The supplies have run dry. What was meant to be a typical journey to Port Prosper turned dire, due in large part to a foolish detour for the sake of making a bit more coin during our venture north. Now it's a mad dash to safety. The hull is badly damaged, our terror is high, and soon we'll have to eat the crew just to survive. This is Sunless Skies at its greatest. A roguelite balancing act between playing it safe and taking risks, oftentimes putting it all on the line for the promise of treasure.
Predecessor Sunless Sea was one-of-a-kind in a lot of ways. The idea of a Lovecraftian sailing game may not sound too exciting at first, but an emphasis on resource management and top-down exploration made it an incredibly tense experience. Whether or not Failbetter games could improve on the series had us sceptical, and the worry that leaving the dark confinement of the Unterzee would water down what made the game special was prevalent ever since Sunless Skies was announced. But it turns out, the studio pulled it off.
The core of this new game is the writing. There's a whole lot of text to read in Sunless Skies, with no voice acting or cinematics to show what is happening. While this might seem like a negative at first, the world of Sunless Skies is fleshed out beautifully due to the fantastic work done by Failbetter's writers. Be it a conversation with a reclusive researcher or scuttling a derelict ship for supplies, what's happening is always made clear to you. That being said, if you're not a fan of reading pages of text then it doesn't matter how well written the game is.
Sunless Skies' story is one that is entirely decided by the player. When first creating your captain, you choose a goal that your captain needs to complete before being able to end their career. One of the ones we chose - creating a great work of writing (of course) - had us venture all over the game searching for material for us to publish. What's impressive here is the sheer number of variables within each personal story for your captain. Even if two captains both choose to write a great work, they can choose different styles, which stories to include, whether to make it controversial and even whether or not to focus on your crew. All these choices make every captain's personal story seem unique and special, even if you manage to die dozens of times.
There's also the personal story of your officers, who you pick up from ports around the game. These - in our experience - are some of the best side content the game has to offer, with each officer's side quest having multiple outcomes that can lead to them becoming better crewmates, leaving your ship with their mission complete, or even permanently changed for the worse. We particularly like the story of the princess who joins your crew, and we highly recommend picking her up as soon as possible.
Other than your captain's story, character customisation comes in two forms; their stats deriving from facets which elaborate on their past, and your basic portrait/title. Your facets, which are essentially level-ups with minor plot developments, are a cool spin on your standard levelling system which makes sense considering the sort of game Sunless Skies is. With such an emphasis placed on narrative, being able to further expand on your character's story helps further establish what sort of person they are. As for your title and portrait, there's a nice selection of basic character elements here that helps you figure out what sort of captain you wish to be. While it would be nice to have more options available in terms of portraits, the selection is large enough that you'll find at least one you like.
That said, the world of Sunless Skies isn't shown just through words. Instead, the areas you visit are portrayed using some fantastic art design. Sunless Skies has some of the most unique looking settings we've seen in an indie game, in large part due to the way Failbetter layers beautifully sculptured backgrounds with interactable foreground elements that blend right in. While occasionally it can be so difficult to differentiate background art from terrain you can crash your locomotive, for the most part, it's easy to tell what's intractable and what isn't.