As you might well know, there are games out there with some great writing. Somewhat rarer are those whose writing completely overshadows the otherwise solid gameplay. Those that do both of those, and are an incredible font of creativity like Sunless Skies – rarest of them all.
It’s hard to nail down such a game in a few words, but I’ll try: a top-down exploration RPG set in the world of Failbetter Games’ Fallen London. Which, if you’re at all familiar with their work, makes sense of what I wrote about the writing. If you’re not: they’re the authors of a massive and, above all else, weird setting of Fallen London, which they’ve been working on for a long time, and serves as the backdrop for both this game and its prequel – 2015’s Sunless Seas.
Fallen London is a long-running narrative browser game that depicts a gothic, Lovecraftian world where London has fallen underground, somewhere a bit north of Hell. It’s pretty much impossible to do it justice in a short review, but if you enjoy Sunless Skies’ writing I highly recommend you check it out.
This game puts you in the role of a captain of a flying train as you explore this subterranean world. A relatively simple premise, but quite enough considering trade with devils, losing your mind and eating your crew, and fighting off eldritch horrors are everyday concerns as one such captain. This probably sounds familiar to those who’ve played Sunless Skies – but don’t worry if you haven’t. The game and its story are fairly self-contained.
As far as basic gameplay goes, we’re looking at an RPG above all else. You are given a lot of options as to how you want to play it and which aspect you want to focus on, be it trade, exploration, or combat.
However, it seems Failbetter has been paying close attention to the previous title’s criticism. The combat and overall feel of the exploration are a huge leap forward, and the grindiness has been whittled down to a minimum. The combat has been brought into real-time, giving you much more control over your ship. The necessities of fuel and supplies are now much more generous as well, leading the gameplay away from pointless errands and into the exploration, it does best.
The graphics are also a clear improvement. The top-down simplicity might seem outdated as a concept, but the beautiful art used for the icons, characters and such things transitions into breathtaking vistas when you start running into some of the more far-flung corners of the titular sunless skies. Even the more mundane surroundings are hand-drawn and do wonders for the oppressive atmosphere of mystery in the unknown “depths”.
Speaking of atmosphere, the sound design of Sunless Skies also deserves high praise, as it contributes to the foreboding feeling as much as the visuals.
Overall, there’s nothing quite like this game. The pure absurd weirdness of the world will have you gripped from minute one, and the solid-to-great gameplay will make you stay. A warm recommendation.