expect, overheating causes damage and leaves you unable to strafe for a while. While it is certainly simple, combat in Sunless Skies is fun and adds a nice contrast to the story elements of the game.
Once you’ve started to make your fortune you will have the option to trade your starting ship in for something with a bit more poke. More cargo space, more slots for weapons and having the ability to fit more than one utility module all make life easier. Having a drill onboard, for example, will allow to mine resources from floating nodes and also use wrecked ships to repair out in the wilderness. You can name your ship (of course mine is the Nautilus) and after a time you will become quite attached. In one lengthy expedition into the Reach, I had travelled a bit too far and suffered heavy damage from a swarm of Marauders. Even after burning half of my hard-won Bronzewood I was running on fumes and the realisation that I wouldn't make it back to Winchester was setting in. As I watched my supplies dwindle I fired my front canon in frustration and the ship was pushed backwards by the force: I had an idea. I knew roughly where the port entrance was so we swung the ship around and started edging, very slowly across the gulf of space using the inertia from my front cannon. Just by sheer dumb luck, I had a few drops of fuel left; enough to use the side thrusters and adjust my course one last time. Just as the crew were starting to size each other’s sweetmeats up, we crawled into the port entrance and I literally jumped out of my chair cheering. These are the best moments in gaming for me and the games that invoke them are some very important to me.
I will offer some words of caution when you start the game, just be aware of what you are signing up for. While I did play a few hours of a Legacy game, it can be soul destroying to lose pretty much everything when you get unlucky and a few enemy projectiles hit home at once. The Legacy game does allow you to pass on some resources via the bank and navigational knowledge, but you are effectively starting again. On ‘Merciful’ you at least have the option of reloading from the last port you entered. Once my review is finished I will be replaying the game (at a more ponderous pace) on Legacy and fully expect the air to turn blue when I inevitably get blown to smithereens. I will say that if you accept the risk and surrender yourself to the spirit of this game, playing on Legacy is the way to go.
Skill Check and Mate
When you start the game you are invited to choose the basic components of what your captain is all about and thus what kind of interactions they are more successful at. These choices will bolster the four key statistics that govern the games skill check system. Iron is the skill of confronting and overpowering. Mirrors is the skill of investigation and deduction. Hearts is the skill of convincing and endurance and if your a more shady character then Veils is the skill of deceiving and evasion. As you progress through the many stories and vignettes, you will be given choices that have a percentage outcome and the percentage will be checked against how adept you are in this particular skill. As you gain experience through exploration, combat and successfully completing stories, your captain with gain levels. In turn, each level will allow you to choose a new quirk or background story which will come with a boost to certain skills. You are also given a base ‘win’ decision which governs what your overall goals is, which can be with wealth, fame etc. This goal will likely become secondary for the majority of your play time but is an important factor in finishing your captain's own story.
Obviously, gadding around the stars sounds like a wholesome business to be in, but the horrors of Victorian space travel are very real. Just being far away from port and subjected to the cold loneliness of long voyage will cause your terror level to creep up. As this ominously red bar gets near the top, things will start to unravel. Your crew and even your own mental fortitude will start to buckle under the weight of a multitude of threats (both real and imagined). My own captain hit the bottle for a spell until she went tea total. You can actually come across floating abominations that will send your crew mad in a matter of minutes, in contrast, there are also plenty of inspiring wonders that will indeed rally your crew and lower terror.
There are factions you must also be aware of in this game and at its baseline you must choose between the establishment (the Queen) or the resistance (Tacketies)> Each of these can be pleased (or displeased) in various ways like gathering port reports and handing them in. For my playthrough I maintained a stiff upper lip and threw my lot in with the Queen. This path threw up a few surprises I can tell you.
The Spirit of Adventure
The sheer amount of influences I can see in this game are staggering. H.G Wells, Terry Prachet, H.P Lovecraft, C.S Lewis to name but a few. All of these writers were experts at creating fictional worlds that would stoke the desire for adventure into the unknown. There are even more modern influences which I have spotted in my travels, for example in one scene I boarded a crippled ship and found the crew had been slaughtered in the most gruesome way. This scenario was very reminiscent of the shenanigans in the cult horror flick Event Horizon.
There are just so many nice touches to this game that keep you in the experience, like how your ship log updates will faintly appear in the gameworld and they are of course in the context of what is happening around you. You can also pick up inspirational stories that can be told at a later time to gain influence. The first time we saw the awe-inspiring waterfalls in the west if the Reach, my crew were all hurrying to the side of the ship pressing against the glass for a better view. How do I remember that? Because the writing is absolutely meritorious and it’s clear that this game has been a work of passion for the developers.
Is it PC?
So as you can probably see from the screenshots I have taken, this game is a tapestry of gorgeously illustrated locations. The environments are mostly hand-drawn two-dimensional scenes and given the top down perspective and this visual style works perfectly. The developers have also employed the use of parallax scrolling, so in essence, there are many layers and each moves at a slightly different speed. This gives a wonderful feeling of depth and offers a greater perspective of the world beneath your feet. There is also so much character and intricate detail lavished on each area, it is hard not to be drawn into them. Your ship is, as far as I can tell made from a three-dimensional model and I love how you can see it tilt ever so slightly when you change direction.
Given the game has such a heavy emphasis on reading and stylish visuals you would think the developers might have let the audio side of things slide, but I’m happy to say they have done a top drawer job. There is no speech in the game which I think was a smart move because this would have distracted from the wonderful writing. Music is both atmospheric and situational, like when you are approaching a horror there is a creepy violin score that starts to play. Hearing the distorted chimes of Big Ben when out in Albion is so atmospheric and areas of The Reach sound almost like some gigantic living machine. Of course, being a back seat game developers I did have an idea of my own here which I (obviously) think would work well. Radio was invented in 1895 and so the inclusion of an onboard radio set could add something to tune into while out in the far reaches of space. Obviously, these musical pieces would be in keeping with the games time period, but I can just imagine cruising into port after a successful salvage mission singing along to Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Anyway, I digress.
Given the nature of how Sunless Skies is built, this title won’t put a huge amount of stress on any system and I would imagine it would happily play well on all but the most ancient of laptops. This makes it a perfect game for you travelling types to throw on the laptop. It is also worth noting that Sunless Sea is available on iOS and I suspect Sunless Skies will also be making the jump to various other platforms in the future. In terms of graphical options, this is a simple as it gets but that is because there isn't any need for an advanced suite of graphical bells and whistles: it just works right out of the box. The only slight hiccup I have had is the occasional crash, but I have been playing an earlier press build and am sure this will be ironed out in the full release version.
If Sunless Skies was just an interactive set of well-written stories then I would still have enjoyed my time with the game. However, what we have here is so much more. The magic comes from how the developers have woven the written word, into the consequences of your decisions and also a world that feels both deliciously inviting and devilishly cruel. In one minute you will be celebrating a big score and flying on the winds of serendipity. In the next moment, you could be facing the bitter end, lost in the fabric of time while your crew eat each other as terror induced madness takes hold.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Sunless Skies and can heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys adventure games, a good story or has a hankering for a real adventure. From a personal perspective, I am also thankful for this game as it has stoked my enthusiasm for reading again and I am now embarking on a reading marathon starting with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
I’d like to thank all the staff at Failbettergames for being so friendly and approachable during the run-up to release. They also provided us with a review copy of the game well in advance which allowed me to give the game time is most certainly deserved. I hope you enjoyed reading my review of Sunless Skies on PC. As always you can follow my content on Twitter @riggedforepic or even better add my site to your favourites!