This week I’ve been playing a lot of Sunless Skies, the new roleplaying game with heaps of exploration and storytelling and was released on PC, Mac and Linux today. This isn’t the full review – that will have to come pretty soon as I’m still nowhere near finished with this beast of a game – but here are my thoughts after playing for around 12 hours so far.
You are thrown into the story with minimal explanation, taking the helm of a ship and crew to make your way back to a safe port. Once you dock, you visit the ship’s captain, who is dying in their cabin and with their dying words they hand you control of the ship and also leaves you a mysterious black box – your first quest.
After creating your character and giving yourself a detailed backstory, you are then left to handle things on your own. Do you follow the former captain’s final wishes and deliver the mysterious box to a location in London? Or just sell it to the highest bidder and make a quick buck?
It’s this freedom that makes the game so expansive and deep, with several end goals to work towards, plenty of abilities and upgrades to develop your character, and a large world map to uncover as you chug around in your steampunky locomotive ship. Every port has some unique people to chat with (and get more missions from), work towards building reputation with the various factions, and test your trading skills by buying and selling a bizarre assortment of goods.
Your path through the stars will be shaped by your choice of backstory, for which there are loads of options – were you a soldier, an academic, or a Priest? Each one affects your starting stats and your potential end goals – to begin with I tried the academic. My first run ended in much the same way as my real-life academic endeavours – starving and full of terror. I tried going too far into the endless skies too soon and had to beat a hasty retreat which ended with several unfortunate deaths.
Gratifyingly, the game allows you to either resume from your last autosave, or to start a new character and take some progress over. After a couple more attempts at salvaging my academic life which ended with even worse atrocities, and some cannibalism (getting eerily close to real life now) then I decided to call it quits and start afresh.
The second playthrough was far more successful (as a pirate-style captain this time) and I took a more careful approach which allowed me to explore more areas, plus to not give a shit when my crew started eating each other and succumbing to the horrors of the deep (pirate, ya know). I started trading, worked around the map cautiously and paid more attention to my fuel and supplies. Although it was harder work, it ended up being far more enjoyable – planning out my next moves and saving up for a better ship was extremely satisfying.
Flying around the map in the ship is tight and gunfights are balanced and enjoyable. The controls work nicely, so you can maneuver and evade enemies when the odds are against you, while picking off weaklings to scavenge their carcasses for goodies. There’s also a nice mix of enemies to encounter, with the bigger cruisers launching devastating missiles which can blow holes in your hull with ease, through to the smaller, nippier Tacketies ships swarming around like annoying flies. It keeps the exploration exciting and fresh as you make your way across the skies.
Story and Missions
If you’ve played the previous title Sunless Sea, or the browser adventure game Fallen London, then you’ll have a better idea of the world you are dropped into. As I have sadly missed these titles, I took a crash course in the world’s alternate history – set in the early 20th Century with heavy Gothic elements. The story and world-building is absolutely sublime, fantastically written and wonderfully rich throughout. Every character you interact with seems fully-formed, with their own quirks and branching dialogue which could make or break your relationship.
There’s a lot to take in, but I found my way around through trial-and-error, taking missions to see what happened and testing the waters with each of the factions. Although a few of the missions and activities require more advanced abilities – being able to mine resources needs specific equipment which I haven’t been able to afford so far, and some people won’t even talk to you until you become more well-known in their location – but I was always able to find something to keep my progress moving forward.
Graphics and Sound
The environments are beautifully drawn with great diversity on display – from dark Victoria industrial cities through to cold, icy wastelands containing some of the horrors of the skies. Encountering some of the more ghastly atrocities in the wild skies is equally impressive and worrying – you want to explore but at the same time, your entire crew could either get ripped to shreds, or even traumatised into submission.
Even though the world is dark and foreboding, there are still light and funny parts to discover – a giant circus tent in the middle of space was fantastic – and each new area brings its own sounds, colour palette and feeling. Whether you are stumbling into a friendly port, or end up surrounded by a bunch of hostile ships, it’s hard not to spend a few minutes gawping at the hand-drawn landscapes and soaking up the atmosphere. The lights beamed out of ships, The lights beamed out of ships, cutting through the environment and highlighting the evils you discover, just add to the visual bliss on offer here – it’s truly a stunning game.
The ongoing mission
At time of writing, I am chaperoning a retiring filmmaker to the western wastes while trying to keep my crew alive for long enough to afford a new ship (and maybe some mining equipment). It’s been a great ride so far, but I am still nowhere near uncovering the mysteries of the map and my end goal. I can definitely see myself playing for dozens more hours and even trying another full playthrough to see how that will affect my interactions and progress.
I’ll be back soon with a full review, where you can find out all about the world and how things ramp up as you get further into the depths – but for now I’ll leave by giving my hearty recommendation to this epic and richly-woven saga!
Get it now on Steam at: https://store.steampowered.com/app/596970/SUNLESS_SKIES/
Or find out more at: http://www.failbettergames.com/