Combining the freedom of Wing Commander: Privateer with a setting that might as well be described as “Discworld as envisioned by Alan Moore”, Sunless Sea proved to be one of the surprise hits of 2015. While Failbetter’s success with Fallen London could never be denied, the shift in gears to a more mechanically heavy game was nevertheless a welcome surprise, offering a surprising level of narrative depth and freedom. Shifting away from the sea and towards the stars, Sunless Skies is set to expand upon this fantastic world further, with a few surprising changes.
While anyone who played Sunless Sea will immediately pick out a few very distinct similarities between the two games, Skies nevertheless alters and redefines a number of key points. In terms of its basic direction, the experience places a much greater emphasis upon exploration and free trading over calculated cargo runs and extremely careful resource management. While food, fuel and sanity are all factors you need to keep a close eye on, it is not nearly so unforgiving as you might expect. Your hawk has a much greater search radius to hunt for new lands around, while the safe areas themselves are more clearly defined, meaning you won’t run into a gigantic monster purely on accident. This isn’t to say that there are not risks involved, nor that you will not find things waiting there, ready to turn your flying sky-train into its latest meal, but you can more easily manage the risks you take.
Combat and interacting with the world as a whole has seen a substantial overhaul, as it sticks to the core principles defined by its predecessor, but reworks a few key points. Rather than focusing upon keeping an enemy within your lumbering vessel’s firing arcs or performing constant-turn fighting, Skies permits you to turn in place or even drift while in flight. This allows you to rapidly turn and nail a target at close range, and to switch back and forth between a primary and secondary forward weapon to wear down their defences. This makes engaging multiple opponents vastly easier while also shortening certain battles, thus lessening the risk of starving to death mid-dogfight.
The HUD is not so densely pressed in to a single key location, and the larger keys present on the lower half of the screen means it is much easier to quickly use ability while multitasking. What’s more, the scrolling text box has been replaced by having certain prompts and alerts simply appearing behind your vessel, making it easier to keep track of certain changes within the world or flavour text. While this might sound like a major point, as this can alert you of everything from nervousness of your crew to changes in port, it’s an essential part of playing skies. Making it more obvious allows you to take advantage of more opportunities found within the game.
This alteration to the game’s core design elements has also carried over to each port, where it is now much easier to freely navigate between locations or buildings. As you are not simply locked into a single point or place, it’s now faster to simply scroll between a few easily listed placed rather than navigating a maze of possible dialogue or choice options. Much like everything else here, the intent seems to have been to promote accessibility without compromising what made it a success in the first place.
Plus, on top of everything else here, Skies is a truly beautiful game. This shouldn’t be a surprise given Failbetter’s typically outstanding visual aesthetics and musical prompts, but the atmosphere built here is remarkable. It strikes a very difficult balance between wondrous exploration of the stars and constantly risking annihilation, making the clusters of floating rocks, clouds and stranger things still all the more otherworldly in nature.
While Sunless Skies certainly needs a great deal more development time before it fully refines its mechanics, you can see the skeleton of a fantastic game already present even in this early state. Fans of Failbetter should definitely keep an eye on this one, as should anyone who enjoyed Sunless Sea’s storytelling but perhaps took a few issues with its resource management. It’s a great start to what is certain to be a fantastic game.
SUNLESS SKIES (EARLY ACCESS) / DEVELOPER: FAILBETTER GAMES / PUBLISHER: FAILBETTER GAMES / PLATFORM: PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (EARLY ACCESS)