London was once a city stolen by bats and whisked into caverns. But now, it is an empire that reaches far into the stars. I am a humble captain, controlling a sky locomotive that fell into my hands after its previous captain died a hideous death. I don’t know it yet, but everyone on this vessel is doomed — from the unrepentant devil I’ve caught killing stowaways, to the unnamed crew member I had to bribe with brandy so he would stop building a shrine, to unknown horrors in the belly of the ship.
Just like my predecessor, I’m about to die, except it won’t be in just one satisfying conclusion. I’m going to perish again … and again … and again, in search of gold, ambition, and fame.
The weirdest part is that I end up loving it when I die, each and every time.
This is all part and parcel of Sunless Skies, the latest Gothic horror, rogue-like RPG title from Failbetter Games and a direct sequel to Sunless Sea. Sunless Skies takes place in the Fallen London universe, a setting that debuted in a sprawling text-based browser game and has slowly expanded into the sea and now the stars.
The game begins with a brief tutorial, leading me through a narrow passageway with a dying captain and a worried crew. Once I park at New Winchester, I inherit the ship and crew. I am then prompted to choose an origin for my captain, and their affiliation, and finally, their end goal: an ambition, ranging from the humble desire for fame or fortune, to the weird and wild wishes like leading a revolution against the power structure, or uncovering the hidden truth of the world.
From there, I set out to sail, find a fortune, complete quests, upgrade my ship, and survive. Fulfilling my ambition is the “win condition” of the game, but it’ll take a long string of successes and dice rolls to get there. In the meantime, I need to keep my ship running and complete my work. But I know that chances are, I am going to die well before I complete my ambition. At that point, I get to pass my captain’s legacy onto a new character in the form of experience, gold, and a fuller map of the world.
For the most part, my locomotive chugs through stretches of skies. If I encounter enemy ships, like the Marauders, I engage in combat with them, firing my weapons and avoiding their shots. I raid the husks of broken ships across the stars, pull into ports to gather intel and complete quests, and keep exploring the map to fill my chart out. Over time, I gain little steps towards my ambition. If I want to be a famed poet, I gather stories that I can use to write my tale and win acclaim. If I’m just looking to retire with money in the bank, each quest and monetary reward gets me a step closer to collecting a large amount of wealth.
I explore locations through richly written text hubs, finding myself in environments like a massive circus settlement and a giant, soothing monument to the first rats to test travel among the stars. There are risks to every encounter, including skill tests and dice rolls, but if I pass, then I get rewards that help me eventually complete my ambition. I manage my fuel and supplies — and my terror, which slowly creeps up as I encounter some of the more horrifying parts of this new world. And I eventually end up dying, as I fail to properly manage the above.
Failure is part of the game; once I die, I can adjust the difficulty of certain aspects of the game, like ship-to-ship combat or supply management, and then pass my legacy onto the next character. A successful run that ends in failure means that my next captain is far more equipped to handle the wilds and I can go a little further, make a little more progress, understand the game a little more.
I tried Sunless Sea and bounced off of it, but Sunless Skies has improved several of the frustrating parts of that game. The world of Sunless Sea, the Underzee, was slower to navigate, and it felt like the early game always followed a very similar formula, while Sunless Skies goes through pains to make me feel prepared for my first voyage. Unlike the previous game, there’s a Merciful mode, meaning I can reload from my last autosave upon death.
There are modular difficulty settings so that I can set the exact level of challenge I want. The sky-locomotive chugs along a little faster than the ships of the Underzee. Sunless Sea had an oppressive air to it, which was appropriate, considering the setting and tone. Sunless Skies is far more inviting: The game offers me a hand and is far better about allowing me to navigate the UI and find my bearings. I get the sense that the game wants me to explore its secrets, no matter how hideous, not frustrate me with punishing ends.
There is one thing that Sunless Skies retains from Sunless Seas and its predecessor, Fallen London: the vast, sprawling canon, largely dealing with massively out-there concepts that anchor the setting and ultimately end up hiding far more disturbing, sanity-afflicting secrets. In Sunless Skies, the society is built around a clockwork sun, with numerous factions brewing rebellion. I have to choose which one of the world’s factions I want to side with, and I get to nudge politics and war along. That’s a great hook, but sometimes it’s genuinely difficult to understand the world.
There are no codexes or in-game explanations for many phenomena, like a writhing pit of tentacles that waits to be harvested or a swarm of ghosts moving through a settlement; instead, it’s all presented in a matter-of-fact way, with characters going about their lives. The end result is a very dreamlike world, where I can’t expect the concepts introduced to be anchored to very serious explanations. When I confront the aforementioned devil, I can ask him to examine some of my spiritual items or share his thoughts on a damned part of the world … but I can’t stop and go wait, you’re actually a devil? Collecting literal souls?
I gloss over the setting, accepting the encounters at face value, leading to a very Alice in Wonderland-like feeling of navigating a world, where my low-key confusion and wonder is just part of the experience.
There are also a few technical errors in the game — nothing major, but at times, starting a new captain will trigger an empty dialogue selection for me that I have to blindly click through. The aim lock-on feature works dramatically better for beasts and creatures I find in the sky, but can be unreliable for enemy ships. These are small annoyances, however, and I only experienced them briefly in an otherwise unimpeded play session.
Sunless Skies is a massive game, and it’s rare that a game this size comes without at least some quibbles. But 20 hours in, I’m excited to keep digging and uncovering facets of this world. This isn’t like working through a sci-fi epic where I’m uncovering the foundations of the world and bettering my understanding of it; instead, I’m tied to the character in my head. Even when she inevitably ends up perishing, I’m able to pass her wisdom on, and the legacy holds strong. I’ve burned through at least half a dozen captains at this point, but each one is able to find new territory, uncover new quests, and stand on the shoulders of her predecessors in an immensely satisfying way.
For many players, a sense of wonder comes about when a game is able to hint at what exists in the world that the player can’t easily or immediately access. Sunless Skies is masterful at building a sense of anticipation, encouraging me to keep pushing just a little farther, play a little riskier … up and until my crew starts eating each other in a maddened panic.
Much like the best kinds of horror, Sunless Skies has burrowed into the back of my brain and planted a little seed. When I’m not playing Sunless Skies, I find myself musing about what will happen the next time I jump on. The open, deceptively utopian sense to the new setting breathes life into a formula that I didn’t enjoy back on the sea. I’m glad to take to the stars; hopefully next time, I’ll manage to make it even further, before everything goes to hell once more.
Read more: Polygon