Let me throw something at you real quick – what if I told you there was a game that was set in the 1900s. What if the British Empire, in all their self-righteous magnificence, thought waging war on the sun was a great idea, and that time was a currency that could be mined? What if cannon-totting steam trains could traverse the cosmos in search of Lovecraftian horrors and the occasional verdant seed? Well, that game is Sunless Skies, and it can be one heck of an experience.
After a brief tutorial that not only introduces you to the controls, but also to a mysterious curse that brands the insides of your organs and bones with archaic symbology resulting in the literal vomiting a hellfire until death, you are taken to the character creation screen. Here you can make a rather dashing silhouette, pick a fancy title and even name yourself. You also pick your origin here, which is essentially your class or starting stats. You could be a wily street urchin, a seasoned soldier or an academic, to name a few. Each origin has its own little quirks that you can figure out as you play, but in the early game, it’s more of a flavoursome roleplaying morsel.
The most important aspect, however, is the win condition. Unlike your standard video game experience, Sunless Skies does not have a defined end goal. There is a story to be found and followed, but as with any adventure, the destination is of little importance, it’s the journey that matters. There are three victory conditions to pick from, Wealth, Fame and Truth, and each one requires a vastly different approach to complete. It’s also very unlikely you’ll survive long enough to see your aspiration to the end, so don’t dwell on it too much.
Once your character is all set up and you’ve decided which condition you want to meet, the game starts proper – with text. Lots, and lots of text. Sunless Skies is, at its heart, a text adventure. There is actual gameplay to be had of course, but there is an awful lot of reading to be done. If reading is your jam, then this is fine. More than fine in fact, as the story and side stories, events, and characters are wonderfully written. Sunless Skies uses language in a way that is engrossingly evocative and makes the act of finding more text a joy.
A Whole New World
The world is dark and mysterious, but also comedic and endearing. You could find yourself taking a bit of shore leave at a bohemian space base mounted atop of a colossal galactic orchid, or stumble across the devilishly seductive soul-traders of Carillon. There’s a war going on, and you can take sides, play them both, or do nothing. It’s all there to be found or ignored. Very little needs to be done, and the onus is on the player to take the time to figure things out for themselves. I mean, how else are you supposed to find out what is troubling a bunch of space clowns at a space circus?
The characters you bump into are also wonderfully written nuggets of intrigue. On your journey, you will likely find potential crewmates to hire as officers on your train-ship-thing. Aside from the hefty stat increases they offer, they also bring substantial side quests and stories to interact with. I found a mushroom man who, despite my insistence, would not let me prod him. I also met a princess who was not all she seemed, a driver who regaled me of all the times he’d crashed and a mysterious man who started his life on my train by murdering someone. These are just a few early companions you can encounter, and the deeper you go, the more you will find.
Complimenting the excellent writing is the atmosphere that the game exudes at every possible moment. Bumbling around the vast expanses of the Reach, or the industrial majesty of Albion is a treat. Aside from the ports that landmark each area, there is plenty of intrigue and mystery to be found out in the wilds. Early on you might encounter marauders. Go a bit deeper and space-fish who fire lasers and are made of wood could appear. Giant beehives that dwarf even the largest city in the zone, infested with thousands of bees, could lie in the abyssal jungles of Sunless Skies. Or worse, cosmic horrors that drive you and your men insane.
In addition to the vistas you will see, the game uses various systems to keep things feeling tense from a mechanical level. Fuel and Supplies are probably the most important resource to factor in as running out of fuel will leave you stranded and running out of supplies will result in a bout of ship-wide cannibalism. Neither of these outcomes is particularly beneficial, although a spot of forbidden meat is probably preferable to death. Your map is empty when you first start, so exploring is risky from the get-go. How far can your fuel take you? How long can you last without food? Will you find a dock to resupply? You’ve just got to take the risk.
Then we have terror, an insidious resource that could lead to all-out mutiny and death if left unchecked. Exploring the vast unknown, encountering otherworldly monstrosities and finding unsettling rock formations all build terror in varying amounts. The higher it goes the harder everything gets. Early game terror can be easily managed with little cost, but as you progress it gets much harder to remove, especially when your terror gauge is about to burst.
Exploring might leave you high and dry, eaten or insane, but the rewards for doing so are clearly defined – you get more stuff to read. I say this because I now need to address the elephant in the room. The gameplay in Sunless Sky is not great. It’s actually pretty bad. Sure the act of controlling your train is fine, and shooting your guns is fine, but it’s not fun. Ever. Exploring rewards you with experience, and more things to find, but actually doing it is not great.
Being A Bookworm Pays Off
I was exploring not for the unique combat encounters, or the joy of moving from A to B. No, I was exploring for the chance to find more things to read. The game never disappoints in that respect, but because the text, and the themes and the atmosphere are the driving force, everything just feels like padding until the next injection. That’s not to say there isn’t depth here, because there is, it’s just not the game’s strength.
Gathering experience will lead to levelling up. Levelling up allows you to add ‘facets’ to your personality. These will increase stats among other things. Some facets are generic, others are specific to your in-game experiences and some are based on your previous character’s life. It’s a pretty cool system for roleplay, however, it comes with some issues. Namely, skill checks and equipment requirements. Many things in Sunless Skies require specific skills to be at certain levels. A powerful cannon might need your Mirrors skill to be high, or passing a certain skill check requires high Iron. This is fine, of course, but it removed a lot of my desire to roleplay and it felt like the game was pushing me towards min-maxing my character so I could do what I wanted to do. If I wasn’t pumping a certain stat early, it meant I couldn’t get a certain weapon that would make progressing a bit easier etc. The more I played, the more I felt like I was ticking boxes, more than crafting a unique character.
All of this feeds into the combat in some way, and the combat sucks. It works, sure, but it’s not good. It’s all in real-time, you aim your gun, you fire your gun and you try not to overheat. It’s basically Asteroids with steam trains. Because the world is so vast, you can at least bypass most combats and just book it until whatever space-crazed lunatic decides to bugger off.
Death Comes In Many Forms
I mentioned death briefly, so I think I should delve into that system a tad. Upon death, which is inevitable, your next character will inherit certain things, such as experience, wealth and star charts, making the early much easier on repeat attempts. You can turn this off in the options menu if you’d prefer a more traditional respawn system, but the added flavour of having a legacy was right up my alley.
Finally, Sunless Skies is slow, and I mean really slow. You will spend a lot of time floating around space doing quite literally nothing. This can be made worse early on if you don’t know how to make money. It can be easy to fall into the trap of running trade routes over, and over again. This increases the amount of time you spend doing nothing, and the monetary gains aren’t that great when you factor in resource cost. The game doesn’t teach you how to make money effectively, so relying on inefficient trading, which it does teach you, is a trap that can seriously hinder your enjoyment if you focus on it too heavily. Whatever the case, however, there is a lot of nothing happening in Sunless Skies, and the game is pretty damn large.
The game is at least drop-dead gorgeous to behold, even on Switch, making all that nothing look like something. The game is entirely 2D and uses a wonderful hand-drawn art style that blew me away with how varied, and surreal everything looked. The scale of the world is impressive enough, but the variety takes that to the next level. This is only complimented by the staggeringly good soundtrack. It sticks to the background when it needs to, giving a hint of wonder, or fear, before swelling into a crescendo that hooked me like a trout eying up a suspiciously immobile worm. There were a few framerate dips from time to time, but due to the nature of the game, they didn’t hinder my enjoyment.
Sunless Skies is not a game I can recommend to everyone. This is a game that requires time, patience and maybe even a dictionary, to fully appreciate. It’s not a game that can be rushed, and it’s not a game that is propped up by its gameplay. Sunless Skies is a slow burner built around ambience, big words and bigger worlds. If that sounds like a good time, then you should definitely hop aboard this locomotive.
Update – The min-max issue referenced in the review is less of an issue after a recent update.