It ought to be a source of considerable shame that I cannot recall the last time I read a complete novel. Lord of the Flies maybe? If so then that was over 20 years ago in an English class at secondary school. Since then it’s been nothing but non-fiction, not out of any conscious determination I assure you, but rather I simply never had the motivation for it in amongst all the reading demands of my university days and beyond. What a relief then that Sunless Skies never got made into one. It certainly could have been, in fact the strength of the world building and writing in Failbetter Games’ second outing could easily have found its way onto our TV screens as yet another NetBO or Hflix series, doomed to be forever overlooked by yours truly. As it is, it mercifully sidesteps the media zeitgeist and plumps for the world of video games.
But what a video game it is. In a post Brexit world the aggressive Britishness of Sunless Skies could not be more timely or hilarious. Its vision of a Victorian steampunk astral empire is at once glorious and terrifying, where its bloated structures of steel and fire juxtapose an endless skyscape of weirdness and dread. Tea and scones are readily available, but so is death and madness, served up in a number of delightful variations. Its allusions to the quirks of British life and its institutions are darkly comic and detailed in such a way so as to make its eviscerations sharp yet sentimental. For as depressing and absurd as things might be on this rain soaked isle, it is still, for all its failings, home.
Which is more or less to say that the writing is superb, showing up as it does, the remedial standards the industry seems to now tolerate. PG Wodehouse had said of his death that all he had ever hoped for was that people would remember him as someone who took trouble, and whatever fate Failbetter Games may arrive at in the future they certainly took trouble in creating so many words, but more importantly, so many good ones, surely aware that a great deal of them would most likely never be read. This loving attention to detail, coupled with the extraordinary world they have built, makes the experience an unalloyed delight.
Sunless Skies is far more than a glorified visual novel however and has a number of mechanics that make it very much a game in the more familiar sense. As a newly promoted captain you must set out on your own, managing your engine and its crew on your journeys across the titular skies. As you explore you gain experience to improve your stats which are used to help the dice roll chances when questing, and through completing quests you gain money to buy fuel, supplies, new engines and equipment to help you survive the ever more dangerous regions you gain access to.
It’s far from easy, yet the game offers custom difficulties and different ‘ambitions’-- the overall goal you set yourself to ostensibly complete the game. Whether by death or victory subsequent captains may inherit a measure of your items and experience so you rarely have to start from zero should the worst happen. Likewise should you finally finish the game but wish to try a new ambition, you won’t have to go through another 30+ hours on any subsequent run to do so.
There are still shortfalls however, backtracking plays a very large part as much of what you do is ferrying people and items to and fro. You will visit the same places far more than once so it can get quite tedious at times where your next goal requires a long journey through already explored areas. In such situations, and in the absence of any fast travel, careful planning is your only option to ensure each trip yields something of value, be they narrative or material rewards.
Another factor to consider is terror, which steadily increases as you travel. Encountering enemies and other horrific phenomena only speeds up the process and left unchecked can lead to dangerous events which put you and your crew at risk. Stopping regularly at ports and visiting certain locations is required to keep everyone relatively sane and yet, sometimes, terror can open opportunities otherwise unavailable to the well adjusted and emotionally stable individual.
As you may well have already surmised there is a big risk reward dimension to Sunless Skies. Everything is a gamble of some kind and the key is always weighing up those risks and preparing for the worst. In general you'll often find yourself on the back foot but this only adds to the oppressive atmosphere and the desire needed to survive in this very large and very dangerous world. Likewise it gives the game its principle challenge and provides an effective scaffold for the world and the stories within it.
Visually it makes the most of its modest budget. The art design is gorgeous and you really do get an impressive sense of scale through the clever use of layering the top down perspective. Environments are lush, well detailed and varied. Without the need for lots of polygons or 3D modelling, the art can speak for itself and its language is thick and affecting atmospherics. Meanwhile the music does what it ought to, supporting the visuals and adding that little extra splash of emotive magic when needed.
Despite having already confessed a great literary ignorance and knowing the unreasonable expectations this will almost certainly engender, I cannot avoid thinking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and how Sunless Skies feels like something of a spiritual relation. The humour isn’t perhaps as overt as it is in Douglas Adams’ work but the wit and nature of it is very reminiscent. Likewise the creativity and imagination on display is some of the best in the medium and a real masterclass in not only creating a world but in pulling you in to it.
As a daughter of the classic CRPG and adventure game I have been mentally conditioned to tackle its myriad paragraphs but the amount of reading ought not to dissuade one from giving Sunless Skies a chance. It is sure to always remain a niche title because of this, and is clearly never going to appeal to everyone, but its dark mix of fantasy, cosmic horror and choo-choo trains is so potent, so full of sublimity and wonder that it ought not to be ignored.