Saturday, February 02, 2019

Van Gogh

Sunless Skies just came out! I'm in the very early stages of playing, and since this is one of the rare cases where I'm actually playing a game within a year of its launch, I thought it might be worth registering some initial thoughts.

Unlike Sunless Sea, I never played the Early Access version of this game, though I have kept an eye on the Kickstarter updates and some general chatter on Twitter. I've been very encouraged by the direction development seemed to be taking, calling out the few gripes I'd personally had with Sunless Sea while doubling down on the elements of that game I had loved.

My first game of Sunless Skies was, uh, memorable! I got through the opening tutorial journey, created my Captain, visited the port, met with colorful locals, picked up some quests, ventured out... then started a fight and immediately exploded. I think the total game was about 10 minutes long, of which perhaps one minute involved me actually moving around on the map.

I laughed and continued my lineage. I'd gotten very used to dying, and dying frequently, during Sunless Sea, and was certainly prepared for more of the same. Dying is a virtue in the early stages of the game, as you don't have much to lose and have plenty to learn. That first lesson was focused around combat. On the macro level, I needed to re-learn the caution I'd gradually developed while playing Sea: Battles are difficult and often unnecessary, and you can (and arguably should) win the game without ever firing a shot. But I'd also learned the micro level about how combat works in skies. Sea combat was about timing: holding an enemy in your sights long enough to develop a firing solution, then firing. Skies combat is much more about aim and heat. You fire your gun straight-on as your ship aims towards them, and (without Aim Assist enabled) will miss if you're even slightly to the side. More importantly, you can fire as much as you want and as quickly as you want, but each shot increases your Heat. Once you reach max Heat, each additional shot will do damage to you. So you can literally blow yourself up without getting hit at all! Which, in fact, was exactly what I had done. Whoops.

My second captain was much more cautious. Or she was once she claimed her vessel. The Legacy system is streamlined from Sea, and so far I like it a lot more. Sea could be very frustrating for the first 10+ hours because you would more or less start from scratch with each new captain; it took a lot of work and effort and knowledge and luck to get to a point where you could build a secure legacy and pass a significant inheritance down to your next captain. I'm not sure if Skies offers similar unlocks, but right off the bat you get a nice assortment of bonuses: raw XP (so you can level up at your discretion), Sovereigns, some of your special items, and a map. (I haven't totally worked out yet how the inherited map works, I think it's labeled "possibly inaccurate" or something. In Sea you shouldn't inherit your map because it kept you from gaining Pages for making discoveries. I suspect that in Skies this is managed by passing on most of your XP.)

I don't yet have a sense for if and how Skies will address my other gripe, how all the narrative elements reset to scratch on each new captain. You do definitely lose all of your Officers and stories and stuff. But I'm still early on in the game, and I'll be curious to see if, say, you can upgrade and retain your Officers or something.

While I'm in compare-and-contrast mode: trading is a lot more fun in Skies than in Sea. Sea seemed to actively discourage and penalize you for trading: casual trading will almost always incur a loss, the most profitable routes dry up after a few iterations, and the few reliable routes have such low margins that you need to move immense quantities to be worthwhile. Skies is, to start, simpler: any given port will usually just sell one or two goods, and most goods will just be sold back in the hub, unlike the extremely varied cargo manifests of Sea. But instead of the relatively static arbitrage of Sea, Skies has more dynamic mission-oriented trading opportunities. For example, in normal cases, you might be able to buy Chorister Nectar from a colony for 120 sovereigns, and sell it in New Winchester for 120 sovereigns. No profit, and once you figure in fuel and supplies, a net loss. But sometimes when you pull into a port, you might find a Bargain to buy a limited supply of Nectar for just 85 sovereigns per unit. Now you can sell them for a profit of 35 per item, covering your expenses and then some. But best of all, you might find an Opportunity for a port that badly needs Nectar and is willing to pay 240 sovereigns. You can purchase it from a well-known market and profit 120; but if you can find a Bargain, you shoot all the way up to 155, plus a bonus (usually XP and a rare possession).

So, unlike Sea, there (at least so far) aren't really any repeatable, grindable trade routes; but the trades you make are significantly more profitable, meaning you advance at a much more encouraging pace.

This kind of shifts the entire rhythm of the game. Sea was always about making big loops out from London, usually along a well-known route where you could make profits. Skies seems to encourage medium-length loops: you still want to visit ports along the way to gather reports and check for new bargains or opportunities, but  the big money is in opportunities, so you'll be spending more of your time chasing those or following up on plot stories than on completing circuits. Adding to this, costs are much more consistent across all ports. In Sea, you almost always wanted to load up on fuel and supplies in London, carefully calculating how much you would need for a planned voyage without taking on too much weight; if you ran low during a voyage, the higher costs at far-away ports could wipe out much of your profits. In Skies, though, Fuel is always 20 sovereigns and Supplies always 40 no matter where you are. In practice, this means point-to-point travel is much more feasible and enjoyable: You don't need to return to New Winchester in the way you used to need to return to London. Other ports can offer you the crew and equipment and stories you require to keep going. Sooner or later you will naturally drift back to New Winchester to turn in your port reports and everything else, but your route may end up looking more like a figure eight or a petal than a loop.

I haven't yet purchased any new ships or ship upgrades. I have leveled up my captains a few times, though, and I love it! In fact, it might be the coolest leveling-up system I've played in any game: you're presented a set of options to define the backstory of your captain, each of which adds some flavor, some stats, and possibly some extra possessions or affiliations. For example, your character might be Haunted, which will will increase your Hearts; you can then select whether you were haunted by a Ghostly Presence, for some more Mirrors, or by Nightmarish Visitations, for some Veils. All those will also grant you a Tale Of Terror! Or maybe you had a Mentor, which gives you Hearts, Iron, and Villainy. A subsequent level-up may then grant a Feud With Your Mentor for still more bonuses.

Anyways, this is all awesome. The one problem is I keep falling into the tension between my desires as a roleplayer and my desires as a min-maxer. "Well, I feel like Seberin's scandal would have been a Torrid Affair... but I really need the Mirrors, so maybe I should choose the Parade Of Debauchery instead..." But that's on me, not on the game.

This whole approach of the ongoing narrative development of your player character is one of the hallmarks of Failbetter games. They use this to great effect in Fallen London: The initial character creation is extremely simple and swift, but as you play the game you are not just making in-game choices, but also defining the history and motivations of your character; more intriguingly, you anticipate your future Destiny as well. Skies has a similarly well-rounded approach, although there is much more flavor at every stage. Chargen is a lot of fun, starting out with your character's previous Earthbound profession: I've usually been playing as a Priest, but there are also Sea-inspired options like Poet and Urchin, as well as fun new ones like Revolutionary or Academic. You can also choose a specialization. I was really intrigued by the ones for Priest: I almost squealed when I saw the option to declare yourself a follower of the Bishop of Southwark, one of my all-time favorite characters in Fallen London. I was a bit surprised, though, to see that he added Veils and Villainy. The Bishop may be many things, but he certainly is not subtle! And I personally don't see him as villainous. After some more exposure to the game, though, I think this is getting at some of the major political realignments that have taken place between the 1890s and the 1900s, with the Bishop's old-school devil-thumping predilections on the decline. As it stands I've been aligning myself with the New Sequence, of whom I still do not know much but who are an intriguing force.

The cameo stuff is all great as well, much more fine-tuned than the static portraits of yore. The game makes a point of informing you that your character's gender is your own business: You can select salutations like "My lady" or "Sir", but you never choose a pronoun or a categorized gender. So far I've flown under the titles of Reverend, Nurse, and, uh, I think Lady. I haven't found any romances yet, but given the Sea pedigree I suspect it's coming.

Oh: And I kind of skipped over my second captain, where almost all of my gameplay time has been. She explored a significant chunk of The Reach, and I think found most of the ports. Things were a bit tight at first, but she got on a roll, making a significant delivery and kicking off storylines for several of her officers. Then she got bonked to death by space fish. Argh. I hate space fish, they're too fast to run away from. I don't yet know how to handle them, but I'll need to figure that out if I want my next captain to thrive.

And there will be a next captain! I'm already looking forward to getting more mileage under my belt over this weekend, and hopefully in the weeks to come. I haven't even talked yet about how frickin' beautiful the graphics are, how wonderful the music is, how compelling the portraits... all that to say, there will definitely be more posts coming in the future!

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