How will you stake your claim in the Sunless Skies?
I was something of a fan of Sunless Sea on PC. Set in the world of Fallen London, in which London has been taken beneath the Earth, you sail the Unterzee, seeking adventure, fame, fortune, and primarily survival as you attempt to outlast the murderous pirates and terrifying denizens. Sunless Skies is set thirty years later, and the Londoners have discovered space travel, rising above the clouds to stake their claim on the stars. This new release, the Sovereign Edition, on console includes various additions that were not in the initial PC release — although they have been added subsequently — and little has been lost in the translation.
You begin as a nameless captain aboard the Orphean, a sky locomotive returning from a dangerous journey into the Blue Kingdom. The vessel is stricken, and the captain, dying. Through a brief tutorial, you drag the carcass of the train to New Winchester, one the many British settlements among the clouds. The locomotive is salvaged, but the captain succumbs to her wounds, bequeathing the vessel, her crew, and a mysterious box to you. Thus starts your journey among the skies, the nightmare riddled skies that London has risen to.
At this point, you customise your captain, determining their past and their life ambition, be it the money, fame, or dreaded truth of the skies, the latter of which is a new option since the initial release. You probably shouldn’t get too attached to your avatar though, as death and madness are swift and brutal here, and you’ll be back to square one with next to nothing before too long.
Yes, Sunless Skies is a rogue-lite, and a hard one at that, but not in quite the same way as many. Your death doesn’t reset the game, rather you create a new captain, who follows your legacy by claiming some of what you’ve lost before pursuing their own goal. This means you don’t get a newly randomised map, and a completely empty inventory. Instead you have a few advantages that the previous poor soul did not, giving you a greater chance of survival, if only slight. This is a nice way of working around the starting from scratch issue, although it is still galling to lose a successful captain. With that said, there are difficulty options here, including one that allows you to reload a previous save rather than create a new captain.
Mechanically, this is an exploration and choose-your-own-adventure game. From a top down perspective, you’ll chug from floating island to floating island, meeting people and other creatures, and completing tasks for money and…other resources. These play out as visual novel sections, in which you read what’s going on, and make choices based on what personality traits and stats you have. Often you can fail these checks, but you can still come out with something useful, although there will likely be unpleasant consequences.
Those consequences often come in the form of terror, one of your five main resources. Fuel and food are fairly obvious, as is money which is needed to purchase them. There’s your hull which determines if you’re going to explode any time soon, but there’s also terror. Soaring through the skies means you’ll see some really unpleasant things, as well as experience them first-hand on the islands you find. As your terror increases, so do bizarre events that could harm you or your crew more directly. Should it increase too much, you’ll go mad and lose another captain. This means that those event choices could be more testing than you thought. If you have a low stat that would be tested, perhaps it would be better to back out and return later.
These events are the absolute core of the game though and they’re written so extraordinarily well. The writers manage to pack so much detail about the locations and characters in just a few lines of text that they create a world on each island. It’s genuinely impressive stuff, and drives you on to find the next event or location across the numerous maps for you to travel between. The downside here is that you’ll often come across the same event as each subsequent captain comes to a dock. This is the biggest flaw in Sunless Skies that I found. I’d often have to redo the same things as I started a new captain, and I got to the point that I wished I’d started the game on the lower difficulty to allow me to reload my game.
Everything else is so on point though. The music is hauntingly beautiful no matter where you are, and subtly shifts as you move from one region to another. The calm as you approach New Winchester is quite different to the frigid soundscapes created around the skies of Lustrum. The visuals are simple at their most basic, but convey an awful lot. Seeing the world just drop away beneath your locomotive gives you the feeling of existential dread that few games manage — you’re tiny in this world, and there are forces far greater than you at play.
There are numerous ways to play as you pursue your ambition. You could explore and trade goods from one port to another to earn your fortune, or you could hunt down other locomotives and raid them for cash and goods to sell. Alternatively, you could attempt to help others on islands, solving problems for them in exchange for money or more exotic, intangible resources. Whatever you decide, you’ll end up in combat at some point, which is a pretty simple affair. Fire your guns at your enemy, and attempt to dodge their attacks. You’ll need to manage your temperature gauge so you don’t overheat and leave yourself vulnerable. There are plenty of foes to face too, not all of them describable.
The console port feels excellent, with very few issues that I’ve come across, although there was a bizarre crash when an event caused my vessel’s hull to drop to zero. I was lucky as it didn’t end my run! Navigating the menus and inventories isn’t quite as slick as it would be with a mouse, but there’s not much that can be done to help that when playing on console. The counter to that is that it feels slightly more intuitive to move your train and use the dodge mechanic during combat.
I could genuinely go on forever about Sunless Skies. There’s so much content here, from stories to discover and officers to hire — my personal favourite being a giant dog — to battles to fight and gods to annoy at your own risk. Even finishing the game will leave you with plenty left undiscovered, and you’ll want at least two runs through the lengthy campaign before you can complete The Truth — a path that I myself have yet to tread. This is an excellent game that I intend to playthrough again before long, perhaps I’ll discover yet more madness.
Sunless Skies is out now on Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, and PC.