Sunless Skies is the latest entry into a series of narrative-driven Gothic role playing games. The game has gone some strange places, both literally and figuratively. The original title was a primarily text-based browser game, the sequel Sunless Sea was a rogue-like action experience set on a massive underground ocean.
Sunless Skies has taken the setting into the skies, taking the gameplay of Sunless Sea and setting it on flying trains up in the sky. Well, sort of. It’s sort of difficult to tell if it’s supposed to be the sky, space or just the top of the ‘Neath, the giant cavern the world has until previously been set in.
Life Amongst the Stars (and Fungi)
As with previous games in the series the setting is pretty out there. It all takes place in sudo-space, filled with broken apart abandoned settlements and unknowable forms of oozing fungus. The sky is filled with strange creatures and unknown places, and that’s just for starters.
One of the first things returning players will notice about Sunless Skies is how different the story feels this time around. Steering slightly closer to a traditional ‘gaming’ narrative, this time there is a war to pick sides in as well as numerous cosmic horrors to get devoured by.
This change in pace for the narrative is actually a nice change. The feeling of insignificance is still to be found, and realistically it is up to you how you choose to play it. If you treat it like a normal game narrative you can change the course of the war, or you can leave them to kill each other and get lost in space.
As with many games the emphasis is on narrative freedom. The game’s story is driven by minor encounters in text boxes. Everything from ground-shaking battles to ferrying someone’s grandmother to a local port is handled in this way. Not that story moments are all you get to do.
A definite improvement in Sunless Skies is the combat. Although the game is primarily narrative driven you do have to fly around space exploring, and of course defending yourself from harm. To do this you must equip your train with different weapons, different officers and generally try to give yourself the best possible chance of not exploding into dust.
The main thing you might notice is that you actually feel more active in combat this time around. Instead of just pressing fire whenever your ship says it’s ready, you now aim and fire yourself. On top of that, your train has side-mounted jets to allow dodging. This turns the combat into a battle of bobbing and weaving, ducking enemy attacks and slamming home your own.
While the combat in Sunless Skies has been improved, it is still just a means to an end. The real meat of the game is found in the choices you can make. More importantly then anything that happens in the larger world is the choices you make regarding who your character is. You have to choose your ambitions, as well as actions that shape your character as a person.
Your captain could be the sort to fly your crew into lonely space, exploring and earning money by writing reports. You can become an aggressive combatant, seeking out dogfights in space to further your goals and resources. Perhaps you’ll seek stories all across the starless skies.
One thing that you’ll benefit from while enjoying your freedom is the fact that you no longer have to rely on luck to see the game through. Sunless Skies still manages to keep it’s hard-as-nails reputation, while allowing players an easier option.
You can now pick a more forgiving mode that doesn’t automatically delete your save when you die. Instead you can choose to go back to the last port you visited instead, allowing you to keep your character alive for longer. Hard core players may baulk at the concept, but it’s a nice touch for the sake of accessibility.
All of this isn’t to say that Sunless Skies is without its problems. The game now features gamepad support but it isn’t quite fully designed around it yet. You cannot assign all of your officers with a gamepad, or keep an eye on your terror total.
There are also a few moments where the game spits out a continuity error such as having a cheerful sales person appear on an abandoned port. Obviously these continuity errors are very minor, but they do exist and it’s important to remember that they’re there.
Regardless Sunless Skies is an excellent example of a narrative-driven, mainly text-based game. It blends active and passive gameplay pretty damn well. Not to mention the feeling of wonder and isolation as you explore space-sky is hard to match these days.
- Good blend of action and storytelling
- More active combat
- Great atmosphere of isolation
- Unique visual design
- Some continuity errors
- Gamepad support not complete yet
Sunless Skies takes the successful narrative focus of the Fallen London universe and sets it in a more action oriented, space-faring universe. The shift in tone and focus to a more active world helps the game to come out of it’s dowdy shell, and the greater levels of accessibility just might make this the most successful title FailBetter have ever produced.