Sunless Sea – Review

Title   Sunless Sea
Developer  Failbetter Games
Publisher  Failbetter Games
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Adventure, RPG
Release Date  February 6, 2015

Usually when I write a review I’m very excited to be able to tell you all about a game (whether bad or good) because I want to share my experiences with you. For the most part, game experiences are so diverse that I’m not worried about divulging too much information or spoiling anything, and I don’t think I can ultimately convey everything with words, unless I were to openly spoil something by describing exactly what happened. With Failbetter Games’ Sunless Sea, however, almost the opposite is true. I literally wish to give you as few details as possible because it is an exquisite and unique work of art, and to even talk about some of its content seems sacrilegious, so for that reason I’ll be keeping details to a bare minimum.

What I can tell you is that you are the captain of a ship sailing the Unterzee or Zee for short – no, that isn’t a typo, these waters, perilous as they are, are hilariously referred to as the Zee. The story goes that it’s the 1800s and London has dropped into the ground, which is to say that England opened its mouth, and swallowed it whole. London then became known as Fallen London, and it’s here that your adventure begins. Fallen London is the main city from which you will depart and begin to explore the rest of the Unterzee. London, however, wasn’t the only thing that fell.. as some people, places, and things were very much already down here, in this watery grave lodged between the surface and hell itself.

What sort of captain are you though, wedged between this slither of life and death? You soon learn the question is less about who you are and more about who you were, and who you will become. Sunless Sea asks you to make a host of decisions right from the start – your background, your goals, as well as how you want to be addressed and so forth. Of course, there is an option to just ignore this and merely become a nameless and faceless entity making waves in the big city. None of this really matters though, because ten hours down the line this person you’re choosing now will be dead. He or she will have been eaten up by the Unterzee, another life swallowed whole, their fading memory remembering their lost love, waiting on the shores of Fallen London, holding a pendant…

It’s tempting to stay in Fallen London and have a really good nose around at the comings and goings, to soak in all the art through the journal-style entries that the game is displayed to you in. There are hundreds of pages of text to read here, and given that the majority of the game is displayed to you in this format, anyone who gets tired of reading easily should prepare themselves in advance. This shouldn’t be a reason to avoid this game though; far from it. The writing style here is, in a word, unique.  It mirrors the setting well – a Gothic-Victorian world that has its blend of oddballs, dark humour, and its own set of rules. What made sense on the surface has no rhyme or reason down here, and you’ll do well to heed the words of caution found within the pages in front of you. Before long though, despite clicking all the buttons, reading about all the different characters and options within Fallen London, you’ll have to give into the call of the Zee. After all, she is nothing more than the accomplice to human restlessness and you will become restless before long.

Getting around in Sunless Sea, like most 2D roguelikes, is a simple affair mixed with the added tension of knowing you could die at any moment. Your starting ship is quite pathetic by all accounts, but it can move around if it needs to, has a cargo hold, and a forward gun so you can’t complain too much. The only way you’ll upgrade it and generally earn echoes (the game’s currency) is to explore the vast Zee and complete whatever main quest you have selected for yourself. You should not be fearful of missing the hundreds of little islands, as your Zeebat can be deployed to give you a rough compass direction to follow should you wish to make landfall somewhere, but it would be safer to fear just about everything else. There are plenty of monsters, pirate ships, and other oddities to have to consider as you cross the great expanse and survival is only guaranteed with a decent ship, a worthy crew (multiple characters can be hired, each with their own needs and back story), and a big dose of luck.

Sunless Sea is a fairly unforgiving game for those who rush head-first into its gaping maw assuming success is but a boat ride away. Oh, no my pretties, far from it. Your captain will die. Your second captain will die. Your third captain will die, and so on and so forth. The out and out brilliance of this game compared to all other roguelikes I’ve played is two-fold: first, you are never, ever fully equipped for the new areas you venture into. I’ve not once made landfall somewhere, where I could immediately get everything I needed or, to put it in gaming terms, loot the place dry and never worry about coming back. Every single island I’ve explored had a secret, a myth, a trick or a trap – something that was going to tempt me back later, whether it was mission-critical or not. The second part is that you’ll want to explore every last inch of this map because it’s just so amazingly varied and beautifully presented. I’ve knowingly made a detour to an island to explore it simply because I could see that it had a strange statue erected in the centre of it. The fact that we had to eat a couple of crew members on the way back because we had run out of food was both an oversight on my part and an absolute necessity in terms of my story.

Running out of supplies is a quick way to die, as your boat won’t run without fuel and your crew won’t work without food. These two things are mission-critical, and ending up on the wrong side of the Zee can land you in a lot of trouble. Certain commodities are more expensive in different parts of the map, so while you’ll feel like the real deal, selling exotic products back in Fallen London, you’ll equally feel like a right idiot paying premium price for fuel if you get stranded out in the sticks. You could always light a flare to attract help, or perhaps… something other than help, and yet that this is still much preferable than sitting in the dark, because while the dark holds nothing but the blackness of the Unterzee, try telling that to a pack of terrified deck hands.

Terror is one thing you’ll need to keep an eye on during your travels, just as much as fuel and food. Turns out that despite living in a subterranean world, people are scared of the dark (and rightly fucking so, if you’d seen some of the things I’ve seen). Terror rises the longer you’re in the dark, or if you happen to partake in certain acts like pissing off the gods of the Zee, or consorting with pirates and criminals. The higher the terror, the worse things can get for you. Of course, this being a video game, sometimes a high terror rating is useful, but you’re walking and extremely fine line between useful and game-ending. Consider yourself warned, Captain.

All of your actions in the game equate to experience points that come in the form of fragments, and these fragments eventually turn into secrets. The secrets can be spent to upgrade your various statistics that measure things like combat strength, wounds, perception, and so on. This aspect of the game isn’t explained very well, so it took a few hours for me to really get what was going on and whether it was worth actually investing in any of these things. There is certainly no risk of you becoming over-powered though, that’s for sure. That being said, there is a substantial online presence and a guide that can help you, but seeing as the secrets can be traded for other more valuable things, it left me a little confused as to what best practice was. The same can be said of the skills themselves, which are largely left up to you to explore and understand.

Provided you have the fuel and the food, don’t get blown up, eaten, break-down, thrown off your ship, driven mad, arrested, stabbed, turned into a giant candle, or have your soul taken, you might find yourself in a position where you accidentally raise your terror straight to one hundred and get murdered in your sleep by your own crew. Wonderful. Despite hours and hours of work, you’ve now got bugger all to show for it, except this isn’t like other roguelikes, and you do have a way to pass on your legacy. When you die you’re given a variety of options in order to hand down your knowledge to your next captain so that the Zee doesn’t always have the upper hand. The catch is that you can only choose one option, so what do you value more – your map or your crew, your combat skills or your trinkets, your money or your wits? It’s tough making these decisions, but it’s also a way of rewarding those who have excelled in certain areas of the games.

Although the graphics are straightforward enough, the style is spot-on, absolutely nailing the Victorian-Gothic vibe, and the game would lack a large part of its identity without the attention paid to this theme. Equally, as you begin to explore further and further away from what you know, the Zee takes on a life of its own, revealing more places so detached from Fallen London that you could be playing a different game entirely. Sometimes fog will cloud the skies, sometimes the wind will carry heavy snow, and for every strange foreign shore you dock with, there will be a stranger and more foreign-feeling shore just a few leagues away. The graphical variety that accompanies these various islands allows you to feel like a real explorer. No place is ever the same and none ever feel recycled – the art style and graphical flair see to that.

The music is as jaunty and jovial as you might find it aboard a real ship sailing around the Unterzee, and this just adds to the character that the graphics and writing start to create. Most of the time, your only friend is the splashing of the waves against the hull, and there are some periods of silence, but this feels realistic as opposed to boring. You’re crossing a vast expanse of water – it’s going to be quiet at times. In other situations, you’ll have music that scares you, that can warn and warm you in equal measure. I do wish that some of the dialogue had been spoken, purely to add some variety to all the reading, but this is a minor quibble at best.

Sunless Sea has plenty to offer in terms of content and it will take you multiple attempts to reach your end goals. With different options to consider right from the start, and throughout your journey, you’ll never be bored or short of things to do. It can be frustrating to try and navigate the objectives list, to understand what you’re really supposed to be doing, but if I’m playing devil’s advocate, that’s part and parcel of exploring the great unknown. Life isn’t about getting a signpost to every great opportunity that may otherwise pass you by and, equally, games in the past have been accused of  holding your hand, so while it is refreshing to have to think for yourself, the cryptic clues can wear a little thin at times. Either way, you’ve got plenty of content to sink your teeth into and I’ve got no doubt that more will be added as time moves on.

  • Some of the finest writing I've ever seen in a video game
  • One of the best roguelikes I've encountered
  • Story, graphics, setting, gameplay, and score all combine to create a living, breathing, and utterly believable world.
  • The learning curve needs some attention at the start
  • Some better clues regarding objectives might assist those used to hand-holding within games.

You'll notice that I've really talked about the systems and facts of the game rather than my experiences and how I found it. That's because, Sunless Sea is an utterly incredible game that I have thoroughly enjoyed playing but it's one that people should experience for themselves, without having a single element spoiled for them. It is a world that I love to immerse myself in time and time again, that I wish to fully explore and map out. I'm now on my fourth captain and I've opted to save my map each time I've died, just so I can see where everything is before finally giving up the information in order to start building a proper character. The fact that the locations will shift slightly upon losing the information doesn't phase me because one of the best parts of the game is being able to explore and find new, exciting shores. Some of the best parts of Sunless Sea have been the complete opposite though - the eerie music whistling in the wind, sending a chill through me as my boat scuttles through the dark, rocking side to side with nothing in front of me but pitch black and the ice-cold promise that at the end of the day, we're all just souls waiting to be claimed by the big beautiful Unterzee.

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