Sunday, February 17, 2019

Infernal Splendor

Huzzah! I just finished my first successful game in Sunless Skies! As with Sunless Sea, my first Ambition to complete was Wealth. Both games took me about three weeks, playing multiple captains along a single lineage, to reach that point, but I think Skies felt like a quicker journey. The resets on death are much less painful, and you don't need to spend as much time building up the "scaffolding" of a legacy. And it feels like there's more narrative thrust in Skies, though it's been years since I played Sea and my memory may have faded somewhat.

Anyways! Let's do a quick run-down, then I'll natter a bit about my Captain's voyage and some light lore speculation.


Perfect ratio of text to action. The storylets are meaty enough to feel significant, but never drag on long enough to overstay their welcome.

Roleplaying opportunities. I don't recall any time I felt forced into a choice I didn't want. Which is impressive, since you often only have two or three options, but at least one will feel compelling.

Roleplaying multiple captains. This is a great escape valve: You can pick the "bad" options for various storylines out of curiosity, without feeling like it's "you" who is doing this: you're seeing what a particular character does, and will see someone else making better choices in the future.

Challenge. Since tuning down the combat settings, the whole game has felt nicely balanced: good challenges at the threshold of progression, consequences for failure that feel significant but not debilitating, a sense of progression that turns once-daunting scenarios into more trivial encounters.

Replayable narrative. Probably the single biggest improvement over Sunless Sea in my opinion. In some cases, like Traitor's Wood, what might be a fraught multi-week voyage to crack on your first captain can be satisfactorily completed in a single trip with a later captain, once you can anticipate the requirements.

Ongoing narrative. As above, this is a big improvement over Sunless Sea: certain narrative actions of your captains are permanent, and will continue to impact subsequent members of your lineage. This is especially gratifying for expensive or time-consuming plots. Your later captain may need to make a quick visit, and then will be free to immediately share in the benefit and/or continue the story.

Artwork. I'm particularly amazed by the gorgeous environmental art, the various skies you fly/chug over. Character portraits are also fantastic.

Economy. It's good! Money is always useful, there's always something worth saving for, lots of interesting things to consider and trade off. (Invest in goods to maximize future profits, or remain liquid to take advantage of unexpected opportunities, or acquire equipment to improve your efficiency? Liquidate a bargain ASAP to increase your cash reserves, or bank it for the benefit of a future member of your lineage?)

Build options. As with so much in this game, it lives up to Sid Meier's famous aphorism about a game being "a series of interesting questions". Trading off, say, hold slots versus crew quarters, or assaying versus mining, is interesting. And situational! I personally found the Reach better with crew and mining, and Albion with hold and assaying. Other captains may feel differently, or have entirely different options available based on their qualities.

Area design. There's a wonderful cohesion and logic to each region: not just a random collection of ports, but a real environment and story. Spending time in the Reach, you get the strong sense of this being a wild, lush, mysterious land. So it makes sense that, say, Supplies are plentiful, but you can't count on finding Fuel everywhere. Whereas Albion is industrial and highly developed, so the opposite is often true there.

Lore. It builds on the marvelous Fallen London cosmology that Failbetter has been growing for a decade, and manages to feel revolutionary and revelatory. We aren't just getting a firsthand look at the Judgments and the Correspondence: We're hearing about entirely new entities and concepts for the first time.

Themes. I wrote about this a little in an earlier post, but Sunless Skies has a lot to say about our own world, despite being set a century ago in another universe. It doesn't exactly beat you over the head about these things, but neither does it shy away from them.

Humor. There's more horror than humor in the game, but plenty of both. The narrative voice can be wonderfully understated, droll, or sardonic, depending on the port and the subject matter.


Music. I enjoy it, but so far it's been less memorable than the Sea soundtrack. (Or maybe I just haven't listened to it enough yet!)

Combat. This has gotten a lot better since making it easier, but it's still one of my (personal) less favorite parts of the game. Evading works really well in places with obstacles, and I do appreciate the rewards for successful fights.

Terror seems a lot less troublesome than in Sea. Even without doing anything special to manage it, I almost never get over 50, and when I do, it's cheap and easy to get it back down. But I have been running with high-Hearts captains, which probably helps; I also haven't been to Eleutheria yet, which I understand has more Terror stuff.


This will shock absolutely everyone, but: I wish there was more romance. I think I had a single option with one Officer, to whom I did not feel especially attached. Sunless Sea had both the comforting domestic romance and the fraught shipboard flings; it's sad to not have either here.

All right, let's dive into some


This is the story of Intendant Lloyd, an Auditor with the Ministry of Public Decency who started from humble beginnings to become one of the wealthiest men in London.

My general approach was to do all of the unique quests in the Reach first: Crew quests, location quests (Percy Blythe, etc.), one-time port quests (Traitor's Wood expeditions, Circus restoration, Carillon investigation, etc.). I would typically dock at New Winchester, grab Prospects, come up with a route (which might include, say, stopping by Leadbeater Nature Reserve to buy Seeds for Avon if I didn't already have some banked), figure out what narrative quests I could tackle on that same route, then complete it. This kept a lot of money rolling in while I was doing the fun story stuff.

Once those were mostly exhausted (except for, like, one trip to Hybras that I didn't feel like making), I decamped for Albion. In future games I might do this earlier, as you can pick up the Quartermaster and start some quests like Horology that require you to return to the Reach. Anyways, in my case I pretty much followed the same system of staying in Albion and doing narrative quests in conjunction with fulfilling Prospects. By this point I'd assembled a decent bank of cheaply-acquired goods, so my routes started to get rather quick and focused, without needing extra trips to acquire materials.

It might be more interesting to talk about what I didn't do. I never found the Eagle's Empyrean station in Albion, so a lot of my plot lines (including the Fortunate Navigator and the, uh, people-smuggling thingy) stalled out. I also never found Eleutheria, where a lot of my Crew storylines were pointing to. On the other hand, I did get multiple plot lines taking me in to the Blue Kingdom, and spent a bit of time there. I was a little surprised at how easy it is to get in: just some permits and an Otherworldly Artifact, and the return trip is free.

I made two circuits of the Blue Kingdom, grabbing some sweet exploration XP and loading up on some hard-to-get items (Immaculate Souls, Navaratine Gemstones). The enemies there are brutal. On my second circuit, I got chased from the Lyceum all the way back to the Transit Relay by the blue Correspondence, who kept slamming me with projectiles until the last second. I watched the screen nervously as they WHOMP WHOMP WHOMPed into the closing relay, hoping that they wouldn't count as damage against me, and made it out with less than 10 Hull. I did pick up an awesome Plating upgrade that also enables Assaying... but thanks to a poor choice with the cult of the Displeased at Avid Horizon, I never assembled the Hearts required to equip it. A situation I believe my next captain will be able to remedy!

As it was, I ended the game with pretty much exactly the same loadout as my last post. That's yet another thing I like about this game's design: equipment is tiered, at 25-point intervals, so you tend to plateau and can spend some time with a loadout, instead of constantly tinkering for marginal improvements. Anyways, my final ship was:

  • Engine: Pellinore-class trader
  • Front gun: Vala (single-shot, high damage)
  • Rear weapon: Sneeze-lurker (mine)
  • Utility 1: Speciometer (assaying)
  • Utility 2: Durendel Canning System (butchery + hold)
  • Bridge: Fitted Cupboards (hold)
  • Plating: Bronzewood Shielding (hull)
As noted before, I plan to swap in The Watchers in Azure for my Bronzewood Plating on my new Captain. After that... I think I've got the best stuff I want for pretty much everything, so I may just start saving up for the 16k Devil ship, or find my way to Eleutheria and see what they have to offer. (The Royal Society has some really tempting stuff, but most of it requires high Veils, which is my dump stat.)

Oh! I should talk about that, too. All of my characters so far have focused on Hearts, then Mirrors and/or Iron, with Veils as my absolute lowest. I don't have a great sense yet for the various stats, but I feel like they're all pretty viable.  Hearts helps a lot with reducing Terror in Albion and various random challenges. Oddly, most "convince people to do something" challenges are Veils and not Hearts, so I haven't been good at, like, elections. Iron and Mirrors help a lot with loot-related challenges.

Unlike in Sunless Sea, your stats don't directly impact gameplay: for example, high Iron doesn't deliver more damage, and high Veils doesn't make you harder to hit. Besides being used for stat challenges in storylets, they also allow you to equip advanced equipment. Starter gear can be equipped with no stats, but better gear requires 25, 50, or 75 in a specific stat.

Let's do some math! Getting 75 in all 4 stats would require 300 points. You start the game with 40 base points, then another 22 from character creation. Each level up gives you 8 more points. There are a maximum of 20 levels in the game, for a total of 160 points. You have 4 officer slots. A fully upgraded officer gives 10 points in a single stat, for a total of 40 points. Finally, the best Mascot I've seen yet gives 3 stat points. Adding this all together, you  may be able to reach a grand total of 265 points with a fully maxed character. (In practice, you'll likely lose some stat points in storylets.) So, I don't think it's possible for a single captain to equip every best-in-slot piece. But you can reach 75 in 3 different stats, which I think is the ideal way to go.

Uh, sorry for the tangent. Anyways, I'd bought the house in London for my Ambition. I wasn't worried about getting the money to retire, but it also requires some difficult-to-acquire items. I actually really like how this Ambition is structured: you can choose which city to house your estate, and can also select from one of, I think, five different options to actually win, each of which costs a different amount of Sovereigns (ranging from 7,000 to 13,666), various collections of high-end Possessions (Searing Enigmas, Royal Dispensations, Cryptic Benefactors, etc.), and possibly 5+ of a given Affiliation (Establishment, Villainy, etc.). Narratively I was mostly drawn to the Establishment-aligned one, but I was far closer to finishing the Infernal one. Most of the others require two Captivating Treasures, which I haven't even seen yet across all my playthroughs. I was able to get the required Crimson Promises at the end of two longish story arcs in Albion, then set about raising the money.

This brought into relief something I'd been mulling for a while: Which is better, items or possessions? For most of the game I'd vastly preferred possessions. They don't take any space in your hold, and you can have an unlimited number of them; they come in handy in various unexpected places, and can often be transformed into other things. But possessions are very much the property of this specific Captain and not of your lineage. Every single item in your Bank will be transmitted into the future, so it's a form of solid capital wealth; possessions, on the other hand, are more of your human/knowledge capital. You can pass down a very limited number of these (1 for each Affiliation point you have), but anything else will be wasted.

In my case, I took this as a prompt to visit all the areas in the game that are thoughtfully set up to liquidate Possessions: Titania for my Sky-Stories (I had over 60) and Visions of Heaven (I had over 40), the Royal Society for Academic items, and finally London itself for my Salon-Stewed Gossip and Ministry Permits. This was a lot of clicking! It did make me realize that I probably should have been gradually liquidating them along the way as I visited those ports; anything over, say, 20 of the low-level items will be more than enough, so you might as well get some XP and gold for it.

Immediately before my retirement, I did wrap up the Rat Brigade's story and the Fatalistic Signalman. I'm very glad that I did! I'd gotten used to how your crew in Sunless Sea reset on each new captain, and it was a genuine delight to see the Signalman's own legacy continue in my personal future.

So, yes, I am very happy with this game and already eager to start off the next! It's interesting to note that my next captain started in London and not New Winchester; this definitely makes sense, as that's where Lloyd retired. I do kind of miss Sea's narrative options to define how your legacy extends (a child, a partner, a rival, etc.), but I should take the opportunity to think of my own creative meta-story for these characters.

Starting in Albion instead of the Reach is interesting. The Prospects tend to be more profitable, and with a substantial Bank of items waiting, she was able to get back on her feet very quickly. But it looks like most of your Officers are still waiting in the Reach, so I'll probably be heading there very shortly to (re-) recruit them. Those extra points are very important, especially when I'm trying to figure out how to spend my Facets. (Oh: Lloyd had retired at, hm, I think level 15 or 16, and my new captain started at 11. Successfully completing the Wealth ambition unlocks a fantastic new Facet that gives you an additional free level up or 1000 Sovereigns.)

That's enough of my lineage. I wanted to jot down a few half-formed thoughts on the High Wilderness:

All of the Hours stuff is really interesting. Sunless Skies is famously set in a Victorian imagination of space, so it's different from ours: not as cold or empty, more like being really high up in the sky. Hours, though, feel like a way to kind of get something akin to Einstein's Theory of Relativity into a pre-Einsteinian universe. The basic idea is that you can mine time: physical material that contains seconds or hours or centuries. Those hours can then be applied to objects or areas to locally slow down time. This is how long-distance travel works in the game: The Reach and Albion are very distant from one another (we would say many light-years away). By coating your locomotive in hours, the locomotive can make the, say, thousand-year journey from point A to point B while, from your perspective, only a single day has passed.

That's all cool and supports the gameplay. Where this gets really interesting, though, is when you start considering what that would actually mean in society, specifically in the highly capitalistic Belle Epoque era of the early 1900s. Industrialists have created "Workworlds" like New Brabazon, enclosing them in Hours to locally speed up time. The laborers inside may toil for a year and produce a year's worth of finished goods, while outside the workworld only a week has passed. This is hugely profitable for the owners, and can be devastating for the workers, as they age and die far faster than their loved ones outside. But there are wrinkles here, too: as the overseers in the game observe, this also means that the revolutionaries have far more time to plot and prepare within their time-well than the overseers do outside it.

This all also helps explain why Albion looks the way it does. By the calendar, we're less than a decade from when Victoria led the Empire through the Avid Horizon, so it's a bit startling to see such a huge and well-constructed infrastructure in place. But it's only a decade from Earth's perspective. Albion was built on the backs of labor, some of whom have spent lifetimes toiling to build. This gets alluded to by, say, the Fatalistic Signalman as well. Some grand projects that might seem like trifles or follies may have consumed entire lives to build.

And speaking of Avid Horizon... I haven't Sought in Fallen London, but I'm at least somewhat cognizant of the lore around NORTH, and did complete the Merchant Venturer's expedition in Sunless Sea. All that to say, it seems a little startling that was felt like such a private, personal, nihilistic pilgrimage by a single tortured soul has, apparently, opened the way for the entire British empire to follow. I never would have imagined that.


Lots more to write, I'm sure, but that'll do for now. There's more Sunless Skies yet to play! I'm currently playing a poet who is attempting to write the Song of the Sky. There are at least two more Ambitions that will follow after that... we will see where those lead me!

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