Steam locomotives crossing the cosmos; Nightmare creatures lurking in the dark; Steampunk aesthetics with “lovecraftian” overtones; Role, Management, and Survival with a vast, captivating, and terrifying universe to discover. All of this broadly brings us to Sunless Skies, the great roguelite from Failbetter Games. Do you like the way it sounds? Join us in our analysis.
After a short tutorial that introduces you to the controls, you will be taken to the creation screen where you can edit your character. There you can choose between several silhouettes, which will be the only likeness of you, and also choose your class, which, by the way, marks your origin and first statistics: you can be a thief, an experienced soldier or an academic scholar. As I said, each class has its own specifics, but that is what you will discover as the game progresses.
However, the most important aspect to choose is your character’s ultimate goal, their most important and personal motivation. There are three to choose from: Wealth, Fame, and Truth. Each requires a very different approach to completing the game, although … I think it’s important to note that in Sunless Skies, unlike most games, the end goal isn’t that clearly defined, it’s kind of watered down when you do move forward and let yourself be captured by his wonderful and ‘lovecraftian’ universe.
I mean, don’t expect the typical clearly visible and constantly marked target on maps, far from it. Moving in this direction requires a constant and active effort from the player who … at least in my case, most of the time was relegated because he was too busy just surviving or too fascinated by anything else to prioritize what my goal should be. And the fact is that in Sunless Skies, although there is a story to follow and find, it is more than ever fulfilled that the goal is unimportant, that the journey matters.
Anyway, you will likely die long before your mission is finished, so … what difference does it make?
Once we finish our character, the game begins as such. And from that moment on, we discover that there is text in the game, a lot of text, tons of text. Sunless Skies is a game where you spend most of your time reading. Of course, it’s not just that. There is a playable role in which you control the flying locomotive that we will use to explore its vast universe, but I’m not exaggerating when I say we spend eighty percent of the time viewing it read.
In fact, another very important part of gameplay is decision making. Which we will of course do through texts. I illustrate it with a fairly common example: you are floating through the sky when you see a similar ship floating without a fixed destination, seemingly sluggish, when you decide to get closer to explore it, text appears with a description and several options: break open the door, stand in for a broken window or leave everything as it is and move on. The game will also show you a success rate for each action based on your stats. For example, if you decide to participate and are successful, another text will appear that describes the next stay and offers new possibilities for implementation. You could say that Sunless Skies is kind of a cross between an interactive novel and a tabletop and dice role-playing game.
If you spend a lot of time reading this is not your game, otherwise go ahead. But I think this is the best time to say that your story, side events, characters, etc. are written so beautifully that they use language in such a powerful and fascinating way that it’s always good news to find new texts.
Now it is also important to note that the game is only in English. But don’t think it’s moderately affordable English, no. Forget if you are not at a high level. There have been a few times when I felt the experience was becoming cloudy because I didn’t understand what I was being told. In fact, I can easily imagine a native English speaker having to play with a dictionary. I guess that’s the price for such a high level of narration … I briefly mentioned above that death is a sure thing and sooner or later it will inevitably come. What happens next? Well the game is a roguelite. After each death someone takes over your position and inherits things like money, cards or experience so that the next run has the smoothest possible path. Anyway, if you prefer, you can just go back to the last save point and dodge that roguelite part that I know not everyone likes.
The Sunless Skies universe is dark, mysterious and inevitably catches you. There is an ongoing war in which you can take sides, take advantage of both sides, or just ignore them. You might find a base on a giant flower that fights for your life against nightmarish creatures. Time has its own rules and can be collected and used as bargaining chip … Everything is there to be discovered or ignored, and it is up to the player whether he wants to be more or less immersed in the myriad of side missions.
On our travels we meet characters that we can hire as part of our crew. These, in addition to increasing our stats as their own skills are added to ours, will also give us a large number of secondary missions. To give a few examples, I met a princess who wasn’t all she appeared to be, a small group of humanized rats, or a mysterious man who was the first to murder someone from our crew when he got on board. the wonderful atmosphere that perfectly complements each other, with a soundtrack that knows how to create tension when entering the unknown or to accompany the countless lines of text wonderfully and discreetly in the background. In addition, the game uses different systems to maintain tension through mechanics. Fuel and supplies (food) are probably the most important resources to consider, and a miscalculation of these resources is almost in all likelihood death. Or worse, an outbreak of cannibalism among the occupation.
We have to keep in mind that everything has yet to be explored and that if we choose to, we never know if we will have enough supplies with us, if we will find a base to feed ourselves and trade, if we will get into an area that is infested by these terrible creatures, or when we encounter cosmic horrors that can drive us insane. And here comes another of those mechanisms that create tension: terror.
In addition to our supplies, we must keep a close eye on our terrorist report. Delving into the unknown, encountering eerie rock formations, making some tough decisions (like turning a blind eye to avoid death), or facing these nightmarish creatures will make the display grow. Of course there are ways to reduce terrorism, but these are becoming more and more expensive and difficult. The cruelest and cruelest end awaits us when our terror reaches its maximum. Another of the things that make terror grow and that I think I need to comment on in a little more detail is a series of seemingly random events that attack our protagonist. These can be things as mundane as the stress or loneliness of command, or other supernatural things, such as the feeling of being watched by an evil god from the void beyond the walls of our locomotive. The funny thing is that the game can be ambiguous enough that you never know if the latter is really happening or if it’s the result of an increasingly sick psyche: ours. Glittering.
In short, exploring can seriously degrade your sanity, you may have to face a turmoil or cost your life directly, but it will be something that despite tension and the illusion of new havens you will find yourself tied to action and above all to find new texts. But … how does it feel to control our “ship”? The truth is that while not bad, it’s by far the weakest part of the game. You need to take into account factors such as sluggishness or overheating that temporarily paralyzes you and leaves you at the mercy of your enemies. There is some depth to all of this, and it’s certainly fine, but the truth is, it’s not particularly fun, especially when traversing known routes. Definitely the weakest point of this sunless ski. I mentioned how well the soundtrack works above, but … what about the graphics? I’ll say it straight away: the game is incredibly beautiful. He has a wonderful artistic style that surprises with the varied and surreal nature of his drawings (everything is 2D). And all of this to an enormous extent. Ten out of ten in my opinion.
Sunless Skies is definitely a cool game, but it’s also a game that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone. It takes time, patience and a high level of English. It’s not based on its gameplay, but rather on its universe, atmosphere, lyrics, and story. If this all sounds good, don’t hesitate. Play it