A gothic horror RPG that more than delivers.
At around the four-hour mark of Sunless Skies, I realise I’ve started making a percussion of steamboat-chugging noises as I watch my ship’s progress across the sky. I’m not sure when I started doing it. The world of Sunless Skies often strikes me like this, building my affection for inanimate objects as fast as it heightens my sense of curiosity. When I’m not making steamboat noises at my screen, I’m muttering to myself over every close shave and every weird encounter, feeling myself as much a crucial part of the narrative as its cast of weirdo characters.
This is testament to the vivid storytelling of this gothic RPG, the sequel to Failbetter Games’ Sunless Sea, which manages to embed itself in the imagination with impressive ease. There is no view inside the ship provided in-game, but as it travels across the map, I can almost see my captain roaming the halls, crewmembers anxiously looking at dwindling supplies and the bat who scouts the surroundings groaning as he leaves. It’s not a perfect gameplay experience, but this attachment is only possible because of the incredible bank of passionate writing at its core.
Sunless Skies begins by putting the player in a rather tricky situation. Captain Whitlock has met an unfortunate demise and it is now up to our protagonist to complete the unfortunate captain’s last wish. But what kind of captain will they be? Are they a poet, a street urchin, a soldier or an academic? What do they want from life, fame, wealth or truth? Considering these options immediately puts players in the frame of mind to imagine, sculpting a character that is more than just a set of numerical attributes.
However, depending on the campaign type you choose, this captain might not be with you for long. Choose the game’s Legacy Campaign and every time you die, you’ll have to start over with a brand new captain. Your choices with the defunct captain will have an impact on your world going forward, but everything else you’ll have to start from scratch. In this playthrough I chose the more merciful option, aptly named the ‘Merciful Campaign’. This route allows players to stick with their original captain even after death does you part, a good option for players that don’t want to face the consequences of risky exploration, like me.
The first region to explore, The Reach, has plenty of oddities that are worth getting a bit risky over. Teeming with life, this micro-world is infinitely explore-able, a new treat, threat or hub waiting at every steamy turn. The main port, New Winchester, holds quests and marketplaces to help get you started, setting you off on a chain of actions that will gain you money, political prestige and stories with enough narrative depth to lose your footing in.
During gameplay, the balance between earning money, gaining notoriety and staying afloat requires constant monitoring, but those concerns easily fall into the background when faced with the frankly stunning backdrop of each of Sunless Skies’ four regions.
When I played the Early Access preview the skies felt empty, but in the full build, you’re only ever a few chugs away from something fascinating. It’s down to luck as to whether you come across any vital supplies, either in debris or shipwrecks, but the chances that you might just get lucky keep pushing you through the sky, to locations increasingly stranger than the last. The gritty tone of the writing bleeds into the art, rendering even frozen boulders something ominously threatening.
The ports themselves are a jumble of different histories, atmospheres and colour palettes. When your vessel enters a port with the usual satisfying clunk, your best bet is to expect the unexpected. Not all ports are welcoming and, even more crucially, not all ports sell fuel and supplies. It’s pretty easy to get caught out halfway across the map with only dried tea and some literature to buy. You’ll kick yourself for thinking you could make it with so little supplies, but taking that chance becomes part of the fun.
Linking these large and small hubs is not only an intriguing and interlocking narrative, but also a trading system that can earn you money fast when handled properly. By collect prospects at large ports, the player can earn significant profit from delivering specific goods to far off ports. The space in your hull limits the amount you can lug around, so each purchase needs to be weighed against the need for fuel and supplies to get your ass halfway across the map. For the most part, this trade system does resemble the archetypical RPG fetch-and-carry quest format, but when money is such a necessary part of survival, the grind is worth it.
Whilst you’re on the way, there are also plenty of opportunities for a bit of rough and tumble. Combat is by far the weakest aspect of the game, but even so, getting into scraps in the sky can have its rewards. A red bar that grows into increasing intensity as you near hostile ships means that no cannon comes as a surprise. Actions are limited to how fast it takes your ship to overheat and which cannons you have equipped, and you’ll have to save a substantial amount of money to upgrade your ship. It does at least serve as a disruption to the explore/survive loop, but by no means is the slightly awkward dance of combat the best this game has to offer.
In the end, what Sunless Skies does do best is harness curiosity. I often found myself travelling to small hubs for specific quests, only to leave with a whole new set of stories, well beyond what I had expected. Each location is so lovingly crafted that even the darkest of places shines. With the combination of incredibly skilled and extensive writing and haunting and varied artwork, Sunless Skies has to be one of the most atmospheric game worlds I’ve ever played within.
[Reviewed on PC]
Kate has been gaming since she could control a mouse. In addition to having a penchant for indie games, Kate had a World of Warcraft account when she was far too young, and has a weakness for any game with ‘RPG’ in the description.