Starch your moustache, don your top hat, and don’t forget your thesaurus, as we embark on a journey through time and space, via steam locomotive, in Failbetter Games’ latest instalment of top-down exploration and textual adventures, Sunless Skies.
This other-worldly adventure takes place within the Fallen London universe, where Charles Dickens meets Terry Pratchett and H.P. Lovecraft in the shadowy back rooms of a disreputable Victorian establishment, to write a steampunk epic. In blood, on living parchment which screams of stolen memories and the selling of souls.
The premise of Fallen London requires that at some unspecified point in history, the entire city was stolen by bats, and hidden in a very dark and sizeable cavern far beneath the Earth’s surface. Here the British Empire continued her mission of colonisation and tea-obsession, all the while competing with smiling sun-fanatics, gargantuan sea monsters, tragic alien life forms, and complex devils from Hell itself.
Themes such as fate, immortality, damnation, and time travel are part and parcel of any excursion into this alternate reality, as is a lexicon of some of the most obscure and old-fashioned language ever seen in a video game. Even the most eminent of scholars might need to reach for their dictionary at times, as the designers have made sure that the textual aspects of the adventure are attended to with as much originality and detail as the story and game world.
This instalment of the Fallen London universe, sees London retrieved from the depths of the cavernous dark, and thrust into the heavens by the Traitor Empress. The High Wilderness in which the game takes place is essentially outer space, but with a pseudo-industrial level of technology familiar to the steampunk genre. The sky and outer space are one and the same in this fantastical universe. Space is not dark, but populated by cities, factories, forests, and lonely settlements, but a tear in your engine’s hull will see the sky flood in and kill your entire crew. Flying locomotives soar through the skies above diverse environments, providing spectacular and beautiful scenery for the exploration phases of the game. You control your engine from above as you reveal new areas and foes. On reaching port, and when something happens out in the skies, the game will shift to a text-based adventure.
The journey begins when you inherit a space-faring engine from her former captain, who has sadly met his fate on the voyage which brought you to the Reach, the first of several play areas. Here the forces of Empire battle the rebel ‘Stovies’ for control of the Reach’s valuable resources, which include time, raw materials, and souls. As you explore the Reach, you are harried by star-maddened explorers, and chorister bees defending their valuable nectar. Each zone contains its own selection of stations, mysteries, foes, and adventures.
As you progress through the game, you are given choices as to your character’s past exploits. Were you a London street-urchin or a seasoned war veteran? Each time you level up you learn more of your shady past. Did you abandon a friend to a dreadful fate, or take part in a misguided revolution? Discovering these secrets will open up new paths through the game, grant stat buffs, and allow you to personalise your captain’s story.
Being able to trade goods between stations through a system of bargains and prospects, enables the player to generate in-game cash in order to buy new parts for the locomotive, and later to buy a whole new engine. This is a welcome improvement to the game’s predecessor, Sunless Seas, which often saw players struggle to obtain fuel and supplies in the early game. The addition of a workable trade system means that even beginners can survive. More importantly, the legacy system which requires a dead is dead play-style is now more forgiving, with legacy captains retaining most of their predecessor’s experience and property, rather than having to start from the beginning as often happened in Sunless Seas. Many players will still find the need to play a traditional save and load game, which is a lot more convenient but reduces the feeling of tension and the need to stay alive. This game is partly a survival adventure, so doing so will diminish the experience somewhat.
The simple control scheme allows for perilous exploration of the space-time continuum, and even more perilous combat, which is often best-avoided, especially early on. Once you have mastered the controls and refitted your locomotive with missiles and gatling guns, you should be able to hunt down a few pirates, and maybe even some of the fantastical beats which roam the skies. The deadly scrive-spinsters are one such enemy. Following the destruction of a heavenly hall of records, they roam the void in search of revenge, firing inky missiles at unwary captains, and tearing engines apart with their ‘bronzewood’ fingers. The legacy system makes these encounters all the more thrilling, and survival all the more rewarding as a result. Another aspect of the adventure is the concept of terror. As your locomotive and her crew escape more and more perilous situations, the terror level on board will rise, leading to poor morale, nightmares, visions of other-worldly entities, mutiny, and eventually death.
Another aspect of the game’s unique and immersive atmosphere is the official sound track from Maribeth Solomon and Brent Barkman. A fittingly complex and dream-like homage to the themes of frontier life, outer space, perilous adventure, lamentation and the need to press forward. Progress, time and new worlds are captured in haunting quasi-Western folk dirges with a hint of electronica and a generous portion of soulful melancholy. The OST captures the fraught life of the space-explorer and alludes to the Wild West. The High Wilderness is indeed a lawless unknown, filled with adventure, wonder, fortune, danger and death.
As you traverse the sky, many intricate characters await to befriend, beset and beguile the player, including the Incautious Driver, the Inconvenient Aunt, and the Incognito Princess. The characters feel less cartoony and more real this time around, though every single one of them is of course a dubious enigma hiding some dark secret. It just wouldn’t be Fallen London without a plethora of unfathomable characters and sinuous plot twists which break all of the fantastic laws of the game’s own universe, to create an even more unbelievable reality. Many characters are available for recruitment and can serve as officers aboard your locomotive, opening up additional stories and boosting your captain’s abilities. The locomotive you inherit begins with just one officer, engine’s mascot the Obviously Delicious Rabbit. Suffice to say that his journey will be even more perilous than yours.
The purpose of your adventure is up to you to decide and will be influenced by the choices you make as to your captain’s past. But ultimately the point of the journey is what you make it. Certain standard goals will lead to an ending of sorts for each captain you play. Will you investigate the mysterious black box left to you by your former employer, throw in your lot with one of the Reach’s warring factions, or attempt to write your name in the history of the Skies? It’s really up to you, and simply retiring with a decent fortune is one option which will allow an easier path to victory.
Despite the developments in the game systems and the story, as well as the voluminous textual elements which really make this title a unique departure from ordinary video games, there is still some repetition in game play. The player is constantly shipping cargo from one station to the next in order to access the next tier of weapons and gadgets. The plethora of artefacts and story items mean that you will inevitably lose track of most of the minor quests, and taking a break from the game for any length of time will leave many players feeling lost on returning to play. The end goal being unclear from the beginning, it is difficult to know how near you are to winning the game, or if that’s even possible.
Exploring the wild and dark of Sunless Skies is an adventure worth undertaking, but getting lost along the way is a certainty. Perhaps the ironic and fraught universe of Fallen London is best placed to capture the feeling of a world in disarray. The wacky race through time and space to discover one’s own past, is a journey of self-indulgence, in a fantasy world where everything happens for a reason, even if that reason is a mystery for mystery’s sake.
If you are looking for something new in a video game, enjoy dark comedy, horror and sci-fi/fantasy, or prefer games which allow you to decide how to play and leave the world open for you to explore the way you want, this game is for you. If you are looking for a game which gives you straight forward objectives and is easy to follow, then you will definitely struggle. The developers have gone to great lengths to make the world and story lines unique and unpredictable. The game is entertaining on so many levels, providing adventure, exploration, tension, humour, and surprise in large doses. I would recommend this game to anybody, because it is just so different from anything else out there.
The game is available on Steam for £18.99. It boasts a huge play area and countless random encounters, minor story lines and main quest paths to experience. It would be easy to put 100 hours into this game without exhausting all it has to offer. It is certainly worth the price, the question is how much of a bargain the game will be to you. If you want exploration, mystery and original adventure, look no further.