Story-rich, rogue-like role-playing in Sunless Skies
Across a dark abyss I spotted a lone ship, engines firing towards me. I braced for another standard battle when I noticed the tentacles protruding from its rear. This was a terror I had not faced before.
BY MATT TIERNAN, FEB 13
£18.99 - Steam
Sunless Skies is a rogue-like roleplaying game, set in a story-rich gothic horror alternative history. This game will claim your time as it eats away at your captain's mind.
Sunless Skies is a rogue-like roleplaying game, set in a story-rich gothic horror alternative history. With plenty of backstory to soak up, half of the challenge is knowing which actions will benefit you on your path to success, and which will doom your crew to perpetual darkness. The sense of exploration and freedom is restricted only by the constant fear of annihilation with adversaries humanoid and otherwise vying to tear you to pieces in the sunless wastes. Even late in the game, one wrong encounter can put a swift end to your dreams of glory. The main game mode isn’t permadeath, forgiving enough to look the other way with autosaves, which makes the game more approachable, but you’ll still end up dying…. lots.
This review follows up on my initial thoughts article published last week.
Tales of the Skies
The story is exceptionally well-written, rich and well-rounded, with bucket-loads of world-building to discover, coupled with a great variety of options for developing your own personal narrative through the game. With the world at your feet, you are left to decide where to take your ship, what quests to take on, which crew to hire, although at the start that might feel a little daunting. The game drops you straight into the history and you start to build up a picture of the world you see around you. Deciding who you want to affiliate yourself with can be tricky when you only have a vague idea of the factions who are fighting it out across this desolate map. Those ships that start attacking you as you approach? Yeah, they’re probably the baddies in the story. Oh wait, actually you chose a pirate-esque backstory so they’re probably your childhood buddies. Whoops, sorry guys!
Learning about the different ports - and the factions within - can be just as satisfying as any death-defying mission. It can be confusing at times, being asked to choose between the the impoverished Eastenders and the prosperous Westenders of Port Prosper when you have no fucking clue what that means or what the stand for, but a bit of trial and error is no problem. Taking a side in the battle between the Stovepipes and the Tacketies, which could have larger implications for your later progress with the people they represent, also made me hesitant to come down on one side of the fence. Again, it’s a learning experience and through several missions and you’ll start to work out who you align with better after pissing one side off, or being richly rewarded for choosing the “right” faction for your narrative.
The missions themselves are nicely varied, from fetch quests to skills-based dialogue checks, with each giving you opportunities to explore new areas and develop your ship and crew. The RPG elements are surprisingly deep - with a whole host of stats, abilities and equipment to experiment with (and inevitably fail once in a while). Going in all-guns-blazing is rarely the obvious choice - except for those small fry who try to battle you down a dark passage - and only through a dozen hours of gameplay will you start building up your options enough to get into the meatier missions.
The way missions unravel is very satisfying as well. One journey to the other side of the map leads to finding a wrecked ship. Searching those remains might present a stranded passenger, or a ship’s log, which gives more options for exploring and earning faction respect or juicy loot. Finding these shipwrecks is often fortuitous, if you succeed in looting their cargo or stripping them of parts, but each can also set in motion a series of events which will lead to your demise. It’s a dark, brutal, intriguing world out there - just make sure you’re prepared for what you encounter! Very rarely do you hit a dead end - often that comes from a stat-roll failure which you could have avoided with more careful character development or by taking an alternative approach.
The massive range of items and faction reputation which play their part in solving missions can be slightly intimidating. Rewards include tons of strange and bewildering treasures to use as currency in your quests - or to trade for some good ol’ gold sovereigns. The difficulty is knowing which will benefit you in the long run, sometimes requiring you to take a chance on a barter, or surrender your goods in the hope that you’ll make it to the next port alive.
I kinda thought that my stories of heroism would stay with me, rather than being a commodity to barter, which was annoying as my end goal was to gather as many stories of the skies as possible.
One minor gripe is how some things are presented, as I didn’t realise at first that my gossip was a tradable commodity rather than something that would endure. In missions where you are told that “you require gossip to complete this mission”, it turns out that you will actually be trading away that gossip. I kinda thought that my stories of heroism would stay with me, rather than being a commodity to barter, which was annoying as my end goal was to gather as many stories of the skies as possible. Lesson learned though, which surely counts as a further piece of gossip to barter with?
There are absolutely loads of ways to earn currency and supplies as you progress, which is neatly balanced against the multitude of ways you might lose it all! With many quests requiring a stat-roll to chance your way to completion, nothing is guaranteed and relying too heavily on one character ability will not see you very far. Each of the main statistics - mirrors, iron, hearts, veils - will provide advantages in specific scenarios, but you’ll inevitably run into missions which are solved using the others. Trying to aim for a balanced scorebook is sensible, but later on the ship upgrades require a high level in one particular skill. These upgrades are presented as your backstory becoming fleshed out - encounters from your past which has shaped the captain you are becoming - which is a really nice touch. However, to upgrade your ship with additional crew quarters, you will need to have a high enough “heart” stat, so getting into the later hours of the game with every upgrade point stuffed into “iron” is pretty disheartening (geddit?).
Once you get to grips with the more reliable ways to earn cash and supplies, such as writing port reports and hunting Tacketies (weak enemies dotted around the map) then you’re able to progress fairly steadily. Later upgrades to your ship, like butchering enemies for supplies, or mining drills to blast rocks into smithereens, will help to sustain your crew during long excursions into the darker parts of the skies. With a little practice, I was only dying every couple of hours rather than every 15 minutes - though a lot of that came down to my approach.
The game almost insists on being played at a gentler pace - soaking up the atmosphere, taking the time to read the dialogue, planning your next moves with care to ensure you make it there alive. This is emphasised with the speed of your ship, even with the most expensive vessel in the game you still plod along at a steady speed. Considering which ports are en-route, how much fuel and supplies will be needed, even which side-missions you can complete on the way - all these play a part in maximising your progress through the skies.
Initially, I was being far too excitable: trying to get too far, too fast. Each shaded corner of the map was an opportunity for exploration, so I skidded my way across the skies to find new locations and treasures. Trying to fully uncover the map too early can be deadly - some corners of the world are not meant to be explored (well, at least until you have a fuck-off great cannon and some better armour!). This hasty style of gameplay regularly led to getting stranded without enough food to keep my crew going, or succumbing to the nightmares which build up wherever you go.
It took stepping back and enjoying the slower, more deliberate approach for me to actually succeed in the longer-term. The map is suitably large and the slow chug of your ship means that you have plenty of time to appreciate it. The initial area - The Reach - will keep you playing for a good 20-hours as you trudge from port to port discovering what’s on offer and who lives there. Much later in the game, you get the opportunity to warp away to other areas, which opens up a whole new raft of missions, ports and people to encounter.
The art style is beautiful with some wonderful touches, such as small diary entries which materialise in space as you fly around, along with a diverse range of settlements and environments to explore in your ship. From dark overgrown cravasses to frozen wastes, you saunter your way through delightfully-decorated areas in your bold endeavour.
The landscapes are beautifully drawn and each fades into another with a satisfying sheen - announcing the new habitat with changes to colour palette, background noises and elements to stumble upon. Some of the more unusual discoveries can be dark and terrifying - the inclusion of a “terror” meter was seriously not just for aesthetics - although there are plenty of light and entertaining encounters, such as the circus tent floating in the middle of the skies!
The lights beamed out of your ship, illuminating the dark nooks and crannies, sometimes reveal things which were best left alone. From swirling vortexes sucking your ship into oblivion through to shrieking nightmares flying at you, each path you venture down holds something fascinating but almost certainly deadly. There’s enough unusual enemy encounters that you have something new to look at as you get further into the game, while remaining obvious which baddies you could take down, and which you should just run the fuck away from.
“The art style is beautiful with some wonderful touches, such as small diary entries which materialise in space as you fly around, along with a diverse range of settlements and environments to explore in your ship.”
The game is kind enough to offer an autosave, but this only kicks in when you dock at a location - not after encounters and quest updates. So after flying round the dark Southeastern edge of the map and fighting off a bunch of baddies, I found nowhere to dock. This edge of civilisation had a few nasty encounters and I had progressed with a mission I was working on, but sadly I had to close the game (just assuming I would pick up where I left off). When I came back, that hour-or-so of progress was gone - and given how close I came to annihilation, I was loathe to try navigating that evil landscape for a second time.
There were a couple of very minor gripes with the interface - occasionally dialogue would show weird symbols/code within the text, possibly fixed for final release, but it never actually prevented understanding what was being said. Many stats have tooltip descriptions available, but there are a few missing. Particularly in the engine yard when buying new ships - there’s a whole bunch of icons for the stats of the new ship but no description to actually let you know what they mean before you buy. It’s actually shown with descriptions in the “hull” menu of your ship but when you’re buying for the first time they don’t seem to mean anything (especially when you notice difference in red below which put me off upgrading for a while).
Finally, there were a couple of sections where the sound would almost entirely cut out. At first I thought this was a foreboding omen but after revisiting the area and hearing the music playing again I realised this was just a small glitch. Only happened twice, and seemed to sort itself out pretty quickly - just felt a little jarring when it struck.
SUMMARY: SOAR INTO SUNLESS SKIES
Overall, I absolutely loved Sunless Skies and plan to keep playing for a good while longer. The world sucked me in completely and offers a far more sedate role-playing experience to other titles. That’s not to say it’s boring at all - I’m still haunted by the terrifying things I experienced in the dark depths - but the gentle pace means that each encounter has real weight to it. I can heartily recommend the game to anyone who likes a deep narrative and truly wonderful storytelling.
Sunless Skies is the first ever recipent of the CfG 'Shut Up and Take My Money' Award!
The Good Stuff:
Beautiful graphics coupled with fantastic music and sound effects to draw you in
Top-class writing and storytelling with so much detail and character to keep you hooked
Tight but simple combat doesn’t distract from the mission at hand
So much to explore at a gentle pace means this game will keep you going for a loooong time!
The Bad Stuff:
- There’s a lot of text to read, which might be off-putting for anyone who likes entertainment beamed directly into their eyeholes
- Can be slightly overwhelming being dropped into the reams of backstory here (less of an issue if you have played the previous titles in this series)
- Very minor glitches noticed, but I was playing a preview build so hopefully fixed for the final release
- You will have to neglect your friends, family and pets once you get hooked into the story!