Ahhh, Early Access. The time when a game is booted out of the developer’s nest whether it’s ready or not. A time where a game will either be cannibalized by testers and reviewers alike or soar like a majestic eagle through the skies of unabashed praise. Sunless Skies, the latest entry in Failbetter Games’s popular Fallen London universe, has recently entered Early Access after a successful Kickstarter funded earlier this year. Of course, being a huge fan of both Fallen London and Sunless Sea, the game’s precursor, I couldn’t wait to head out into the great unknown to explore.
While Sunless Skies is a sequel to Sunless Sea, it functions more as a spiritual successor. Skies, Sea and the Fallen London browser game itself can all be played in any order, together or separately. Will you get confused playing one or two but not the third? Yes, definitely. Will you get confused anyway? Absolutely, because the universe and mythos that Failbetter has built up at this point is so dense that it’s like trying to unravel a bolt of spider-silk—frustrating, probably sticky and you’ll end up needing a bath and some brain bleach by the end of it. That’s not to say it isn’t fun but newcomers may come to some confusion trying to figure out why Queen Victoria, ahem, the Traitor Empress is, in fact, a traitor and why she has decided to take the English court to outer space. Skies and Sea are also linked in their play mechanics as some of the player critiques and concerns from Sea have been addressed in Skies.
So far, the Early Access of Sunless Skies sets the player in The Reach, with the major port hub of New Winchester at the center. The planned map for the game will include four different regions to explore, each with a major port at the center where the player can readily stock up, refuel, fight terror and hand in port reports. The mechanics function as a rogue-like and the player plays the game by flying around their steampunk space train to different ports, fighting occasional monsters or other ships en route and trying not to die in ports, where there are more monsters and even worse dangers from the people who live there. All interaction except for fighting is conducted via storylets,boxes that contain an illustration, information on your current situation and a choice. Most of the time you are allowed to choose which storyline or path you want to take or not take. The main exception is when something unavoidable gets thrown your way while you’re chugging across the High Wilderness, such as a frozen corpse getting splattered on the front of your locomotive—it’s their version of bugs on a windshield.
Frozen corpses aside, the gameplay of Skies is incredibly open-ended and allows you the freedom to follow whichever storylines you want in the ports you want. Wishing to spend a lifetime currying favor and aiding the cause of the Tacketies? Go for it. Want to improve the port of Titania to the best it can be and leave your mark forever on the reaches of space? Excellent. Or maybe you just want to run around blasting other locomotives out of the sky in ship to ship combat, which is also perfectly acceptable. The game can never be played the same way twice, even if you really want to. The game changes up the odds of certain opportunities appearing, as well as the frequency of enemies in the High Wilderness, among other things, ensuring that once you have the basic gameplay down, you still won’t be easily bored.
Failbetter Games has done work specifically to lessen the learning curve in this game, and it shows. The game is still unforgiving and tough but usually lets you get your balance before it tries to murder you. Half of the challenge of playing is knowing HOW to play, and that is done by dying. Captains and legacies are meant to build upon each other, and after a while, you’ll learn the intricacies of balancing different factions at ports and get a clearer understanding of what to do, depending on how you want to succeed. Feel like playing around at Polmear & Plenty’s Inconceivable Circus and following those storylines to completion? Don’t expend your resources on Lustrum. Or maybe do, if a reward at the end of a Lustrum quest will aid you at the Circus. The storylines do intertwine and it’s impossible to go through the game with tunnel vision, but knowing what to do and what to avoid is something that you can learn only by playing the game through and usually failing a few times along the way.
The soundtrack of Skies is gorgeous thusfar, composed by Maribeth who has done the music for the previous installments of the Fallen London universe. Failbetter promises a unique musical experience for each area of the High Wilderness, so we will have to see how that pans out. The art is in much the same style as the rest of the Fallen London universe, with cartoonish caricatures of the characters and gorgeous backgrounds. The backgrounds do show more space objects behind where you are flying, but these are in a lighter colored layer which allegedly makes it easier to figure out what you’re about to eminently crash into. Go on, ask me how many boulders I’ve hit and how many places I’ve detoured around that I didn’t need to. The answer is several, and the lighting difference between the two layers could stand to be much more pronounced. Special note must go towards the deep recesses of space, when you’re flying between ports and there is nothing in between, the background gradually changes to a green and black starry sky that genuinely looks like you’re traversing through the heavens and it’s simply and surprisingly beautiful.
Now, some mention must be made for two of the major changes between Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, based on fan feedback and critique of the first game. The most major problems that people had been that the ships in Sea were too slow and that having the home port at the one far end of the map hindered your ability to make progress on the further locations. Sure, you could get across to the Empire of Hands, but your terror or need for supplies would be so high that you could only inch the story of the Monkey Foundling along by a few interactions before needing to trek all the way back to Fallen London on the opposite side of the map. The fact that the ship speed was agonizingly slow at times, even when you had a high amount of crew, only compounded this problem. Sunless Skies has upped the ship speed, which is (mostly) a good thing. The only trouble is that the ships can be more difficult to control, particularly when trying to dodge and weave around the intricate architecture of the ports. An option to reduce speed at the ports or on the whole map, for the more cautious players who wish to avoid ship damage, would be greatly appreciated.
The other change is that instead of having one major or home port, Skies now has 4, each in the center of one of the regions. New Winchester is the center for the Reach, the area currently available in-game. It’s smack in the middle of the map, which does greatly help your ability to explore the map evenly, however, the rest of the map being randomized takes away a common crutch that players could use in Sea. In Sea, the area directly around the port was not randomized, leading to a few close by locations that players could use to ferry port reports from quickly and play out some shorter storylines to get their sea legs, so to speak. There’s nothing like that in Skies now, which is compensated by the map restructuring making it a fairer game overall. Still, it can be a letdown to not have the equivalent of Hunter’s Keep to use as a bit of a booster. The port hubs being in the middle of the region is, thus far, a huge help, but also not the sort of thing that will come into full effect with having only one region to explore as the basis of the mechanic is meant for exploring multiple regions. It doesn’t take away the challenge, as there are many times I have limped home to port, but it makes it easier to explore more places than before.
Overall, Sunless Skies shows a lot of promise. There are definitely some rough edges to be worked out, character creation needs to be implemented and storylines do appear to carry over between different areas, leaving some parts unfinished. While it's less creepy than previous storylines in Sea, we're only seeing the tip of the lifeberg. Additionally, for those who have played the previous installments in the universe, we're all waiting to see why exactly the game is entitled Sunless Skies, and what potentially devastating ramifications that could have for the FL universe going forward. Bugs are being patched as updates come out, and according to developers the next area they're working on is Albion, the center of the Traitor Empress' court. That alone should deal out some very interesting storylines. The game is expected to release in 2018, so stay tuned for more updates from the High Wilderness!