Sunless Skies put to the test - space horror for bookworms

Author: Elena Schulz
Date: 2019-01-31 14:15:00
Like its predecessor, Sunless Skies combines roguelike mechanics with subtle Lovecraft horror and bizarre little stories, but is overall more accessible.

The Empire Strikes Back

From the underground horror sea it goes into space: ten years after Sunless Sea (which takes place at the end of the 19th century) Queen Victoria of England has colonized space. But you don't have to have played the predecessor. We start as a locomotive captain into the unknown, where we can first choose one of three game goals - wealth, fame or truth. This ensures replay value, precisely because truth is only recommended for the second round due to the challenge.

Then we follow the story, or rather the stories. Instead of a gripping framework, Sunless Skies offers tons of small stories, all of which are funny, crazy or scary. However, as with the predecessor, you have to be able to speak English, there is no German translation for the many texts. You quickly lose sight of the big picture, and because Sunless Skies explains little, you are left at a loss more than once.

Nevertheless, the narration works because the lyrics are fantastically written and brimming with creativity . When we play, we have the feeling of opening the first volume of a huge series of books that completely transports us into another world. For example, Queen Victoria sits on a throne of hours because she has found a way to mine time like metal ore. You and the other nobles are immortal, while the oppressed working class has to dig for time, aging quickly and inexorably and is therefore secretly planning a revolution.

Between horror and cheerfulness

In the missions, for example, we are supposed to free the daughter of a noblewoman from a department in which all inmates experience endless, happy days. However, the good one does not want to come because her sister is also there. That's why we go through the day again and again, sneaking out to balls or bribing employees to convince them and thus learn more about the tragic history of their family. Or we smile at a random event with our aunt, who somehow made it into the team as one of our officers. Or we encounter another locomotive, from which suddenly creepy Cthulhu tentacles are sprouting.

Whether humor or horror - the atmosphere in Sunless Skies is always intense. The soundtrack also contributes to this, swelling dramatically with the tentacle locomotive and other horrors. With its hand-drawn 2D graphics, Sunless Skies also looks great from above as we drive past crumbling suns, eerie monsters or glowing harbors. The twinkling stars, particles and fog effects in particular breathe mysterious life into the gloomy universe. That sounds picturesque, but the story itself takes place exclusively in text windows and therefore in your head.

More accessible than Sunless Sea

In case you are wondering about the term port: In Sunless Skies we are traveling with a locomotive instead of a ship, but the gameplay has not changed: We have to reveal a card by driving from port to port . Incidentally, completely without rails - our locomotive is more of an idiosyncratic spaceship that can be steered freely through the empty night sky between the ports. We receive money and experience through trading and missions or smaller orders while we experience the individual stories.

Sunless Skies is overall more accessible than its predecessor. You will still die if supplies and fuel run out, or if the locomotive is destroyed in battle with enemy locomotives or monsters. Now, in addition to the permadeath mode, there is a more gracious variant that lets us load the last automatic save when we die. In addition, Sunless Skies comes with a detailed tutorial and we can adjust the difficulty of how strong we and our opponents are and how quickly our resources drop.

The fights can often be avoided by fleeing, but they are much more fun than in the predecessor because our locomotive is more agile. In real time we evade, fire ammunition volleys and loot our victims. However, the AI fluctuates quite a bit, some opponents persistently pursue us, others like to push themselves against a rock face. At first, our locomotive does not cause a lot of damage and does not withstand much, but it can be improved and also equipped with rare modifications that enable more storage spaces or protection, for example.

To travel you need fuel and supplies that you can buy in ports or salvage in wrecks along the way. Even on the normal or hard level of difficulty, the resources are not used up as quickly as in the predecessor. In addition, the game world is divided into individual areas (four in total). This makes exploring less of a hassle because you don't have the feeling of being overwhelmed by a huge map. In addition, when you die you can now take over the locomotive, level, money and supplies of the deceased captain that were stored at the bank. So a restart hurts much less than in Sunless Sea.

Locomotive and captain from the kit

If you moor at ports and click your way through the local stories or loot random locomotive wrecks, you usually have to make decisions . Whether you are successful with it depends on different factors. Sometimes you need money, sometimes a story as currency to keep it going. To explain: In Sunless Skies, stories and secrets are real objects that you can find as loot or receive as part of a mission and exchange them again.

Sometimes your skills are also challenged. Your captain has talents like Veil (stealth) or Iron (strength) depending on his starting class like Poet or Soldier. Depending on the level of these values, the probability of success increases. We increase our level through experience gained in missions or exploring. Because you can only strengthen two skills with each promotion, you develop very different styles of play over time, which influence the plot.

For example, if we have a high Heart value, we can use our powers of persuasion to keep our team from going crazy. With iron, i.e. strength, we can perhaps intimidate them. If we don't succeed, panic can break out and we lose resources or crew members as a result. In the middle of space, such a misstep can quickly end fatally. This creates tension, but it feels like the actions fail a little too often, even if you have high probabilities.

We can also choose which of the two factions - workers or the London elite - we support by selling them port reports and secrets. In doing so, we also influence the balance of power and thus open (or close) paths within the story.

Survival for good stories

Sunless Skies playfully lives from the same feeling as many roguelikes : If you drag yourself to the safe haven with the last bit of fuel, that's a really good feeling, even if you might have to secretly eat a dead crew member on the way. At the same time, you feel a clear difference over time: if you had to turn over every penny at the beginning, you can at some point easily afford a powerful elite locomotive. Anyone who acts cleverly and sells goods cheaply in one port and in another or transports a bunch of passengers from A to B will quickly reach their destination.

This makes Sunless Skies easier to master than its predecessor, but more playfully mature and captivates with the same unusual stories.