Sunless Skies - Recensione

Author: Davide "Shea" Mancini
Date: 2021-01-26 12:41:40
Failbetter Games, in addition to being a studio with a splendid name, has the merit of having created and developed one of the most fascinating steampunk lore ever, namely a Victorian ucronia composed by Fallen London, a free browser game inaugurated in 2009, Sunless Sea , RPG with roguelite elements from 2015, and the latest addition, Sunless Skies. At the base of this alternative version of Queen Victoria's empire there is an act of love of the ruler, who in order to save the life of her consort, sells the fate of London to some supernatural entities.

The city sinks a mile underground into the so-called Unterzee, where its new history begins. If in the browser game London is the protagonist and in Sunless Sea the entire underground ocean can be explored, Sunless Skies tells a possible future of the universe, one in which the queen - or rather, the empress - has managed to lead the Grand Brittany towards a stellar exodus. The new colonial policy sees the sky as the last frontier, between sentient stars, deep horrors and a pioneering exploration that moves upwards the same gothic inspirations that animate the marine setting. Even the star colonization imagined by Sunless Skies is, therefore, the daughter of a fascinating mix of suggestions taken by Verne, HG Wells, Lovecraft and CS Lewis, seasoned with abundant steam and a gothic punk aesthetic worthy of an Abney Park album. These are the only coordinates that serve to frame the world of Failbetter Games, because luckily everything else is peacefully possible to discover during the game, or, better, it is precisely the purpose of one of the most epic adventures you can experience in front of the screen.

Before getting an aviator's cap and regular goggles, however, we need to clarify a fundamental aspect: Sunless Skies, like the other Failbetter Games titles, is not for everyone, does not want to be and is proudly a niche title. It is very easy, however, to find out if you are suitable for the exploration of the skies of 1905, and that is why I am submitting a very easy test to self-certify you and thus obtain the pilot's license of flying locomotives.

A fundamental requirement to sail the skies is to be comfortable with literary English, like a nineteenth-century novel, because the game makes extensive use of texts and is devoid of localization (in any language, not just Italian). Writing is the main, if not the only, narrative gimmick of the title, so a genuine passion for reading is highly recommended. Whether you've enjoyed 80 Days, have (been) avid librigame consumers, or are just ready to flip through digital pages with a cup of tea / coffee and the cover on your lap as you dive into great adventures, it's all under control. Finally, a lot of patience is absolutely recommended, not that which is able to manage frustration, but the one necessary to detach oneself from the immanence of things and look at everything over the long distance, thinking about the overall design, grasping and feeding on nuances.

The serenity of a consummate boardgame player, who is not afraid to put into practice a strategy that only bears fruit in the long run, after having managed the available resources wisely. If you see yourself even partially in this description, you are ready to soar, and Sunless Skies could be a truly unforgettable experience. Otherwise, the Failbetter Games title may not surprise you, but, in short, I warned you.

Set in 1905, Sunless Skies puts us in the role of a first officer of a flying locomotive, the Orphean, struggling with a makeshift docking in the frontier colony of New Winchester, after a daring escape from the Blue Kingdom. The captain of the ship, Amelia Whitlock, is dying, she entrusts us with her ship, a strange black casket, and promotes us in the field by recommending that we be better than her. The prologue is quick and only apparently sufficient to explain how to survive in the skies of the empire, and it is clear from the outset that every little detail, every decision and every mile of experience aboard our locomotive is crucial to change the our destiny. Just like its predecessor, Sunless Skies presents itself as an immense RPG based on the exploration and interaction with an alien and fascinating world, which is revealed very slowly through descriptions of exotic places and magnetic characters.

Since the creation of the captain, Failbetter Games has made it clear how much attention is paid to language and the enhancement of the intangible resources available. The skills of the protagonist, in fact, are given by experience and his past, and each skill is composed of a story, rather than a real ability. The sum of the events in your avatar's life determines his fate, because you are what you do. Of course, there is a fairly canonical stat check system, which moves from four attributes: Iron, which represents moral and physical temper, Mirrors, or deductive abilities, Hearts, which regulates passions and animosity, and Veils, the most elusive and mellifluous nuances of personality. Each skill is determined by the traits you choose by gaining experience, but also by the events faced during the adventure, or by the crew you build, in an organic and variable system. In this sense, rather than looking at the numbers, the character in Sunless Skies is a track to decide which life we want to live. The path, however, is full of second thoughts, reluctance and changes, so on balance you never have the feeling or the need to build a build in a functional way, but rather to interpret a character who determines a profile in an organic way.

Among other things, if approached in canonical mode, it becomes quite difficult to become attached to your character, since basically the adventure is designed according to a roguelite logic, where every death (and at the beginning they will be enough) follows the creation of a new avatar that inherits the locomotive, partial cartography and only some belongings of the previous captain. Alternatively, there is the possibility of setting a "merciful" mode that allows you to reload the last autosave before the sad departure, and therefore continue to develop your avatar from beginning to end.

Hard to say what is better or more suitable, but after a few generations of very unfortunate captains, in the end I preferred to face the adventure with my revolutionary poet by activating the uploads. The reason is not so much the frustration at having missed a trivial landing saying goodbye to an epic voyage, as the romantic affection for that particular style of captain and the desire to live the experience as a huge novel of travel and exploration. The recursive mode somewhat disturbs the suspension of disbelief, since some elements of the world, as well as some quests, recur at each playthrough, somewhat ruining the general progression of a universe that is instead very reactive and independent for large stretches by the player's will.