Ten years have passed since Sunless Sea, and Queen Victoria has led an exodus from London to the heavens. There, a revitalised British Empire – ambitious and authoritarian – begins to expand across the skies.
The stars are alive. They are the Judgements: vast intelligences that govern all things. But they are dying. One by one, something is snuffing them out, leaving their thrones empty. An opportunistic Victorian Empire is colonising the domains they leave behind, painting its industrial vision upon the fabric of the heavens.
I spent hundreds of hours in Sunless Sea, so as soon as the Kickstarter for its successor, Sunless Skies, came to my attention, I backed it. I hadn’t backed a game before, but hey, I know Failbetter’s a good little indie studio to support, and the world of Fallen London is extremely well-established.
In late August, Sunless Skies hit Steam Early Access, and my key came in the mail. I expected to play creepy steam-pirates in space, instead of creepy steam-pirates on an underground ocean, and… well, that’s exactly what I’ve gotten. That’s a good thing: I think it’s safe to say that if you’ve enjoyed Failbetter’s writing-heavy style, you’re going to be satisfied with Sunless Skies already. But what if you aren’t? And what exactly is different?
Right now, in Early Access, one of the game’s four areas is accessible. This makes for a big, empty map:
The circles here feel interesting to me. The main city of the game as it stands is New Winchester – it’s where you’ll pick up a few starter quests, return to fix up your locomotive, and bring your port reports to place into certain hands – and I like how the city is centrally located. This feels true to the spirit of exploration: no matter how far you stray from home, it is the epicentre of your adventure. This also avoids those seemingly endless point-to-point, round-trip journeys that made some parts of Sunless Sea such an absolute slog. You can steer your captain around New Winchester, visit a few ports of interest, and approach from a different angle than that from which you left, without fear of running out of fuel or supplies (which, yes, make a return here).
I’m digging the changes to the game’s UI as of now – there is less focus on big, empty spaces with lots of words, and more on the characters you encounter or the places you explore. In comparison to its predecessor, this game feels a little more colourful, a little more polished; the world feels more alive, though no less dour and gothic for that.
Exploration grants experience, and Sunless Skies currently allows for levelling up in a way that builds on your character’s backstory. For each level, you choose between a Facet of your self, or a Deed from your past, each offering a unique stat bonus but then differing in their secondary effect. For example, at level 2 I could have chosen to increase two stats, but instead, I chose to increase one and receive a chit for a favor from a powerful person, to turn in at a future point in time.
Currently, you cannot customise your Captain, nor can you establish a Legacy by which to preserve some of your accomplishments to pass to future Captains. That’s all in development for now. As it stands, I think Early Access to Sunless Skies will whet an existing fan’s appetite for something new and fresh from Failbetter. But for those who didn’t love Sunless Sea, or are looking for an introduction to the world of Fallen London, I’d suggest holding out for a full release.