To boldly go where no steampunk engine has gone before!
As I design my first space captain for Sunless Skies, I am confronted with a choice. Actually, make that lots of choices. Some of them are fairly commonplace: What is my space-faring captain’s backstory? What will their avatar look like? What kind of hat will they wear? But, like the gameplay itself, what I am not expecting is the depth of narrative that comes with every choice.
I decide to make my captain a poet, but not just any poet, a member of the ‘nocturnals’, a group described as a band of literary outlaws that delight in the shady areas of this steampunk empire. With this description, my imagination is thoroughly peaked. I feel like I’m back in my teenage bedroom reading fanfiction – except this time, I’m the one deciding who the hero is.
Of course, all of this wonder shatters pretty quickly when the game’s survival mechanics kick in. Having never played the game’s predecessor, Sunless Sea, this early access launch is a steep learning curve, and I kill off my lovingly imagined captain shockingly fast, only to have to create a brand new one to take her place.
Things don’t get easier on my second try; there are lots of ways to die in this floating Victorian world, whether it’s running out of a short supply of fuel on a long journey, starving your crewmates through a serious underestimation of how many rations you might need or bashing into space creatures that seek to destroy your ship. Players must balance the desire to explore distant, vibrant ports with not getting everyone killed. With the ship’s hold limited to carrying only a few supplies, and every purchase of fuel and food taking a chunk out of your small cash pile, this is easier said than done.
Once you’ve found your space legs, the process of making money is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. Money needed for supplies is hard to collect in the early stages, but once a few ports have been discovered, it is fairly easy to begin totting up dosh via fetch-and-carry-esque quests. An inventive trade system makes picking up bargains in different ports a reward for extra exploration; the price of undead souls might make you want to weep in one station, but you’ll be rubbing your hands with glee at the bargains elsewhere. For once in life, profit comes to those who wander aimlessly.
The first voyage out of the central hub port of The Reach region, faced with an entirely dark map, feels like a daunting prospect. Yet the discovery of each new city and the stories they hold is an exhilarating experience. At this point of early access, two large regions are available to explore and The Reach in particular is chocked full of exotic, vibrant and sometimes haunting locations. Beautiful 2D artwork sets these floating microcosms firmly in the imagination and every location has a specific quirk attached to it, whether that be the resident’s penchant for cricket or a society’s obsession with time.
The prospect of discovering a whole new environment on each journey into the dark makes the minor quibbles of space travel almost fade away. Yet, there are some aspects of exploration that hold the game back. The artwork, although beautiful, can make it difficult to distinguish between floating rocks that your ship can crash into and those that are in the background, causing frustrating hull damage if misjudged.
Also, while the chugging sound of the ship’s steam engine is a comforting suggestion of progress through space, I often found myself wanting for a haunting soundtrack to overlay it, maintaining a sense of atmosphere when away from the floating cities.
Out of the two regions available, Albion at this stage feels a little sparse. It’s not for want of narrative, but rather that when traveling between areas, it just doesn’t feel like this world is that populated. I travel through great stretches of the map without discovering anything, my tracking probe returning to me again and again with nothing of interest to direct me towards.
However, considering just how much narrative detail there is in each port in this early stage, there is no doubt that this game will be a sumptuous delight upon full release. I didn’t always feel totally enthralled by it, but I never stopped wanting to explore this lovingly crafted universe. I look forward to when my captain and I can travel to the next two worlds, with a full tank of fuel and supplies too, of course.
Sunless Skies is scheduled for full release in September. It’s available for Early Access through Steam.