Sunless Skies Review
You’ve got to love Friedrich Nietzsche. Not only did the legendary German philosopher, poet and scholar produce works with profound influences on the development of modern intellectual thinking, he also owned a moustache capable of making even the most hardened lumberjack weep.
Nietzsche famously wrote: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” In the case of Sunless Skies, the newest release from Failbetter Games, it’s probably better paraphrased into “... if you gaze long into a gigantic haunted bumhole…”
I love philosophy, but I also bloody love steampunk. It’s a steamy, sooty niche I’ve got a big old soft spot for. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Is that the genre where people stick bits of clocks to themselves?’ Well, yeah. But good steampunk has an intersection of technology and social issues which is rare to find in many other genres.
While Sunless Skies is billed as a Gothic Horror RPG with strong literary elements, there’s a heavy steampunk flavour. The game sees you piloting a spacefaring locomotive train into the spaces between dying stars and clockwork suns. Set against the background of a starfaring British Empire at war with itself, the superpower has split in two. There are the Stovepipes – top hat-sporting establishment figures, and the Tacketies – rebellious upstarts who despise institutions. Overseeing all this is Queen Victoria, now known as Her Renewed Majesty, an undying God-like empress thanks to the gift of Hours. You see, in this world they mine raw time, which can be refined into...
At this point, either your eyes are more glazed than a Christmas ham, or you’ve transformed into Vince McMahon. Failbetter Games might as well have said “we’re making a game Shaun will really want to play.” And so they did. Thanks, Failbetter Games.
But does it all come together? There’s a mixed story here, but one thing is clear: this game is absolutely a labour of love. It oozes personality. The studio have clearly taken many elements from games they love, then added a big dollop of their own narrative ideas. During my first few hours with the game, I had an unexpected nostalgia kick which took me back to the days of playing Escape Velocity on our first Mac. It’s got a similar sense of a vast world full of possibilities.
I was blown away by the storytelling in the game. There is an absolutely mad amount of content throughout. This detail even extends down to the officers on your ship – characters you can find or employ who boost your engine stats – and depending on who’s present at different times, you’ll experience varied narratives. Each officer also has their own storyline, which uncovers more history about the world.
I feel like the best of this game is probably found later on. I played for around fifteen hours and only really explored the first level and about 25% of another. At launch there are two more worlds to explore.
The art style is gorgeous, and throughout the world you’ll stumble upon all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff. The feel of the engines is done very well, and I love the way you have to correct for inertia as you move and fire your weapons. Combat is real-time and features heavily as the skies are filled with dangerous pirates and beasties. Given it’s a fairly core mechanic, it’s nothing particularly spectacular, but there’s a reasonable variety of different weapons to try.
The music fits the game very well, and the juddering strings as you near some unspeakably horrifying monster are neat touches. On the other hand, the sound design is a mixed bag. The chugging, clanking engines are great, but the weapons are weak and uninspiring by contrast.
Unfortunately, as I continued to play, some fairly glaring design flaws become apparent. I’ll prefix this with the thought that so much love and energy went into the storytelling and narrative, Failbetter may have lost sight of some basic gameplay elements.
As you chug between the various ports, while you often encounter weird things along the way, the world is strangely empty. Recalling Escape Velocity, the world was absolutely alive with other ships. In Sunless Skies, there’s a certain loneliness to the experience. Even in the largest ports, there are usually only one or two NPC ships chugging around. Surely the skies should be bristling with activity?
The chart and other UI elements are infuriating. In a game where most of your time is spent moving between points, why does every menu item pause the game and completely break your flow? This is particularly obtrusive with the map. If it was done as an overlay or minimap instead, it would make a much more pleasant gaming experience.
On the topic of maps, I found the game’s reluctance to tell you where anything is another maddening aspect. Sure, you have a scout which can send out at the expense of supplies, but the only other way to find anything is to literally be right on top of it. Given your Captain supposedly comes from this place (“New Winchester, you’re finally home.”), why do I have no idea where New Winchester is until I find it? You can chug across a map, slowly starving to death because you’re out of supplies, and if you miss a port by an inch on the map, you’ll have no idea it was even there. Just tell me where the main port of an area is, or let me buy some maps. Even just a slight hint when you’re near a port. Something. Anything? Please?
Still, despite these frustrations, I’m weirdly protective of this game. It’s doing something really unique with its narrative elements, and I applaud any studio willing to risk a game which breaks the mould. It’s a shame its best elements seem to have come at the cost of core gameplay design. I still enjoyed it, though.
Full steam ahead!
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