Sunless Skies is a slow and deeply tonal game, its rich soundscape and florid prose drawing me in from its outset, immersing me in its science fiction of sky-trains and outer colonies of a thinly-stretched Victorian empire. It’s a game that feels both intensely modern and intensely otherworldly, with conflicts between factions illuminating greater questions about the role of empire and control. It’s also, notably, a game built around semi-randomized chunks of the world, lending each adventure a customized, specific feel.
Like its predecessor, 2015’s Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies presents the player with a vast, uncharted game world packed to the brim with interactive fiction and ship-to-ship—er, train-to-train—action, but shifts the focus from a dark underground London to the edges of British space empire territory. Denizens of the Skies traverse the regions inside aerial trains, chugging along from port to port and occasionally dealing with the various hazards of intersky travel.
At the outset of the game, you are given the keys to your own locomotive, and a small crew to staff it, after the untimely death of the vessel’s previous captain and your subsequent promotion from first mate. It’s a simple, brisk introduction to a world that will come to define itself through roleplay and exploration, building slowly outward into a dense and realistic experience.
One way to consider Sunless Skies would be to compare it to the way that a game like Fallout: New Vegas treated its world. New Vegas was a critical success and fan favorite marred by relatively poor sales and widespread reports of glitches when it launched in 2010. Like New Vegas, Sunless Skies presents the player with a number of factions, well-defined in their various realms, and offers the player the choice to side with one of them or to explore the game’s world alone. Like New Vegas, player characters are defined primarily by their actions and less so by their specific statistics, leading to a method of play that feels more akin to tabletop roleplaying than to a tactical videogame.
But unlike New Vegas, Sunless Skies’ elements of randomization mean that each specific player’s games are ever-so-slightly different: while every playthrough will include the bustling bohemian flower-city of Titania and the octogenarian fungus-laden settlement of Hybras, their specific locations around New Winchester will shuffle. Sunless Skies, then, becomes as much about exploring the world as it is about interacting with characters.
As you wander each of the four regions in the game, each will include a major city at its center and randomized geography and locations as you move outward radially from the center. Most of my experiences playing Sunless Skies were spent moving between these uncharted and charted regions, languidly taking in the scenery while searching for my next port.
It’s not for everyone. The pace of the game can feel frustrating if you know where you want to go and are simply tired of shuttling your locomotive from port to port—but if you’re in the right mood, the slow, ambient journeys feel perfectly timed. Around each corner there might be a wrecked locomotive to plunder, or a random encounter with another juicy morsel of interactive fiction.
Because each adventure in Skies is different, there’s a surprising amount of mechanical replayability that helps bolster its already strong sense of narrative replayability—if this captain falls, a new one could choose an entirely different narrative path alongside exploring a markedly different Reach. It’s the type of design that makes Sunless Skies such a dense experience, and one that I’ll surely be returning to often throughout 2019.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.