Dani’s Gameplay Diary: Sunless Skies

As you may or may have not seen, I’ve been raving about this game on my social media. Having been busy and missing out on the Kickstarter, I decided to wait until the game left early access on Friday 1st Feb. And what a glorious exit it was. The whole Failbetter team have been working so hard on both the game and the campaign that I couldn’t wait to give it a try.

As a fellow Rat Lady, I was also pleased to see some positive feelings towards rats in a game. STOP MAKING ME KILL MY BABIES PLEASE! So thank you Failbetter. +1 Rat Friendly Game/Game Studio. If you’re not a fan of rats, they also have Inadvisably Big Dogs, Diffident Bats and a whole host of other animals to meet and recruit.

My first few tries of Sunless Skies could be described as “ended too soon” or “dire”. I died a lot, in quick succession but I was immediately enamoured with the game. The way the story is told and the excitement of new exploration meant that dying wasn’t annoying, I was more frustrated with myself for making risky and/or bad decisions.

I’m torn between both my desire to explore the skies and every inch of the game (including the different past stories and characters you can have onboard) and the want to continue with my main game save where Dani IV is currently making her way across the skies. This love letter offers me the opportunity to start a new game from scratch and document my progress in order to persuade you that you need to buy this game.

When beginning a new game there are two options: legacy campaign or merciful campaign. Legacy means that when you die you can only continue with a new Captain. Merciful allows you to reload or start with a new captain. There are also a number of difficulty options you can adjust.

I start my journey with 8 crew, 1 fuel and 1 supply crate. The hull has 15/30 health, we begin in the Blue Kingdom Transit Relay.

March 15th 1905

You have returned to the Reach: an untamed, sunless span of the heavens. London’s new frontier, a celestial garden gone wild. Your journey back from the Blue Kingdom was tumultuous. Your locomotive is crippled, and captain whitlock badly wounded. As first officer the crew looks to you. The nearest station is New Winchester. Can you get the Orphean there safely? Much to the relief of your stokers, you find a barrel of fuel among the darkness.

March 16th 1905

A wreck drifts here, less fortunate even than you. “We should scavenge her for repairs,” a crewman suggests.

The Wreck of The Ozymandias
The wreck hangs in the sky, pocked with recent gunfire. You and the boarding party don your sky suits; garment of waxed canvas, lined with felt to protect against the cold of the sky. Two of the crew are whispering as they dress, “What business did Captain Whitlock have in the Blue Kingdom anyway? Why the devil did she trespass on the districts of the dead?”
You silence him. Now’s not the time.

**Leap across to the wreck**

The gap between the two engines isn’t wide, but the endless fathoms of heaven gape beneath it. You jump. Your stomach lurches with vertigo as the stars blaze above you and below. The air of the heavens is thin and torn by unpredictable winds. Then your boots hit the running board of the “Ozymandias” and your leather-gloved hands fumble for a hold. One of your companions throws you a line, and you lash the two engines together. Only then do the rest of the boarding party follow you. One of them forces open an exterior hatch and you clamber inside.

Her interior is cold, unlit, and whistles with wind. Your party’s lamps spread buttery light over the narrow, paneled passages. You make your way towards the hold, stepping over bodies crumpled in the corridor. Unfortunately your way is blocked. A bulkhead has been mangled inward by a well aimed barrage.

*Clear the obstruction away* 75% percentage chance of success.
You locate a length of pipe to use as a pry bar and set to work.
(This will test your iron skill. Iron is the skill of confronting and overcoming)

*Lead your party on a more precarious path* 75% chance of success.
Go back out onto the “Ozymandias” hull, climb past the blockage and enter through a window on the far side. And do so carefully. (Veils is the skill of deceiving and evading)

I choose the first one and failed. The heavens are harsh.

A memory.
As you strain against the stubborn steel, you remember an event from a year ago…

A boiler explosion had trapped an engineer beneath a tangle of plating and pipework. The Captain was first on the scene; you were second. Together you pried the wreckage upwards enough for you to crawl beneath it, while the Captain braced the bar across her back. “By all means, take your time,” she grunted, as you drag the engineer out.

Back in the present, the twisted bulkhead yields, suddenly. A crewman cries out as its jagged edge bites him. You order him taken back to the Ophean while the rest of you press on: the way is clear.

You’ve lost 1 x Crew (New total 7)

You have reached the“Ozymandias” hold: a ruin of smashed cargo and spilled supplies. Hopefully, somewhere amidst the detritus, you can find parts to repair the Orphean and restock your stores.

*Conduct a thorough search*
Your companions work quickly. The“Ozymandias” hull has begun to creak. Your actions on board may have compromised its integrity.

You find enough food and gear to restock your supplies, and enough spare parts to make necessary repairs to the Orphean. The food will need to be thoroughly thawed, of course, but you’ve eaten worse in the skies.

“Oh-ho!” cries one of your party, prying the lid off a long crate.

It holds a cannon, still nestled in straw. Another crewman pills a battered birdcage from a pile of ruined cargo. Within the cage, something winged and furred opens a sullen eye. You examine your finds…

Gained 4 supplies (New total 5)
15 x Hull (30)

The “Ozymandias” emits a long, juddering creak. Your boarding party exchange nervous glances.

From the chaos, you have retrieved repairs and supplies and disconnect some useful equipment: a gun that could be mounted on your locomotive, and an educated bat.

Liberate a Diffident Bat and employ it as a scout. The heavens are wide, so locomotive uses scouts – like bats – to locate things of interest: ports, resources, wrecks like this one to scavenge.

The bat treats its rescue as an inconvenience, and immediately begins haggling over pay. You offer to put it back in its damn cage and leave it on the “Ozymandias,” at which point it becomes more polite. You doubt it will last.

You now have 1 x Diffident Bat.

Mount the ‘Jerusalem’ Cannon on the Orphean.
Her own weapons were damaged during your flight from the Blue Kingdom. That leaves you vulnerable. The Cotterell & Hathersage ‘Jerusalem’ fires single shells to a good range more-or-less accurately. You order two of your party to get it back to your vessel and fit it immediately. The “Ozymandias” groans again. The structure shudders, spasmodically.

You now have 1 x Cotterell & Hathersage ‘Jerusalem’

*Press on to the engine room*
You might find more fuel there. But you had better hurry. The “Ozymandias“ is beginning to tear apart.
(You will abandon anything you have not yet claimed from the hold.


*Return to the Orphean*
It is too dangerous to stay.

You lead your boarding party back to your vessel. Unshackling her from the buckling “Ozymandias” you stoke your engines and steam away, restocked, repaired and rearmed.
Press F to send out your scout (I wanted to reassign this to S key but I will end up pressing it accidentally even more, suggestions welcome!)

Summoned by Captain Whitlock
The walls of the Captain’s Cabin are lined with a hodge-podge of curios across the sky.

Captain Whitlock lies in bed. Black marks cover her skin like a monstrous brand. When she coughs, coils of acrid smoke pour from her lungs.

*Approach the bedside*
Her mouth is blistered from the blue fires that dance on her tongue. Her hand grips your arm; her skin is hot as a kettle.

“Made arrangements… the Orphean will be yours.” Her voice is just a rasp of burned-meat breath. “But promise-” she breaks off to scream a word in a language that was not made for human mouths. When she resumes speaking English, she is weaker, her request little more than a gasp. ”-promise me one last service. Promise!”

You promise to obey her last command. Whatever it is.

She sinks back, relieved. “All in my will,” she gasps. “Be a better – “ she breaks off as the sigils burned into her bones flare, glowing cherry-red through her flesh and skin. “-Better Captain than I.” The effort exhausts her. She sinks back into the scorched pillows and a twisting, frantic fever.

Take your leave. You have an engine to command. You leave the cabin and the scorched stink of its air behind, and return to the bridge. New Winchester is further than you’d like, and the Captain hasn’t long left.

A short way along, we have to shoot a bridge to get through and a Reach Marauder appears out of nowhere. Ahh, an old friend from my past. Time to say hello. We take it down with minimal damage taken to the hull.

You approach the buckled wreckage, poised to plunder the plunderers. Behind you, someone is humming a song of victory.

*Raid the remains*
Marauders pillage homesteads and hunt travellers all across the Reach. They often carry stolen valuables.

*Strip for repairs*
Scavenge the Marauders plating and components to repairs the damaged Orphean.

Your engineers scour the remains of the marauder for intact parts. Even before its defeat it was rusting and rickety, its palting a patchwork of reclaimed steel and re purposed bronzewood. But enough can be salvaged to repair some of the damage to your own locomotive.

You’ve gain 5x Hull (new total 26)

March 18th 1905

Wispy condensation trails cross the sky; the ghosts of passing trains.
“A new port, Captain!” your crew crowd to the windows.

You coast into the bustle, the din, the soot and the steam of Wolvesey Station. It is clogged with other engines: scrappy mining locomotives from Lustrum-way weathered explorer vessels with bright brass fittings.
No sooner have you pulled into the sidings than a Brusque Station Master bustles over. He requests to come aboard. “I must speak with your Captain,” he insists, brandishing a ledger. “The usual formalities.”

*Look to the Orphean’s Doctor*
He has just appeared at your shoulder. His face is solemn; his hat is in his hands. He lowers his eyes. The crew exchange bleak, wordless looks. The Orphean itself feels suddenly more empty. The station master looks confused. You inform him that unfortunately, Captain Whitlock has just passed.

“Ah,” he says neutrally. “Sorry to hear that. Very sad, very sad.” He waits for what he considers an appropriate minute a half before continuing. “Alas, even amidst tragedy the cogs of bureaucracy must turn- If Captain Whitlock is deceased, the Station Authority require their answers from the First Officer.”

He dons a set of spectacles and locates his pen. “It will be relatively painless. Name, Background, purpose of visit, etcetera. Shall we begin?”

Sunless Skies allows you to customise your past, the name and address of your Captain, and of course their silhouette. Each past has a set of 3 different choices, and then Wealth, Fame or the Truth (for hardened Skies-ers)?.

Up until now, the game has really been in its tutorial, and I have to say it’s one of the most flawless openings I have seen in a while. I don’t say that lightly because tutorials can be hard, knowing how much information to give the player at any one time can be key and Failbetter do a great job of delivering it at a steady pace that flows well. The tutorial doesn’t take place away from the main game, it throws you into the beginning and teaches you everything you need to know before truly handing over the reigns. I think the fact it doesn’t feel like a tutorial is important. You don’t feel like you need to rush through anything to get to the main game as you are already in the game and beginning to create your story.

I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of the depth that Sunless Skies offers, from the various officers you can have board your ship, the places you can explore and the creatures you can discover in the depths of the heavens. I could talk about it/continue this diary for hours but I don’t want to spoil everything 😉 If it sounds like it’s up your street, please check it out and I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed. Sunless Skies is described by the team as “a Gothic Horror roleplay game with a focus on exploration and exquisite storytelling” and let me tell you, it delivers.

Sunless Skies is a game unlike any other, it’s unique and full of creativity, yet it also has a feeling of nostalgia attached to it. Whether it’s memories of reading the Goosebumps turn-to-page-whatever books, or my foray into online roleplaying in my teenage years, or perhaps it’s the dice rolls/choices that echo a system similar to that of one in Disco Elysium. Whatever it is, it works. Everyone at Failbetter should be incredibly proud for what they have achieved and I think this will be a game I play for a long time. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it on numerous awards lists this year.

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