I underestimated the bees. My task was to acquire a pair of wings from a swarm of Chorister Bees, which I should note are the size of dogs and capable of traveling through space, for a researcher at a nearby port.
At the time, I did not realize that having a gourd of their nectar in my inventory would cause them to swarm and attack me; which was exactly what they did. Before long, the bees had pierced the hull of my locomotive, and I, along with my crew, died in the cold vacuum of the starry skies.
Sunless Skies is about stories. It’s about the stories you make soaring through space as the captain of a steam powered engine while the British Empire seeks to conquer the stars themselves. It’s about the choices, mistakes, and failures that people, including yourself, make in a hostile universe that is indifferent at best and actively malicious and hostile at worst. It’s about the quest to carve out an ending, however harsh and cruel the path may be, while you leave behind some trifle legacy to aid your successors when you more than likely fall short of the goal.
It is enrapturing. Several captains have fallen in my journeys due to a lack of supplies, eldritch creatures, and insanity, yet I desire nothing more than to start again and plumb the ports for more deals, rumours and secrets.
Across three games, including Sunless Skies’ direct predecessor, Sunless Sea, Failbetter Games has crafted a universe that is at times absurd, horrifying, and poignant, but always memorable. No knowledge of the previous games is required for Sunless Skies, which trades the bowels of London and the underground ocean of Sunless Sea for the High Wilderness, aka space. The British Empire, led by the Traitor Empress, has begun to colonize the skies through the application of space-bound trains and a clockwork sun. Starting out as the recently appointed captain of a locomotive that has just returned from a journey to the Blue Kingdom, a frightening expanse of space that is particularly deadly, you explore and forge trade routes that will support your ambition. Ambitions are basically the victory conditions for your captain and take hours upon hours to complete. More than likely, your captain will die before then, at which point you create a successor, choose another ambition, and repeat the process.
Sunless Skies is nestled between the confines of RPG’s, roguelikes, and interactive fiction. You’ll guide your locomotive through space, fighting monsters and other vessels on occasion. At the ports, and in text-based encounters in space, you’ll read weird stories and quests that will force you to make choices, some of which will be resolved with a die roll. And all the while, you’ll improve your captain bit by bit, levelling up in pursuit of your ambition.
The majority of your time will be spent travelling through skies both star-filled and starless, searching for ways to make money or following up on a request someone made at one of the game’s many safe havens. You’ll need to manage the fuel and hull integrity of your locomotive, as well as the supplies for the crew so that you do not descend into cannibalism when they run out. Which I did, once, just to see what would happen (Nothing good, as one would assume). Though it is set in space, you travel exclusively on a 2D plane, and there is often a remarkable depth to the background that showcases the enormity of the places you are exploring, even if you can’t change your vertical position.
The journeys you make are slow, almost a slog in truth, but narrowly avoid that connotation thanks to the sense of awe and terror they create. You’ll soon discover which routes are the safest, which ones are the quickest, and which ones are filled with danger, with the common thread between them being Sunless Skies fantastic art direction. A town sitting atop a giant flower is a sight to behold, as is the egg that some horrific leviathan was birthed from that is larger than said town. It’s tense, even when travelling down the safe routes, as there’s always the sense that no matter how good things are right now, the girders far below could just as easily be hiding something worse.
Backing the visuals is a soundtrack that worms its way into your head, alternating between the muted yet triumphant track that plays when you limp back to a hub port and the insidious instruments that play when you’re going toe-to-toe with a ghost of paper and metal. There were multiple occasions where I had to remove my headphones as the sound of something scraping and skittering was too much to bear.
Sometimes you’ll encounter the things that do scrape and skitter, which is when Sunless Skies’ combat comes into play. You can equip your locomotive with an assortment of shielding, weapons, and other upgrades to fight against the nasties that lurk in space. And in a nice change from Sunless Seas, where combat was tedious at best, I found the fighting here was remarkably improved, and often downright exciting. I slapped what can best be described as a shotgun to the front of my train, dodging and positioning myself to unleash a full volley into the port side of a marauder. The combat is still incredibly deadly, and it’s frequently better to run away than engage multiple hostiles, but it has a ponderous grace to it that stirs me to find bigger and better guns for my next encounter.
Outside of your travels, you’ll dock at one of the many ports or landmarks and read what remains Failbetter’s biggest strength: it’s stories. You can sit down at the local pub to hear the latest news on the war between the London loyalists and pioneer rebels. There’s a town that is populated by devils, who can soothe deeper pain and suffering greater than any physical wound. You can recruit a trio of rats, called the Rat Brigade, who are looking for work after their service is the last war has left them lost and despondent. An official timekeeper of the British government approaches you, asking for transport to a distant port to ensure that its hours are correct. It’s a weird, weird world in Sunless Skies, and while the prose can be a little too purple for its own good sometimes, the majority is uniformly well-written and interesting.
This is primarily because there’s no in-game encyclopedia or book of lore that summarizes the background of the world. You’ll never glean any knowledge as to why there is a giant stone monument to the unknown rat sitting in the depths of space – it’s just there. There will never be an explanation as to how London was able to construct a clockwork sun that drives people mad if they are looking at it without the protection of stained glass windows. And no one will ever talk about what exactly that glowing obelisk in the middle of the circus is. Sunless Skies simply presents its world as it is, and it’ll be up to you to put all the pieces together to get even a modicum of understanding.
In trying to find that knowledge, as well as in resolving situations outside of your locomotive, you’ll rely on dice rolls to determine the outcome of the choices you make. Your captain has four attributes, broadly corresponding to strength, deceit, perception, and charisma, which you improve through leveling up. Not only do you improve your attributes through this, you’ll also fill in your captain’s backstory, as each improvement you make comes with a piece of history that explains how that came to be through the story. For example, my captain was formerly a priest, and his Mirrors skill increased after he lost faith in religion. It’s a novel way to forge the past, and I debated which upgrades to pick not only for skill reasons, but for lore as well.
Even as you inexorably improve, there’s little to stop the failures that will most certainly occur as a result of a bad roll of the dice. In fact, failure is as core a part of Sunless Skies as exploration, as there are very few choices to make that are easy to pull off. Sometimes the failures just put you a little more on edge, or make you have nightmares that keep your crew awake at night through your screaming. But sometimes those choices result in death and destruction, for both yourself and for others. Fortunately, thanks to the difficulty settings, you have the option to select a Merciful mode that lets you reload your last autosave should things go poorly. Even without playing on that mode, Sunless Skies is not as punishing as its predecessor. You can leave a legacy behind for your next captain, one that actually feels meaningful and gives you a solid base to build off of.
Rather than be disheartened by my failures, I was emboldened by them. Sunless Skies continually pushes you forward, tempting you with bigger rewards and bigger paydays, if you only just push yourself that little bit further. I wanted to find out what was happening in a town filled with fungus where everyone disappeared. I wanted to know the fate of the wreck of one of the finest trains ever crafted, consequences be damned. For that extra reward, be it money or knowledge, I was always ready to risk it all.
Because Sunless Skies is about the stories of people who are living on the edge, both in terms of location and as a result of their choices. These stories stick with you, even when you’ve stopped playing the game, and they’re what make you come back to it again and again. Through haunting locales and terrible words, Sunless Skies makes you give a damn about its world, making you want to saddle up for another trip to the outskirts of a sun to find the truth. It’s Failbetter’s greatest work yet, and one that will haunt my thoughts for some time to come.