After 45 hours in Sunless Skies, it’s tempting to offer your own spin on Roy Batty’s “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe” speech from Blade Runner. The problem is that it’s hard to know where to start, and even harder to know where to stop. A hybrid, like 2015’s Sunless Sea, of top-down steampunk naval sim and choose-your-own-adventure storytelling, Skies takes you everywhere from an asteroid circus to the howling corona of a clockwork star. Blending the juicier nightmares of Victorian astronomers, bureaucrats and sailors with some rather less antiquated-feeling characters and concepts, it’s a tour of the heavens in which every port is an oddity, twinkling or at least glistening in the firmament.
Pick random moments from my playthrough and you’ll find my captain doing something very different each time, all of it brought to life with Failbetter’s trademark mix of dread and whimsy. Here I am having sex with a demon signaller, for example. And then there was that time I visited a laughing orchard to resolve an academic dispute about the exact occupant of a celestial tomb. Here I am trading shots with a ghost of wood and parchment as I skim the lip of a black hole – oh, and of course, here I am devouring my own crew after running out of fuel on the way back from hell. The great joy of Failbetter’s latest is once again the ghoulish inventiveness of the writing and setting, though it’s helped along in Skies by more accessible world design, relatively generous earning mechanics and some truly decadent background art.
A direct narrative sequel to Sunless Sea, the game’s premise is that Queen Victoria has conquered the solar system, ensuring that Britain is, indeed, the empire on which the sun never sets by murdering the sun and replacing it with a mechanical one. She’s also achieved immortality by somehow mining the raw stuff of temporality itself and selling it by the barrel – a wonderfully silly and brutal co-opting of the theory of relativity. In this universe, royal stipends are measured in hours, not coins, and time passes a lot slower inside factories than in palaces, the better to exact maximum blood and sweat from each labourer. Out in the solar system’s recesses, meanwhile, upstart “Tackety” colonists battle London’s representative the Windward Company while demons, the dead and other, even stranger entities go about their business.
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