Developer/Publisher: Failbetter Games
June 15, 1905: Madame Lovelace breathes a sigh of relief as her locomotive, The “Dingbat Supreme”, limps back into port at New Winchester. The engine groans and hull shudders in protest at each meter forward, barely holding together long enough to return to the relative safety of civilization. Madame Lovelace knows that The Rat Brigade, her chief engineers, will have harsh words for her over her reckless behavior on their latest expedition, picking a fight with a pair of Scrive-Spinsters like that, to say nothing of the no-doubt exorbitant cost of impending repairs. Still, she and most of the crew she left with are still alive at least, which is a fair sight better than can be said for either of her predecessors, Captains Lee and Singh (God rest their souls), and in the skies of the High Wilderness, one must take the victories where they can.
This, dear reader, is but one of hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of different scenarios you might encounter while playing Sunless Skies, a horror-themed text-heavy survival-adventure game set in the Fallen London universe. A direct sequel to 2015’s Sunless Sea, this title is in many ways similarly structured while still having a few key differences. Most notably, where Sunless Sea is set in a vast, subterranean cavern full of a dark ocean and the remains of Victorian London, Sunless Skies takes place in space. The vehicle your characters command is a flying train rather than a boat, and somewhere between half and two-thirds of the game consists of piloting said locomotive through the darkest, coldest parts of the sky.
Exploration in Sunless Skies is an odd yet satisfying mix of relaxing and nerve-wracking. Although there is a certain serenity to flying through the mostly empty sky carrying various passengers and cargo from port to port, it is tinged with constant anxiety instilled by the knowledge that any moment could bring a deadly twist of fate. Random events and enemies are common in the High Wilderness, and they are all extremely dangerous. Combat is clunky by design, in a way that is meant to deter the player from fighting in most cases and really make it feel like a desperate act rather than one of power. This dynamic is reinforced by the fact that enemies often hit very hard, so if you pick the wrong fight at the wrong time you can die from just a few attacks. There are a few options available to control difficulty, including adjusting aim assistance, enemy projectile speed, and how fast you eat through fuel and supplies, all of which can make a surprising degree of difference if you’re really struggling (though each of them can only be adjusted at the start of a new save file). In any case, the rewards for defeating an enemy are about as high as the risk, providing valuable resources that can be the difference between making it to the next port and starving or freezing to death or even being claimed by madness.
Dying or going insane isn’t the end, though. Sunless Skies comes with two difficulty modes (Legacy and Merciful) which both allow you to pass on your locomotive as well as certain items and privileges to the next captain in your “lineage”. Merciful mode additionally allows you to simply reload a save upon death but that hardly seems sporting, all things considered. Handing things over to a new captain means new opportunities and chances to define your character, leaving it up to you to decide whether you want them to follow closely in the footsteps of their predecessor or be their perfect opposite. Each captain allows you to choose “facets” of their past and identity, each of which confers various stat increases, but for the most part, defining your character is very much something you do in your own imagination. In other words, there’s an extent to which you get out of this game what you put into it.
Combat isn’t especially common in Sunless Skies, and most of your exploration time will be spent anticipating whatever nastiness jumps at you next. Besides enemies, you can at any time encounter a random text-based event that must be resolved before you can keep going, which serves as a good segue into the other third-to-half of the game. The text-adventure portions may be simplified as compared to more old-school examples of the genre, with choices being limited and tied to certain stats and values your character has, but they are beautifully written. The prose is both engaging and richly detailed, written to effectively convey events while also revealing details of the setting by inches and even having fairly frequent moments of off-the-wall humor sprinkled in. I will say that for an eldritch-horror-themed setting, Sunless Skies isn’t actually all that scary, and any tension the game has comes from the aforementioned exploration that’s more about anxiety than the kind of terror in, say, Alien: Isolation or Silent Hill. Not that that’s a bad thing, but if you’re not okay with your horror being delightfully weird à la Welcome to Night Vale this game won’t be your cup of tea.
To be frank, there are only two criticisms I might make of Sunless Skies. One of them is really more of another advisement on personal taste. The game is very slowly-paced, especially early on, to the point where I could see how someone might find it dull. Personally, I don’t mind it. In fact, I think it only adds to the atmosphere, but definitely don’t go in expecting constant action. The other complaint is something which I’m almost positive is merely a facet of my playing on PlayStation 4, which is that text boxes for items that appear when hovering over them would occasionally align to be unreadable, with half or more of the description being offscreen. I was still generally able to get the gist of things, but it was obnoxious and therefore worth noting.
Sunless Skies is yet another of those games where I can fairly confidently say you’ll love it if you’re the sort of person who would enjoy it at all. Though definitely not for everyone, it’s a bizarre, quirky, creepy, delightful little romp that superbly satisfies an itch that’s hard to identify until it’s actually being scratched. If you’re the sort of person who likes having to manage supplies in games or you want something to help give your imagination a little railroading, give this a shot. Just be careful not to get too close to THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN TH—
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