Sunless Skies review – a must-play slice of fantastic Victoriana

Sunless Skies is a Victorian-themed Lovecraftian horror – with liberal doses of black humour – in which you pilot a locomotive across space. I love every bit of that premise. And if you do too, then just go buy this game right now, it’s ruddy great. But if you need even more persuading, read on…

Sunless Skies is a sequel to Sunless Sea, which we picked out as one of our top ten games of 2018. And frankly, Sunless Skies is even better. The previous game was set on a vast underground sea, on the edge of which stood Fallen London, with the capital having been transported there as result of some unholy deal conducted by Queen Victoria. But in Sunless Skies, the Victorians have found a route to the heavens via a mysterious gate at Avid Horizons on the Unterzee, and London has quickly colonised these new reaches of space.

You play the captain of a space-faring locomotive, and much like in Sunless Sea, your aim is to travel between ports, uncovering stories and building up money and experience through trading and completing missions. Superficially, the games are very similar, although Sunless Skies benefits from some truly lovely backdrops that are much more visually interesting than dark, endless waves. But whereas I criticised Sunless Sea for being slow and intimidating at the start, Sunless Skies is much quicker to get going, and has numerous quality-of-life improvements.

For a start, you burn through fuel and supplies at a much reduced rate, so although it’s important to stock up on them when in port, they’re not such a massive drain on your resources. Also, the price of both is now fixed, making long journeys much more forgiving – previously, fuel and supplies tended to be much more expensive at ports outside London, but here you pay the same wherever you go. Similarly, trading is much easier. In Sunless Sea, you’d need a complex spreadsheet to work out the best trading routes, and often you’d only make a slim profit. But in Sunless Skies, you’re given ‘Prospects’ – demands for certain goods at an inflated price – along with rotating ‘Bargains’ in each port, which let you stock up on certain goods at a rock-bottom price. By purchasing Bargains and using them to fulfil a Prospect, you can make money relatively quickly, without having to painstakingly plot optimal trade routes.

All this is a Very Good Thing, because it shifts the focus more towards the story. Or rather, stories, as Sunless Skies is basically a fantastical web of tall tales that you gradually uncover through your exploration. You’ll come across some macabre and wonderful things. Obsessed scientists conducting weird experiments at a bizarre, mostly carnivorous nature reserve. A sort-of spa treatment centre run by devils. The grave of what might well be a god hidden in the woods. A sentient, space-faring fungus. An idyllic English village green on a floating island. And all of this in just the first area you visit.

Which brings me onto another point – Sunless Skies is vast. There are four main areas to explore, which you can teleport between via certain mysterious arrays, as long as you can provide the necessary goods. I’m well over 35 hours into the game and I’ve still only visited three of the four areas, yet I’m far from exhausting the possibilities in the worlds I’ve already visited. There is just so much to see here. And more importantly, it’s so rewarding to discover. In a recent interview with EDGE magazine, Failbetter Games said the aim was to make ‘reading a reward’, and they’ve certainly achieved that here. Each little snippet of text you unlock at each port is beautifully composed, often gripping, usually very dark and occasionally downright hilarious. It’s an absolute joy to read.

It’s relatively easy to get going in the game, as well. A neat little introduction sequence takes you through the controls of your locomotive and sets up an initial plot for you to delve into with clear directions about what to do. This is a huge improvement on Sunless Sea, which basically says ‘here’s a ship, now go and get on with it’. Combat is also much more satisfying – in the previous game, the default combat strategy was essentially ‘go backwards and press fire’, but now you have strafe buttons to add a bit more nuance to fights. And the rival locomotives and weird beasts you come across are also a bit more nimble and tricky to hit, leading to some tense space dogfights.

Having said that, simply surviving battles is much harder. Enemy attacks tear through your hull like it’s paper, and running away isn’t always an option, as many enemies have guns with ranges that can hit your retreating locomotive. In short, I have died A LOT in this game. Certainly a lot more than in Sunless Sea. And on that note, I was a bit miffed by the removal of the manual save in this game – the clear intention is that you should role play as a captain, then when that captain dies, you create another and take up where they left off. And in that respect, death is less punishing in Sunless Skies than its prequel, with your subsequent captains retaining a lot of experience, along with their locomotive. But death is still very punishing.

Luckily, you do have the option of restarting from your last save rather than submitting to death – although the game only saves in ports, so you might end up retracing a lot of your journey if your last port visit was a while back. I suppose this prevents ‘save spamming’ – but to be honest I’m all about save spamming, and quite unashamedly did it all the time in Sunless Sea. I don’t have a massive amount of time to play games these days, and I don’t want to spend that time going back and doing the same things I’ve done before.

And while we’re dwelling on the negative, some of the enemy animations are pretty basic. The Scrive-Spinster in particular has an almost comical ‘throw’ animation that looks more like a placeholder graphic than something you’d expect in a finished game. Still, this is a minor point – I only bring it up because it makes something supposedly scary actually look a bit ridiculous. And like the autosaves, it’s something you can easily overlook because the rest of the game is just so damn good.

In short, Sunless Skies is an absolute triumph of storytelling and a thoroughly enjoyable trip through a twisted cosmos. I cannot recommend this game highly enough.

Sunless Skies is made by Failbetter Games and is available on PC and Mac. We reviewed the PC version.

Disclosure statement: Review code for Sunless Skies was provided by Failbetter Games. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.