Review: Sunless Skies
Review copy provided by developer
Sunless Sea was an inspiring game in many ways, but one of those chief inspirations seemed to be frustration. For all it did to immerse players in a dark, threatening world of intense storytelling, it also pushed back with ponderous gameplay between stories and brutal roguelike mechanics. Sunless Skies was a chance not just to build out the Fallen London setting further, but also build an experience more inviting for players to get lost in the antediluvian madness found there. And they succeeded, at least on the first count. Sunless Skies is indeed a huge step forward from the gameplay of Sunless Sea, but I can’t help but feel that something in the heart of it was left behind.
In a possible future for the subterranean burg of London, the fully-functional Dawn Machine allows the city to transcend its terrestrial bonds and join the stars in the sky. Drifting among the mysterious features of the unexplored heavens, Londoners begin spreading out to seek their riches. They discover a way to mine hours, actual units of time, from the cosmos, empowering the risen Victorian Empire to spread even further. But all is not well in the vast void of space, with stars dying and tensions rising between the empire and the far-flung settlers. In the distant High Wilderness, a botched expedition leaves the captain of your locomotive dying, her mysterious cargo in your possession, and the ship yours to command. From this auspicious beginning you must forge your own destiny, siding with factions in a coming war and exploring the reaches of known space for secrets that mortals were surely never meant to know.
Sunless Skies plays much the same way Sea did, setting you up with a basic locomotive (spaceships here are train engines, just roll with it) and enough supplies to get back to the main port for the region. The High Wilderness is a vast disc of space to explore, filled with human outposts, curious settlements, resource deposits, ruins of older things, and frankly inexplicable phenomena. While tooling around the cosmos you can send out scouts to search for points of interest, giving you some direction in the sea of stars. You’ll run afoul of hostile captains and worse out here, but the combat is much improved with more active weapons, the ability to dodge your vessel left or right, and a heat mechanic to manage your shooting and maneuvering with. It feels much more active and more like a game than Sunless Sea ever did, which is good for gameplay but is a knife that cuts both ways, as we’ll discuss later.
Ports are where most of the stories will unfold, whether in human settlements taking on jobs or surveying an untouched ruin of indeterminate origin. In these places you get a menu of story options, from browsing the shops and speaking with locals to taking part in dark rituals and communing with the stars. Stories will offer you choices based on your character’s stats and the likelihood of succeeding in them, and many of the options you encounter early on will be gated behind steep challenges. Fortunately there are plenty of simple jobs to take on at first, travelling afar and writing port reports, ferrying passengers around, and so on. There’s a trading angle here that was mostly absent from Sunless Sea, where ports will produce specific goods and others will issue lucrative contracts for filling them, so building up your cash reserves is a far more straightforward process here than before. It’s also easier to stay flush in fuel and supplies in Sunless Skies, thanks both to availability of items and much more generous timers for both while out and about.
On all these points, Sunless Skies is a clear improvement over Sunless Sea. Moving around the map is faster and more engaging, gaining resources is easier, and figuring out what to do is less of a mystery. But just an hour into this one, I could feel it losing its grip on me. There’s something lost in the evolution, perhaps several somethings, and part of what’s lost is what kept me invested in Sunless Sea despite the gameplay flaws. The setting feels like a big factor in this, trading the murky, solemn deeps of the subterranean seas for bright, star-filled expanses. Despite existing in the same universe of cosmic, unfathomable horrors, Sunless Skies lacks the same tension of motoring through an archipelago of spider silk or sailing above the bodies of massive, sunken figures. The black seas are scary in a way the shimmering void isn’t, and it shouldn’t be this way because space can be even scarier. But you don’t get that sense of isolation, that sense of being one step away from death by drowning or hard vacuum, and it’s in part because of the gameplay improvements that make traveling the stars so much more welcoming.
I hate to admit it, but the slow pace and shortages of Sunless Sea actually did a lot to bolster its atmosphere. I felt alone and threatened in my little boat in ways that I never do in my shimmering space locomotive. The mechanics are only part of the story, though, and I’m confident that sensation of impending doom could have been preserved with the improved gameplay of Sunless Skies. But then you have the starry backdrops, the featureless expanses of asteroids and land masses, and the short trips between ports that make the High Wilderness feel so much less alien than the vast underground oceans. And though I’ve only experienced a portion of the stories in the game, none of them seem to match the ominous portends and cosmic ramifications as the tales spun in Sunless Sea. The writing overall feels more concise and less challenging, which again might be concessions for a better gameplay experience but take a lot out of the atmosphere and setting that’s so elemental to Fallen London.
Would I still recommend Sunless Skies? Absolutely, because these issues I raise feel much more like personal preferences that aren’t going to dissuade folks looking for a creepy romp across the stars that plays well. It’s one of those corner cases where I think I actually prefer the inferior game because of the specific trappings that appeal to me, but I can still recognize what the superior game gets right. I only want to temper expectations for anyone who approaches the Fallen London games from the same angle I do. But for everyone else, this one looks great, sounds amazing, and does a wonderful job of making long treks through the void more engaging than long trips at sea.