Sunless Skies is Failbetter Games‘ latest foray into the world of Fallen London, only now London has risen right up into the sky. It tells the story of a world where Queen Victoria got rid of the sun and now our cities float on big rocks in the night sky.
The world of Sunless Skies is really a very interesting one. There’s much more to it than “Victorian London but it’s floating”. There is political unrest, a faction of poor workers is uprising, the skies are so full of wonder and mystery that merely looking at them is enough to drive people mad and the most valuable commodity to trade is time itself, mined from magical mountains.
The world is revealed to you through various quests which play out like short stories. After having made your own character and chosen an ambition, which decides your end goal, you will traverse the skies in your flying train meeting all sorts of people and seeing a wide variety of places. Even in the small region available there is plenty to see. The frozen mountains where hours and minutes are mined, the strange idyllic village where people will only let you visit if you give gifts to the council and Magdalene’s House of Small Comforts where attendants will dress up as whatever a guest wants and have a nice conversation about life.
Each place you visit will have quests to offer you and usually something to trade as well. This brings us onto the core gameplay loop of Sunless Skies. At the moment there is only one ambition and that is Wealth. The goal is to get a whole load of cash together to buy a nice big house for yourself. To do this you must complete quests. So you spend most of your time flying around looking for quests to do, fighting the odd alien or enemy train along the way, and then hoping you’ve earned enough to have some spare cash after you restock your fuel and food supplies. Most quests boil down to going from one place to another, talking to someone there and going back. The written content of each quest is quite good with interesting characters and well written descriptions and dialogue but the actual gameplay is rather dull.
Turns out the sky is pretty big and your starter train doesn’t go very fast. It feels like it takes an age to get anywhere but really that’s just because there’s mostly empty space in between important places. That means if you want to go somewhere you check your map, which starts out blank and fills in as you go, pick a direction and press C for autopilot. I’d say go and do something else during this time but you might hit a rock so you’ll occasionally have to press left or right to steer clear. It makes me wish they had allowed you to plot a course on the map for your train to follow. Since you’ll be covering a lot of the same ground over and over, it’s not exactly exciting travelling from town to town. There are also battles along the way of course but they just devolve into circle strafing and firing when your guns cool down. Also not tremendously exciting.
I do like that after a battle you choose what to do with an enemy ship or alien. Use the ship to repair your own or go in and loot it, for example. Looting a ship can get you commodities like ammunition, crates of tea or more obscure ones like “Savage Secrets” or “Uncanny Specimens.” These represent one of my main problems with this game, and in fact the whole Fallen London trilogy. Just what the hell are they?
You’ll find things like that and have absolutely no idea what they’re for. To put it simply they’re trade able items but they can’t be sold at shops. They can be traded for other strange items when talking to certain people but you can go for hours without finding someone who wants them. Often you’ll just get something else strange in return. I got a choice to trade “uncanny specimens for savage secrets”. I traded them and I couldn’t tell you if I came out of that deal better off or not. This isn’t like finding gems or gold in other games. You can’t intuit the value of these things. After an hour or so my inventory was packed with all this stuff I had no idea if I’d ever need or even knew how to use.
There are other, more recognisable commodities too. As your flying about your ship will need fuel and your crew will need food. These will deplete over time and are represented by two red bars in the top corner of your screen. They basically act as timers or measures of distance. After a while you’ll be able to guess how far 2 fuel and 3 supplies will get you before you need to restock. This is a fine system in itself but the knowledge of how far you can travel doesn’t mean shit if you don’t know where to travel.
As I mentioned before your map starts of blank apart from the town you begin at. Your first quest gives you directions to another port but after that you’re on your own. You’ll get more quests that ask you to go to other locations but you can’t ask for directions so good luck finding anything. I get it, you’re meant to be an explorer in a harsh world but the world around you has already been discovered so someone should be able to tell you how to get to the next town over. I like exploring but it feels unfair to run out of fuel and die because you went left at the gray rock instead of right.
You’ll die a lot in Sunless Skies and it won’t always feel like it’s your fault. It’s easy to run out of fuel because you had no money to buy more. You had no money because you couldn’t find Port Avon to complete your quest and get money. Having said that, you do have a bat friend who can be sent to scout the area and mark points of interest on your map. This makes it easier to find ports but mashing F as you float along isn’t much fun. I would much rather have had the opportunity to ask for directions of even buy a map.
Dying isn’t the end though, sort of. When you die you “pass on your legacy” to another captain. Basically you make a new character but you get to carry over your XP, some money and your ship. Thankfully your map also gets partially filled in. Honestly this would alleviate my dismay with the difficulty if it didn’t reset the entire world. Yes, you’ve passed on your wealth and experience to an ancestor but for some reason time has reverted and all your quests are undone. So enjoy reading the same short stories time and time again as you die and start over.
It may not sound like it but I kind of like Sunless Skies. I think it’d be better if the difficulty were more forgiving but more importantly I’d enjoy it more if I hadn’t already played Fallen London and Sunless Sea. Failbetter Games’ other games set in the same world use a lot of the same mechanics and have the same style of writing. The result of this is that playing Sunless Skies feels like I’m just playing more of the same. I honestly think the series would work best just as a choose your own adventure book or visual novel. Floating around space in this game just isn’t very interesting and only becomes enjoyable when you get to read the well written quest trees at the end of each journey.
Overall, it isn’t bad. It’s far from being finished and will probably be a little better when it’s released. If you like the setting then you’ll probably enjoy Sunless Skies but wait until it’s fully finished before spending any money on it.