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Sunless Skies Review - Hello Again, Delicious Friend

Gaming article by Courtney Ehrenhofler on Thursday, January 31, 2019 - 08:00
Review
Release Date
May 1, 2018
Monetization
One Time Purchase
Purchase (Some links may be affiliated)
Steam GOG.com Humble Bundle

Hands up, who likes trains? If so, you’ll enjoy Sunless Skies. As long as you have the stomach for it. This is the latest game set in Failbetter Games' Fallen London universeMuch like its predecessor, Sunless Skies is a mixture of roguelike and RPG elements. Most of the exploration of the High Wilderness takes place from a top-down view as you steer your locomotive around the skies. You combat with marauders and demonic sea urchins whilst discovering ports and landmarks. Between battle, you'll run into storylets that force you to make choices that determine how the plot proceeds. Taking place ten years after Sunless Sea, your new Captain takes to the skies in search of adventure, trouble and whatever your heart desires.

In order to establish a new British order, Empress Victoria takes London to the skies. She murders the sun and sets a clockwork sun to rule in its place. The skies, known as the High Wilderness, separate into four different regions. The Reach, Albion, Eleutheria and the Blue Kingdom can all be accessed by transit relays. If you’ve played any of the previous Fallen London games, this sounds pretty contradictory to what we’ve learned so far. Thankfully you'll have opportunities to unravel the mysteries as you go along. If you’ve never played any of these games and make it this far down the paragraph, congratulations! You can just jump right in feet first and you’ll get the hang of it soon enough.

 

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My heart desires crew members with faces, can that be arranged?

The basic mechanics of Fuel, Supplies, Terror, Hull, and Crew are all fairly well balanced. It's clear that there was a lot of changes that went into these after Sunless Sea, particularly Terror. Everything feels much more zen. I will say, the upper limit on Hull, even with upgrades, seems arbitrary and does not lend itself well to tanking. On the other hand, Terror is almost too easy to manage at the lower levels. Unless you're deliberately pushing the limits, it's not hard to keep it under control. Once your terror raises high enough, it takes much more effort to get it back to manageable levels.

 

Your Captain starts with four different skills to level up - Irons, Hearts, Veils, and Mirrors. These basically function like stats. Skills have a wide variety of uses and applications, and you choose how to spend points each time you level up. This is one of the more difficult parts of Sunless Skies, as you do have to make an effort to gain experience points. Not every action will net you points, but some things like exploring and finding new markers in the sky can get you unexpected experience.

sunless skies review 2
Captain Timebear has a storied history.

 

Trading is one of the important facets of Sunless Skies. Ports all offer certain Bargains and Prospects, and most sell fuel and supplies too. Buying Bargains then allows you to sell them at the central port in a region or to sell them for a Prospect, which nets you some extra money if you’re willing to make the trip. You can build up your wealth this way (in fact, you're forced to do so at the beginning) in order to have enough fuel and supplies to start working on story quests. As you spread out and explore more of the regions, the bargains and prospects become more complex while also netting you greater rewards. It remains a solid way to make money throughout the game but doesn’t allow Bargaining or Prospecting en masse, which can get frustrating.

Combat is a prominent feature of Sunless Skies, much more so than in Sunless Sea. A variety of enemies stalk the High Wilderness, ranging from easy foes to terrors that you flee from while screaming. Unfortunately, combat feels unbalanced. As you progress, you unlock different weapons, but none of them are significantly more powerful, save for the one you acquire in the Blue Kingdom. You’re supposed to rely on your dodging, your strafing, and your ability to strategically analyze the patterns of attackers.

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This sounds like a place where we can make lots of friends.

However, if you want to get a larger ship to do some quick trading between ports, attempting to fight your way through hordes of marauders can get very cumbersome. If you don’t want to fight, you can outrun most enemies, but it still damages your hull, which you then need to pay for. There’s also no way to sneak up on enemies, and some will sneak up on you rather violently. While the system works well for fighting other ships, it still feels like combat is forced upon you too often.

 

You start your journey in the Reach, which is mostly desolate wastes and scientific outposts. Albion is where London is located. It's a bustling center of industry, with factories, steam and smoke spread out across the horizon. Eleutheria is even more remote than the Reach, with vast swathes of uninhabited territory, and rebels who don’t want to serve the sun. It’s dark, it’s creepy, and there’s a weird mansion that I’m pretty sure eats people. The Blue Kingdom is the final region and it's the only one which is still ruled by a sun. It’s smaller than the other three, full of dead people, and had a unique flavor of bureaucracy and sandstone.

The variety between and within the regions is executed well. Different ports feel like they could be in different corners of the universe. The breathtaking artwork and the various beautiful bits of scenery make the regions seem even more expansive. Additionally, the set-up leaves Sunless Skies open for future expansions and story possibilities.

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This isn't even the scary part.

Each region and port has a unique audiovisual aesthetic. The music is some of the creepiest I’ve ever heard, and sailing around Eleutheria makes me feel like I’m about to be mugged at any second (which I usually am). The horror factor varies from place to place, helped by the music. For example, despite the inherent brightness of the Clockwork Sun, the music for the port sounds like someone scratching metal on violin strings. As you listen, you start to think you might really be going insane. Polmear and Plenty’s has appropriate circus music that just sounds a little bit off, though you can’t quite put your finger on why. Eleutheria, already creepy due to the immense amounts of darkness, also has the backing of what sounds like either a water-phone or a haunted piccolo.

 

The story of Sunless Skies is where it gets complicated. There’s plenty of plots to choose from, as each Officer has their own story you can choose to follow. Each port has at least one, with most ports having several stories to dive into. It’s a free and open way to play and lets you concentrate on what you want. Most of the regions also have different factions that have stories spanning across several ports. For example, the Winchester War takes place in the Reach and Albion, and Eleutheria is in the middle of a three-way tug of war in the heart of its capital, Pan. Plots are all of varying lengths and difficulties, and there’s a good variety of different causes and characters to explore.

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Hello again, old friend!

For those who have played Sunless Sea, it’s very obvious that Sunless Skies is iterating on that game, for good and for ill. Many mechanics and balances from the first game have been tweaked here. For example, it's easier to manage Terror, and having four regions with four central ports makes exploring much easier as well. However, the removal of Pages brings the number of skills down to four. This can start to feel basic after many level ups. The sky combat system is much more involved and harder to avoid, which is good if you enjoy the combat but not as great if you’re trying to focus on the stories.

Sunless Skies really feels like it underdelivers in the story department. It takes almost everything we already know about the Fallen London universe and then chucks it out the window. London's expansion to the stars and the new mythology is interesting, but it removes a lot of the intrigue associated with the established lore. It's still a well-written game, but said writing is also its biggest stumble. The absence of former creative director Alexis Kennedy is quite noticeable. The writing doesn’t have the same bite to it, and there’s more overt humor than in previous installments, which generally ran on a cycle of laughing at what was happening before pausing and asking yourself if you were supposed to laugh at that, oh god, you’re a terrible person for laughing at that but it’s so funny.

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I'm not sure if it counts as "fallen" if it's thousands of miles above where it started out.

Sunless Skies is a very, very long game. It doesn’t force you to play through to the end of any storylets, but each region easily has 40 to 50 hours of content in it. Or more, depending on how you play. It’s wide and open-ended, and you need to put in a substantial amount of time before you can access and survive the Blue Kingdom. The varying length of the plots helps to keep up the pace, as you don’t end up slogging all over the Reach for every single twenty-five step quest. The shorter ones are a breath of fresh air, as is the ability to work on multiple plots at once if you get tired or stuck.

Unfortunately, Sunless Skies could still use quite a bit of polish. While I didn't experience any game-breaking bugs, there are a number of small, repetitive issues to contend with. This includes storylet options showing up in the wrong place, ports being “discovered” in the wrong places and the docking feature working incorrectly at both ports and transit relays. Any release this big will have some patches after launch. Even so, there are way too many of these bugs to be able to look the other way.

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Well, not everything in the Skies is scary!

One other problem is how complicated it is to acquire Officers. It's easy enough to get a full complement of Officers, but if you don't want the Inconvenient Aunt as your Quartermaster, you're out of luck. Searching through all four regions and completing a number of quests has yet to yield me another option, which is frustrating. The only Officer I was able to acquire two of, besides the Mascot (which isn't a proper Officer), was the Engineer. Given that more Officers are being touted in marketing as a feature, this was a disappointment.

When it comes down to it, Sunless Skies is a solid game. It's a good point to jump into the franchise if you’re new to the world of Fallen London. The gorgeous graphics and eerie music do a lot to distract from the occasional bugs. While it doesn’t necessarily hold up to previous entries, it does offer fun explorative stories and fixes some of its predecessor's biggest issues.

TechRaptor reviewed Sunless Skies on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer. The game is also available on Mac and Linux.

Review Summary

7.0

Sunless Skies is a fun romp with enough plot variety to keep you entertained. While the writing lacks the sharpness of previous installments, this is a good series introduction for beginners.

Pros

  • Variety of Plots and Characters
  • Four Hub Ports Make for Accessible Exploring
  • Creepy Music and Gorgeous Graphics Give a Variety of Atmospheres

Cons

  • Combat Is Unable to Be Avoided
  • Plethora of Minor Bugs
  • Disjointed With Previous Installments Mythology

About the Author

Courtney

Courtney Ehrenhofler

Staff Writer

A native New Yorker, Courtney loves playing all different genres of games, but if you start talking to her about Trails in the Sky, she'll never shut up.