Sunless Skies is a gothic survival game slash interactive novel about locomotives in the sky. Should you board the train? Here’s what we think.
Your trusty iron locomotive in Sunless Skies will take you to many a terror of the High Wilderness. A prison that’s infinitely larger on the inside than on the outside; a colony that is in turn being colonised by fungus; or a clockwork sun that provides for the skyborne city of London. You will whisper a secret to a passerby to have them transform into a door. You will fill bureaucratic forms to be declared alive in a kingdom of the dead. You will live out one beautiful day for as long as you are invited to.
And you will die. You will die of starvation, you will die because you ran out of fuel, you will die because your crew was too terrified, and you will die because another locomotive (or some other horror) broke your engine’s hull wide open.
Queen Victoria has taken to the skies and murdered the sun, replacing it with a clockwork sun of her own. Her life has been extended thanks to hours mined from the rocks in the sky, and she reigns in the 1900s as an autocrat.
You play as a former first mate whose captain succumbs to injury, leaving you to inherit her locomotive, the Orphean. Who you are as a captain depends on the background you choose for your character—a soldier, an urchin, a revolutionary, and an auditor being some of the options available. You also choose your ambition, which serves as your victory condition. Your freshly-minted sky captain is free to pursue either money, fame, or “the truth”—the latter being a particularly challenging ambition.
After a brief tutorial, you are thrown into the world of the High Wilderness, which is what the cloudborne world of Sunless Skies is called. Here, you are free to explore, trade, gossip, terrorise, repent, and do much else besides.
The very vast range of experiences found in Sunless Skies is made possible by having a sizeable novel’s worth of (interactive) fiction. Whether you’re exploring a derelict locomotive stranded in the sky, or attending a ball at Port Prosper, you’re treated to sharp and imaginative prose.
Crafted by the flawless talent at Failbetter Games, the writing of Sunless Skies is cut like a fine gem. Its words are chosen, appraised, measured for brevity, and juxtaposed with care. There’s a vast wit and imagination on display, but it’s all edited and hewn in a way that makes every word precious and irreplaceable.
This is further bolstered by the game’s commitment to true roleplaying. Sure, it has your experience points, level-ups and equipment upgrades, but more importantly, Sunless Skies’ always asks you how you want to approach a situation.
Early in the game, you find yourself in possession of a black box that came with the locomotive you inherited. You can deliver it to where it’s supposed to be, or you can sell it off, or you can pick the lock, or detonate the lock, or consult your academic associates (if you have any), and do more things with it.
Such a wealth of choice is common in the stories of Sunless Skies, regardless of whether you are making empire-shaking decisions, revealing your past life as you level up, or just deciding what to do with the wildlife you hunted. In true roleplaying fashion, many choices involve skill checks for your captain. Often, even failure ends up rewarding you with something or the other, whether it is a different resource or a branch in the story.
Resources are the heart of Sunless Skies, and in line with the inventive world of Sunless Skies, they are not quite what you’d expect. Sure, every once in a while, you’ll be dealing in mundanities like chopped bronzewood or sacks of verdant seeds. You might even peddle in books of Ministry-Approved Literature (guaranteed by the Ministry of Decency to be exceptionally British).
However, your expeditions into the High Wilderness will have you coming across Moments of Inspiration, Tales of Terror, or Crimson Promises. Scour the vitrified coffins floating near London and you might just find a Condemned Experiment. Search the captain’s cabin of a defeated locomotive, and you might learn a Savage Secret.
These ‘possessions’—physical and non-physical both—can be used up in equally fascinating events. Enter the halls of Magdalene’s, where the staff role-plays to treat your pains away, and where you can trade away one of your Savage Secrets to drive ease your loneliness. At Port Avon, you can share a Salon-Stewed Gossip with the locals to be welcomed to the reclusive settlement.
When you’re not resolving stories, you’ll find yourself planning expeditions and then undertaking them. Although your locomotive runs at a snail’s pace, the game still makes each journey filled with dread and tension, thanks to its randomly encountered stories and its survival mechanics.
You require a crew to run your engine, fuel to keep your engine chugging along, supplies to keep your crew well-fed, and furthermore, you also need to keep your locomotive’s hull in good shape by not crashing or taking damage. While you’re juggling those metres, be sure to also factor in your crew’s level of terror (the High Wilderness is a terrifying place). These form the gameplay core of Sunless Skies, although there’s even more things to have to worry about, such as your nightmares or any old gods that you may have angered along the way.
The pace is perfect for exploration, but routine runs between explored ports can get languorous. Most ports are several minutes away from each other, and the bulk of your playtime is spent watching the scenery slowly change. To be fair, it is good scenery, and it takes you through every colour palette conceivable. Still, there’s no avoiding the fact that Sunless Skies is a slow, lonely game. It shines when you are exploring, but dulls when you’re not.
When you start a new game, you can choose to play in the roguelike ‘Legacy’ mode, in which dead captains stay dead, passing down their locomotive and bank holdings to their successor. The alternative is the ‘Merciful’ mode, in which you can choose to reload at your last-docked-at port, should you die.
I started my adventure in Legacy Mode, expecting it to be the way the game was meant to be played. It certainly adds a special fear for your life, to know that your hard-accumulated progress could be wiped out because you foolishly chose to engage a bandit instead of running away.
However, I quickly grew disillusioned with the fact that the game erased my journal of quests after each death. Officers (which are essentially special party members with quest lines) you picked up also returned to their ports, seemingly by magic, and you could recruit them again as if nothing had changed. The inconsistency disappointed me, and I decided to switch to Merciful mode instead, after which I began to enjoy the adventure immensely.
Whether it’s the joy of reaching port, the excitement of engaging with a marauder, or the wonderment of the creatively-written fantasy, Sunless Skies filled my head with adventure and took me on a tour of marvels and monstrosities such as I’m glad to have encountered. It still has me itching to return to the High Wilderness for another go.
Developer: Failbetter Games
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Publisher: Failbetter Games
Release Date: 31 January 2019
Platforms: PC, Mac, and Linux
This review of Sunless Skies is based on a copy provided by the developer.
For more information on Sunless Skies, check out our previous coverage of the game here.
- Stellar writing
- Tension-filled survival gameplay
- Atmospheric presentation
- Slow pace