As a general personal preference, I don’t usually go for games that tend to require a lot of reading to understand the general premise and/or the overall narrative. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading, quite the opposite in fact. Any moment of my time that isn’t spend playing video games is spent buried in Science Fiction or Fantasy novels, most of which belong to series with a dozen or more entries.
My problem is, that I can count on one hand the number of games that manage to blend such text heavy storytelling with gameplay in an entertaining and rewarding way, and even then, I don’t exactly have any favorites that I want to gush about. Or at least I didn’t, until I played Sunless Skies.
Set in the fictional Fallen London universe established by developer Failbetter Games, this adventure takes us to heavens and places us into the role of the captain of a flying train amongst the various different colonies of the High Wilderness.
Players are given a starting goal to pursue, but complete freedom on how to approach it. Personally, I didn’t even get to the main storyline until at least 10 hours into the game, because I was just too busy flying from port to port trading and just generally doing my own thing and talking my own time.
And the thing is, I hesitate to go too much into details as to why I took my time with this game. Because while I could mention aspects about ports or characters or quests that were so gripping, doing so would rob readers of just a tiny bit of that feeling of experiencing them on their own. And that’s not something I want to do to any prospective players.
Just know that the world building and narrative in Sunless Skies is fantastic, and there is so little compromise in the writing that I’m struggling to find any instance where atmosphere or mood was not so easily and thoroughly conveyed to me through just reading about it. And I read every single line of text that was put in front of me, even when the results and consequences of my decisions were clearly highlighted towards the end of a paragraph for the players ease.
It should be mentioned though that there is a slight element of repetition in play in the writing, as encounters repeat sometimes and scenarios play out in the same way. It’s not a deal breaker by my standards, but it is worth mentioning.
The writing isn’t the only great thing about this game either, it’s just one half of what makes it so special. The world itself is the other half, and while it may not be up there graphically, it is nonetheless a beautiful and brutal setting with threats and opportunities around every corner. This isn’t space as we know it. It has deadly flying monstrosities, lush green foliage, derelict ships and even waterfalls.
Flying though open space where you can sometimes go minutes without encountering another ship or life form, the game strikes a near perfect balance between the feeling of unease and intrigue. You want to explore to the edges of the map and find new locations to visit, but there’s a nearly persistent loneliness to exploration that never truly goes away. In fact, that actually presents itself as a mechanic in the game as well, as you and your crew start to suffer from nightmares and terror the longer you’re away from civilization
Each of the ports in the game is also unique, and has its own unique characters, establishments and political forces. They provide different services, have their own needs, and even see changes in the hierarchy that come about as a result of your decisions, which there are a lot of.
A lot of these decisions are based around four skills that your captain possesses: Iron, Mirrors, Hearts and Veils. These are initially determined at the start of the game during the captain creation menu, but players are further able to upgrade them by leveling up and recruiting the appropriate Officers. And here’s the thing, your decisions can have very dire consequences. From the way factions treat you in the world, to how welcome you are in a location, everything is volatile.
Getting greedy and taking risks can sometimes pay off and net players valuable cargo or money, but more often than not, a captain without adequate points in a skill can end up getting themselves and their crew killed.
And death is permanent if you’re playing on Legacy mode, which is how the game was intended to be played. And once dead, your ship and a small fraction of your inheritance passes onto your next captain, will all progress in quests being rendered null. It’s a hard blow, especially in the earlier hours of the game when you’re using the starter ship and don’t have enough money to buy better weapons, but the inheritance makes it just a little bit easier.
But once you get into the flow of things and earn enough money from quests and trading, you can increase your chances of survival by upgrading your ship and buying harder hitting guns, making sure that if you ever get backed into a corner, you’ll be able to fight your way out.
Combat is fairly simple in the game, and involves flying around combatants and using directional strafing maneuvers to avoid incoming projectiles. It also relies mostly on new weapons for variety, only two of which you can equip on a ship at a time, and they range from rapid fire machine guns, to missiles to shotguns. I didn’t care much for it myself though, and avoided it as much as I could. It’s not that it wasn’t fun, just that I prioritized a trader style of gameplay, and was really specific about the fights I picked.
That’s another thing to love about this game. You can pick your fights, pick how you make money and pick how and when you want to approach quests. Player agency means a lot to me in a game, as it does to most people who play games. And the fact that you get so much of it in this game with just the bare minimum amount of hand-holding, makes this a great experience.
In conclusion, Sunless Skies is a fantastic narrative experience that should not be overlooked. There’s a depth to its world building that is hardly seen in games, and it’s a haunting experience the likes of which we don’t get to see all that often in the games industry. Failbetter games have absolutely outdone themselves.
Sunless Skies is out now on the PC, Mac and Linux. It was developed and published by Failbetter Games . This review covers the PC version of the game.
The review copy was provided by the publisher.
Sunless Skies Review
With it’s detailed storytelling and haunting world, Sunless Skies is a very unique gem. If you value a narrative with a lot of depth, you should look no further than this.