Sunless Skies review round-up: A fantastical train ride through a storybook of an RPG

With Sunless Seas and its newly released sequel, Sunless Skies (opens in new tab), developer Failbetter Games has carved an incredibly specific niche for itself: survival RPGs melded with interactive fiction. And when I say interactive fiction, I don’t mean in the normal sense that all video games are technically interactive fiction – Failbetter Games goes for a much more literal, storybook feel. Like Sunless Seas before it, while Sunless Skies is partly about maintaining and defending your space-faring vessel as you lug it between ports, it’s mainly about exploring a world that’s as hostile as it is enchanting. It’s a game about discoveries, characters, and stories within stories – and critics agree it’s one of the best games of 2019 so far. 

Sunless Skies is very much a roguelike, but an approachable one – PC Gamer (opens in new tab) (90/100)  

“Death is a punishment but it’s not too severe – and it can even be a blessing in disguise. Every episode is informed by the type of captain you were at the start and the decisions you’ve made ever since; some even by your immediate predecessor. And so while some things will be familiar on a replay, plenty won’t. Some changes are permanent: one port is never quite the same after an insect invasion, while another lies eerily abandoned on your next visit. On a new run, you can pursue a new ambition, or go for the same goal with a head start – only with a different backstory you can use guile instead of muscle to get through tricky situations.”  

Sunless Skies’ story is always changing – Eurogamer (opens in new tab) (Essential) 

“Pick random moments from my playthrough and you’ll find my captain doing something very different each time, all of it brought to life with Failbetter’s trademark mix of dread and whimsy. Here I am having sex with a demon signaller, for example. And then there was that time I visited a laughing orchard to resolve an academic dispute about the exact occupant of a celestial tomb. Here I am trading shots with a ghost of wood and parchment as I skim the lip of a black hole – oh, and of course, here I am devouring my own crew after running out of fuel on the way back from hell. The great joy of Failbetter’s latest is once again the ghoulish inventiveness of the writing and setting, though it’s helped along in Skies by more accessible world design, relatively generous earning mechanics and some truly decadent background art.”  

Sunless Skies is a step up from the already fabulous Sunless Seas – RockPaperShotgun (opens in new tab) (A Bestest Best) 

“It’s not only an improvement in terms of its more ornate art and more elegant presentation but also its scale and grandeur. Sea now suddenly seems so flat and plain, its interface geriatric, where little touches in Skies, like crew comments overlaid onto the skies around you, really lift it. It’s careful to, through implication and aside, weave its many short stories into a more inter-connected world, with rules and squabbling factions and spiritual authorities and slowly shifting status quos and a sense of an aeons-old mythology. Furthermore, you don’t move only between lands in Sunless Skies, or only between worlds – you can move between planes of existence. This is a grand odyssey of the imagination, borne aloft by consistently curious and characterful writing.”  

Sunless Skies’ serviceable mechanics take a backseat to its incredible world – Guardian (opens in new tab) (4/5) 

“Your desperate voyages between ports serve primarily as delivery mechanisms for this feast of fables, though trying to keep a frail vessel alive while ferrying revenue-earning boxes between ports is a little galling. Whether you find this chugging back and forth across space to be atmospheric or a looping bore depends greatly on your state of mind: this is a game about gradually and fearfully charting a vast, hostile space, not brashly conquering it. And there are wonderful and terrible sights out in the farthest reaches, from clockwork suns and shattered stars to city-sized flowers.” 

Sunless Skies may well join the ranks of the best survival games (opens in new tab) on PC.  

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