As the Alien franchise has long recognized, the truly ferocious power of sci-fi horror rests in absolute isolation. Feeling utterly cut off from the safety of home and any promise of help. Sunless Skies, Failbetter Games’ successor to their bleak rogue-like Sunless Sea derives its appeal from this primordial fear.
Launched as an Early Access title on Steam, Sunless Skies currently features only one of four planned zones. Even in its unfinished state the game largely delivers the grimly evocative experience it initially promised during its successful Kickstarter campaign.
The text-driven gameplay is immediately familiar to any Sunless Sea veterans. This time, players control a space-faring locomotive (just go with it) tasked with voyaging between distant interstellar outposts. Here a myriad of strange and enigmatic characters await. Players must carefully manage both fuel and supplies to avoid an icy death, stranded in the trackless wastes of space. All while struggling to stave off their crew’s rising terror of the void.
Machinations of Despair
Along the way, strange and mordant narratives start to unfold. What becomes of the denizens of a dilapidated interstellar circus? What are the galaxy’s lurking space pirates really after? It’s these sort of poignantly facetious questions that make Sunless Skies a title that sinks its hooks in deep.
Despite the obvious similarities, Sunless Skies does know when to deviate from its predecessor. Perhaps the most significant change from Sunless Sea is that the player’s spaceship clips along at a suitably rapid pace. This is in direct contrast to the plodding steamship of the previous game.
The spaceship is also far more maneuverable. It’s outfitted with thrusters that allow players to jet swiftly from side to side. Combat has also improved. Gone are the cumbersome deck guns of Sea. Instead players are treated to a system of primary and secondary weapons fired in real-time that make battles feel more kinetic.
To counter the addition of speedier vessels, distance between ports has increased dramatically. Players will inevitably find themselves rushing headlong through empty space towards a destination that may or may not be where they think. Additionally, the game world is apparently unbounded. Spacefarers straying beyond the borders of the starting zone could find themselves adrift in an apparently endless celestial void. Becoming “lost in space” is a very real possibility.
Onward into the Unknown
Just like its predecessor, Skies won’t be to every gamer’s taste. The grim permadeath system from Sunless Sea makes a comeback. Unless players choose to switch it off, they run the risk of being forced to replay the same early missions over and over. At times, this unforgiving learning curve verges on the cruel. Although it never quite felt as infuriating as in the previous game.
What really distinguishes Sunless Skies isn’t so much its gameplay, but its the dramatic setting. The constant specter of a horrifying death is an essential part of that setting.
Taking place in Failbetter’s Fallen London universe, Skies is a Lovecraft-inflected steampunk dystopia. One where “hours” (yes, the units of time) are traded as currency. A world where gigantic fungal growths drift through space, and lost souls wander between the stars. This setting conjures forth not simply a sci-fi adventure, but the lingering terror of the unknown.
Strangely, the periodic technical glitches common with any early access title actually enhance this experience. To venture into Sunless Skies is to make a gamble. Not just for your character, but also as a player. A promise that something rewarding ultimately awaits beyond the gauntlet of obvious risks and setbacks.
While Sunless Sea has the benefit of detailed player guides to help navigate every storytelling hook, Skies has no such reference points yet. This makes every moment of play a true wager in the face of uncertainty. This profound awareness of the limits of our own knowledge makes Sunless Skies a true adventure into the unknown.