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.
All in all, there are four maps for you to explore: The Reach, Albion, Eleutheria and The Blue Kingdom. All of which have unique locations for you to investigate, their own special side quests and factions. With each captain, the maps you've explored will be partially randomised, with the main port where you do the majority of trading always staying in the centre. The change from one large map in Sunless Sea to multiple maps here allows for a larger range in terms of visuals and helps stop the journey from one area to the other getting boring 20+ hours in.
But how do you go about exploring this alien setting? Your method of travel is your spacefaring locomotive which will get to from A to B, protecting you from harm along the way. Each ship has a different allotment of equipment slots available, in which you can equip all manner of weapons and gear. Through this, you can specialise your ship to the style of gameplay you like. Do you prefer transporting lots of valuables from one place to another? Then attach hold upgrades to expand your inventory. Want as many crew members as possible? Then expand your crew quarters.
While not huge, the variety of ships and equipment available to buy provided a clear sense of progression. We often found ourselves saving up money in hopes of buying a shiny new train and considering the length of time it takes to attain some of the more expensive items, we were happy it gets passed onto your next captain if you happen to die. It's common for some roguelites to struggle when showcasing your progression in-game, but fortunately, the quality of your ship accurately achieves this.
One of the greatest improvements from Sunless Sea is the improved combat. The old system was the major fault in the previous instalment in Failbetter's series, and thankfully it has been completely overhauled. Now with the ability to dodge, and swapping out targeting cones for projectile-based gunplay, the combat in Sunless Skies finally feels like a quality addition to the game rather than a gameplay feature tacked onto a title driven by its narrative.
Overall, Sunless Skies feels like Failbetter took all the feedback from Sunless Sea and addressed it, resulting in a sequel that feels better in almost every way. The game is bigger, the gameplay is better, the world is more interesting, and unless you absolutely cannot stand lots of reading or dislike roguelikes, there is absolutely no reason to not pick this one up. This is a game that can be a fulfilling 30-hour experience for some or a 200+ hour epic for others, and we wholeheartedly recommend it.
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