Sunless Skies is a game about a universe in which locomotives – trains, tank engines, choo-choo’s – are capable of taking to the stars for unbound travel. Taken off the rails and cast into the void of outer space, you embark on a journey as the inheritor of your very own vessel. As a newly christened captain, the fate of your crew is yours to command, as well as a powerful engine destined to aid you in carving your own chosen path through the stars.
It is wrought with elements of steampunk, Gothic horror, and sci-fi that come together like one vibrantly weird constellation of its own. If it sounds sort of conceptually out-there, it kind of is, but this is one of those instances where “it might just be crazy enough to work”. If you give it a chance, it quickly becomes clear that Sunless Skies is a title that follows its own polestar toward great potential; and with or without rails, this is one little engine that absolutely could.
Sunless Skies has taught me that I’m completely fine with (and honestly prefer) direct, written exposition in games. While it can be a little much at times – especially in the beginning, around the tutorial phase – the superfluity of its dialogue and documents is justified by a truly engrossing adventure, one that draws you in without ignoring your presence as the player protagonist. Sunless Skies is audacious in it’s approach to storytelling. It goes all in with its exposition, with genuinely clever writing that makes traversing its considerable amount of text painless, wherein lesser games it might be a chore.
The lore of this universe – from your own personal story as captain to the that of the greater Empire which encompasses Sunless Skies’ core narrative – is fully fleshed out through straightforward, good-old-fashioned storytelling. At times, it’s even poetic – fittingly so, to match the nature of my captain’s beliefs and goals; I went with the bleeding heart poet archetype, one of many destined paths laid out for players to help frame Sunless Skies extensive narrative.
The writers are clearly in control of their creative vision, and sometimes it’s just satisfying to go along for the ride in a universe so carefully crafted. It is absolutely a case of telling-over-showing, which is the kind of a cardinal sin Creative Writing 101 professors yawn on about, but what does that matter when this approach actually succeeds in telling such a captivating story? It’s a concept that simply works given it’s medium. There is so much dialogue that it might feel like you’re reading a book at times, but all of this is calculated to keep you invested in this strange world of space trains and galactic empires.
In short, it feels like a proper roleplaying experience, where much of the exposition takes place in the player’s mind as they explore the story. While modern RPGs like Fallout 4 are stripping out the choices and decisions that classically define roleplaying as what it is, Sunless Skies is taking a tried-and-true approach that “just works”, to quote a certain developer who seems keen on sucking the fun out of the genre. And what works happens to work very well, given the developers’ proclivity for world building. By the end of the tutorial, you understand why you are the captain of your own fate, and you are given true incentives – satisfying narrative and quantifiable in-game rewards – to see this adventure through, to soldier on as captain, and keep on chugging through the vast sea of stars splayed out before you.
By virtue of its detailed universe, this text-heavy storytelling not only is forgiven but passes with flying colors. It’s the sort of narrative approach that will appeal to anyone fond of tabletop roleplaying. Games that eschew actual writing for interpretive visuals run the risk of fudging their narrative altogether; as excessive as they may feel to some, the details written into Sunless Skies are handled eloquently, and as such, it never loses the sense of being a video game. You’re given choices at every turn, and you’re made to take action as expected of any true captain of their own fate. It is the polar opposite of many games I played through in 2018; when compared to the trend of wordless “narratives” that have saturated the indie market, Sunless Skies’ verbosity is a net positive and a welcome reprieve from its competitors’ lifeless storytelling methods.
I try not to throw the accusation of creative laziness around unless a game truly earns it – unfortunately, many have within the past year. Sunless Skies stands in direct opposition to a concerning trend in indie gaming, one of purely visual storytelling that is very prevalent as of late. More and more frequently, I’m stumbling upon games that ignore written or spoken narrative altogether, which allows for broad interpretations of whatever is presented, but also runs the risk of being vague or downright undercooked. Sometimes, it works – if your overall gestalt is so good that it doesn’t need words, then you’ve accomplished quite the feat. However, more often than not, this direction masks a certain lack of mastery of narrative fundamentals and relies on gimmicks to convince the player that something meaningful is behind the glitz.
It makes it all the more difficult to give Sunless Skies’ competition a pass when the developers at Failbetter Games are willing to go so far into embellishing their world. The entire experience is like a little star all its own, bright with the kind of bona fide affection for their work that you just don’t find in every game. This is, of course, an appeal to my own desires as a player who values decent writing. Some players may understandably feel like Sunless Skies is spoon feeding them the story, but the argument against this lies in how that story is explored. You are given so many options to navigate the universe – most choices you make affect at least some portion of your journey in a tangible manner, to the point where your hand isn’t exactly held. You are still free to work within the boundaries of your own personal desires, and allowed a level of freedom that makes for incredible replayability.
The core narrative is only one portion of a greater tale; the branching experiences that are dependant on your initial choices on the outset of your journey makes for a fairly personalized experience with each playthrough. While the story itself is vast and meandering, upping the stakes as you carry on through the universe, you never lose a sense of personal achievement or satisfaction if you choose to follow the prompts related to your chosen destiny. Even in the coldest stretches of outer space – even when chaos and famine and torpedos threaten your livelihood – and even where the darkness of it all could invoke a sense of cosmic ennui, there is always hope (and fun) found in striving towards these more personalized captain’s goals.
These objectives are dictated by a number of options at the beginning of Sunless Skies, in which you craft a personality and drive for your avatar. As captain, you are tasked with the care and maintenance of your vessel and it’s crew. Things can turn sour, fast, especially if you’re not taking care of watching your resources or carefully planning your excursions away from civilization. You balance these responsibilities with a player-determined lifestyle, based off of certain philosophical options presented after naming and designing your avatar.
Options range from becoming a renowned poet-captain who writes the Song of the Stars, to executing the cutthroat ideals of an established Empire. There is an impressive array of ideologies and occupations that define who you are as an explorer, and in turn, frame the greater narrative that runs throughout every new adventure. Sunless Skies base story is remarkably deep on its own, but these choices only serve to further plumb the opportunities of its in-game universe – so much so that reviewing it without trying out every “lifestyle” feels a little inadequate. Every playthrough will provide a different context, and every captain a different tale.
The actual act of moving your train through the titular Skies isn’t particularly complex, nor is the combat that occurs when you encounter belligerent vessels. As a mechanism for getting you between story points, it’s wholly adequate – and as of this early build, I ran into no issues in regards to gameplay or graphical bugs. For all intents and purposes, Sunless Skies feels complete and ready to roll, even if this review version is not the final product. Its visual design is just about as consistent an element as the game’s story; Sunless Skies is equal parts cozy and cosmically cold, but altogether original in it’s setting. What could be tired tropes are given expressive rebirth through a cohesive, Gothic-horror aesthetic that runs through everything from every train you drive, to the themes of neo-Victorian space colonialism. It sounds all over the place – and it kind of is – but it’s all glued together with an appealing aesthetic that perfectly marries it’s steampunk roots and cosmic horror themes with the sort of bold-goings that any Star Trek fan might appreciate.
The sound design is nothing short of perfect throughout all of this, nailing notes that sing of somber drifting through the stars, with the eerily comforting chug of your train’s engine serving an ever-present familiarity upon otherwise alien horizons. As musical swells dissolve into threadbare notes while you drift away from civilization, you get the sense of truly being on your own – until the surprise sound of cannon fire from an enemy vessel, or the peaceful rhythm of a friendly train break the atmosphere. It all accomplishes what it sets out to create: an ambiance that balances the time from which Sunless Skies draws inspiration, with the sort of sci-fi white noise fans of the genre know and love.
Even at its most action-packed points, everything about Sunless Skies is just oddly relaxing. The sounds, the sights, and the impression its story leaves on you all have comforting qualities that I don’t believe are unintentional. That isn’t to say it’s entire modus operandi is to serve as some kind of cozycore game therapy, but all the stars have aligned to give it the kind of deeply engrossing vibe that only appears in a certain type of game. In this day and age of livestreaming through Twitch and YouTube, I foresee Sunless Skies becoming a kind of ‘settle in and snuggle up’ title that any streamer who values chill-out sessions with their viewers would be remiss to ignore.
And for the vast majority of players who won’t be broadcasting their adventures, just know that Sunless Skies is one of those games that is genuinely relaxing, in the same oddly-specific vein as Civilization or Sim City. Sure, there are stressors all along the way to challenge your captain and even push them to the brink of their capabilities, but it’s all wrapped up in a package that just feels… nice. Calming, without the tranquilizing dullness of games that try too hard to be peaceful romps. Whether or not the developers set out to achieve this, given their push for it’s Gothic-horror labeling, I’d say it’s a positive byproduct of an otherwise exciting game.
It’s the effortless cohesion of all these elements that make Sunless Skies one of the most pleasant adventure titles to come down the line in a long while. You’re getting so many more stories than most games could even begin to tell – and for it’s price, that makes it a steal. Shout out to Failbetter games for coming through to their own Invictus moment; for a game about a train derailed, they’ve shown it matters not how strait the gate / how charged with punishments the scroll…
I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul…
… and also, a goddamn space train.