Starvation, Strategy and Storytelling: Why You Need to Play Sunless Skies

As I took a tour down Metacritic lane (don't judge me) to see what's trending, I noticed this game that I've never heard of, Sunless Skies, that has a score so high that it loses only to Resident Evil 2 by a couple of points. The game is available now for $24.99 on Windows, macOS and Linux. Even watching the trailer for this strange, gothic horror RPG did not prepare me for the road that lay ahead.

At its core, Sunless Skies relies heavily on two gameplay elements: exploration and narration. You and your crewmembers ride on a flying locomotive that explores, scavenges and hunts across the High Wilderness. In the midst of that dangerous space, you'll face a flurry of choices that will have a critical impact on your survival.

This is my first month as captain of the Orphean.

The Beginning of My End

Sunless Skies began by asking me one question: Legacy Campaign or Merciful Campaign? The former rules that if you die, you can continue only with a new captain, while the latter states that if you die you can reload or continue with a new captain. I went with Legacy, of course, to live up to the masochistic reputation I've proudly gained in the office.

Then, the game presented me with three difficulty modifiers — which is a red flag (now, I know I'm in for it). There's Aiming Assistance, Enemy Projectile Speed and Supply Consumption, which are self-explanatory. But, interestingly, you can't make the game harder, only easier. So, naturally, I left it on standard (yikes).

The Fight Against Starvation

As the game faded in from black, I heard the steam spurting from my train's engine, but before I was introduced to anything else, a scroll appeared onscreen, saying, "Starvation!"

The game explained that this was the result of some sort of extortion by the people who were more well-fed. I was presented with two choices: Turn a blind eye, which would cost me some of my crew, or punish those who looked better-fed, which would cause me to "gain terror." Without knowing the true consequence of "terror," I decided to take action (I regretted this immediately).

Finally, I was barreling through the skies with the Orphean, but before I got even halfway through the intro, my crewmembers tried pressuring me into committing cannibalism (twice). As a result of denying those urges, I lost two to starvation before we made it to The Wreck of the Ozymandias.

This was the first of many scavenging missions that would test my skill (literally). Sunless Skies introduced skills like Iron (confronting and overcoming) and Veils (deceiving and evading) when I faced an obstructed path. Each choice involving a skill has a percentage of success, and in this case, it was 75 percent for both.

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I bit my tongue and chose Iron, which successfully led me through the ship and to one of the game's greatest commodities: Food.

The Sunless Skies

As I parted ways with the Ozymandias, I tried to get a better feel for the movement and dodging mechanics. At the same time, I tested out the cannon and the educated bat (used to scout resources) that I'd just liberated.

Before I could get my head around the movement, I spotted a marauder in the distance and so I geared myself for some combat. The exchange was less of a sporadic bullet-hell than it was a slow-paced, sniping-and-dodging battle. It was surprisingly intense, as I had to keep my engine from overheating every time I fired or evaded a shot, and I feared how much damage a cannon could do to my hull.

When I approached the remains of the ship, I could either raid it or strip it for parts to repair the Orphean. But, luckily, I came out unscathed, so I was able to pillage 26 Sovereigns (currency).

I'm the Captain Now

The introduction ended with our arrival at New Winchester, which is where the current captain inevitably dies and where the game let me create my first captain.

The character creation was somewhat in-depth. It gave me the choice of eight different backgrounds: Street Urchin, Soldier, Poet, Academic, Priest, Zailor, Ministry Auditor and Revolutionary (all of these have unique benefits). I chose Revolutionary, so I started off with high Veils.

The game then asked how I did my fighting and gave me three choices: With your feet and your fists, With Your Mind, or With Your Art. After with the main skill gained from the background, this was designed to be my captain's second highest skill, so I chose With My Mind, which increased my Mirrors skill (investigating and deducing) and affiliated me with Academe.

Next was choosing my ambition, which would be the goal of the captain I played. Once I complete my goal, the captain will retire and a new one will take over. There are three goals: Weath, Fame and The Truth. Sunless Skies warned me that The Truth is best played with a lineage that has already completed one of the previous two goals. As a wise captain, I ignored the game and chose The Truth. However, the game wasn't as keen in describing that objective as it was the other two.

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The physical traits of my character were limited to a silhouette of their face, which was customizable. But the best part was that I could change my Term of Address to "the Doctor," and I even made my character resemble John Hurt (kind of).

Whispers of the Wind

After parting from the port of New Winchester, I spent hours in the desolate skies staving off hunger, madness and a lack of fuel, all the while combating monsters, marauders and ruthless wind tunnels. However, I occasionally got a moment of breathing room to appreciate the inspired atmosphere that Failbetter Games created for this title.

Even as my locomotive teetered in dangerous areas, the animations of it swaying back and forth made it look short and chunky, which was just adorable. That may be the only calming aspect about the environment, especially because the sound of the wind on its own sent shivers down my spine.

One of the most impressive aspects of Sunless Skies is that the environment feels like a living and breathing beast that I constantly have to overcome.

The most terrifying break in that wind was a violent scream from a Scrive-Spinster. The beast was frustratingly fast, forcing me dodge rapidly as I fired. In the midst of combat, a harsh screech overwhelmed me — my engine had overheated. I couldn't strafe, but I could move, so I bulldozed my ship forward and slid into a U-turn. As my engines finally came back to life, I dodged the beast's missiles and finished it off with my own. I felt like I'd just pulled off some Pirates of the Caribbean stunt.

One of the most impressive aspects of Sunless Skies is that the environment feels like a living and breathing beast that I constantly have to overcome.

By One's Own Hand

The greatest enemy I had fought to that point was myself. I continued to take risks that endangered my resources and my crew, all in an effort to obtain a little extra loot.

The biggest issue, of course, was that I was still early in the game, and so my skills weren't developed enough to successfully pull off some of the clever stunts that I attempted. Even when I docked in various ports and fraternized with the locals, I would fail skill checks that had an 80 percent of success, which caused my reputation with certain factions to plummet.

As my decisions became more rash, I lost more crewmembers, and eventually, that inevitable scroll traveled across my screen: Mutiny! The game left me with only one option: to blow half of the hull to save myself from the incoming mutineers.

Chance of success? 25 percent.

Result: Failure.

"The end is a scuffle in the dark, a slithering knife and blood."

A New Captain Rises

Sunless Skies put me in a state of anxiety every time I departed from a port, a feeling that I had hoped to jettison after finishing Resident Evil 2. And the panic attacks that this game induces are a slow burn, so you'll know exactly when they're coming — you just have to figure out how to overcome them in time.

Failbetter Games' excellent writing draws you in to this dystopian world with compelling dialogue and storytelling.

However, Sunless Skies isn't completely unforgiving. After I died, my next captain awaited me with the same level, a portion of gold and even some additional starting attributes. This is the feature that saved the game from being insufferable. While I am typically a glutton for punishment, starting from square one isn't appealing whatsoever.

Yet, I'd still probably play Sunless Skies solely for the writing. Failbetter Games draws you in to this dystopian world with compelling dialogue and storytelling. And because half of the game relies on narration, it almost feels like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

I've only just scratched the surface of Sunless Skies, but I cannot wait to dive deeper into it and fulfill my ambition of finding The Truth.

Credit: Failbetter Games

Rami Tabari
As soon as Rami Tabari sprung out of the College of Staten Island, he hit the ground running as a Staff Writer for Laptop Mag. You can find him sitting at his desk surrounded by a hoarder's dream of laptops, and when he navigates his way back to civilization, you can catch him watching really bad anime. He’s also the best at every game and he just doesn’t lose. That’s why you’ll occasionally catch his byline on, taking on the latest Souls-like challenge.