Sunless Sea (PC)

Developer/Publisher: Failbetter Games
Release Date(s): Feb. 6, 2015
Genre(s): Adventure, Rouguelike, Indie
Platform(s): Windows, Mac
Language(s): English
Pricing: $18.99 / £13.99 / €18.99
Rating: None at this time

"Lose your mind. Eat your crew. Die."

This past February saw the release of UK-based Failbetter Games’ oddball title Sunless Sea, an eerie nautical adventure set in the universe of Fallen London, Failbetter's acclaimed browser game launched in 2009. The world of Fallen London is an alternate Victorian-Era Europe with heavy steampunk and gothic overtones, in which London has been "stolen by bats" and carried into the depths of the Unterzee. Both Fallen London and its spinoff are open-ended choose-your-own-adventure sagas, filled with countless "storylets". Sunless Sea has been getting rave reviews from a variety of sources, so we decided to see what all the fuss was about. Keep reading to find out if this game is worth shelling out the Echos for. 


As the opening page of the "gazetteer" states: “Three decades ago, in the reign of Victoria, London was stolen by bats. Now it lies a mile below the surface.” …And that's about all they give you to start with. The rest of the story you're just going to have to find out for yourself – or make it. You start off as a "zee captain" (Yeah, the quirky "z instead of s" thing is all over the place) at Wolfstack Docks in Fallen London, the biggest city in the Unterzee. You're allowed to create a character and assign him or her certain perks, as well as a silhouette that works as your avatar. There's "bald guy", "old-timey diver", "sea captain", "Victorian lady", and all kinds of other silhouettes to choose from. Your first boat is a rather modest craft armed with a basic weapon and an old engine. You also start with one officer, a mascot, a crew, some Fuel and Supplies, and some Echoes, the in-game currency.

Your objective, in broad strokes, is to go down in the annals of the Unterzee as a successful zee captain, but the game allows you to decide what you consider success to be. Do you want to embark on a mad hunt for your father's bones, amass a pile of Echoes and sit on it for the rest of your life (presumably not all that long in this world), or travel far and wide to absorb all the knowledge and secrets hidden in the depths of the Unterzee? Each of these will give you some sense of direction, which is a good thing, because you're pretty much on your own.

As I mentioned above, the story is not one that's simply told. You have to dig for it. Sunless Sea takes place in a world with layers of hidden depths, and the only way to plumb them is the hard way – by visiting as many places as you can, talking to as many people as you can, and taking risks. None of these are as straighforward as they seem: visiting ports is easy at first, but eventually it will take its toll on your stocks of Fuel and Supplies, not to mention the Terror geneterated by being so far from a safe harbor. Talking to certain characters, notably your officers, will cost you Secrets, the game's other "currency". Secrets are obtained by gathering Fragments, which are mostly generated by exploring new areas of the Unterzee. NPCs are often willing to trade you their own secrets for them, or for any number of rare items found throughout this bizarre world.

Essentialy, the whole point of the game is to put together the pieces and figure out just what is up with this place, and why things are the way they are. What's a Tomb Colonist? What on earth is that Dawn Machine? How did the Salt Lions get there? Who or what are the gods of the Unterzee? Not every question has an answer, or at least not one you'll come by any time too soon. The game is designed to punish you harshly for your mistakes, and is candid about the fact that your first captain (and your second, and your third) will most probably die. If there is one thing Sunless Sea requires more than anything else, it's not skill or intelligence, but patience. And more patience.



Simply put, my opinion is that the graphics in Sunless Sea are beautiful. I don't think it's necessary for a game to wow fans with technical realism and flawless animation. One of the things that has been proven time and again in the current era of video games is that simpler graphics can be just as impressive as anything fit for next-gen consoles or suped-up PCs. The actual world of Fallen London and the Unterzee is displayed top-down, as your little ship plies it route through the darkness of the Unterzee. Different cities and harbors have their own visual and musical themes, from the fiery and menacing Iron Republic to the macabre and mysterious Venderbight. In some ways it reminds me of the early Grand Theft Auto games, but only a lot more slowly paced and a whole lot more bizarre.

The map is full of beautiful natural formations like the Reef of Roses and Bonny Reefs, though as far as I can tell, these aren't much more than eye candy. And that's fine – it adds to the immersion experience, and most of them really are nice to look at. Besides, without pretty things adding color to your journey across the dark waters of the Unterzee, things can get a little bit tedious–or terrifying. The main graphical motif of the game is darkness. It's everywhere, and is an important gameplay mechanic, as being out at zee, alone and in the dark will tend to increase your Terror, which can have potentially fatal consequences. 

Ship design is pretty simplistic, both your own and those of the pirates who lurk about hoping to ambush unsuspecting zee captains. The various zee creatures look really cool, too, but I was more impressed with the colorful names: the common Auroral Megalops, a giant yellow crab; the Jillyfleur, which seems to be a sort of jellyfish/squid hybrid; the Lifeberg, a living iceberg that makes the waters of the frozen north a dangerous place; and several others. Then there's the beautiful hand-drawn cartoonish portraits of all kinds of characters as well as your officers, and the pictures that represent the various ports of call, whose names are as colorful as the zee creatures: Gaider's Mourn, The Iron Republic, The Salt Lions, etc.

The sound in Sunless Sea does a good job of bringing the atmosphere to life, and I find it to be very fitting for the most part. There's no ambient soundtrack to speak of, save for a steady omnious dripping noise in the background. Each port, or at least the majors ones, has its own music that plays when you approach it, and I can say that trying to get back to Wolfstack Docks while running on 0 Fuel and with my crew literally starving to death, the "Fallen London" music can be very comforting. Sunless Sea is designed to be a text-based game, so there are no voices in the whole game, though in this case, I think it only adds to the overall feel, so I consider this lack of voice acting a plus. 


More than anything else, gameplay will make or break a game, and in my opinion, this is where Sunless Sea's major weaknesses lie. But first, I'll just explain a bit how things work. Once you get started, it's up to you where you want to go. The controls are as simple as can be: WASD to move and mouse button to select dialogue and story options, launch attacks, and perform other interactions. And simple doesn't mean bad, either – things seem to work more or less how they should. As you sail out to zee, you're going to have to keep an eye on your Fuel, your Supplies, and your Terror. Fuel is how you power your ship  run out of it, and you're just a floating pile of junk out there. Supplies are what you feed your crew with. If they get hungry, they'll start dropping like flies. At this point you can decide to resort to cannibalism, something the advertising for the game likes to tout. Finally, Terror steadily builds as you spend more time away from civilization, and can have devastating results if it gets too high. 

Each port has a variety of story options, items for sale, and characters to talk to. A major source of income, at least early on, is collecting "port reports" to sell to the Admiralty back in Fallen London. Pretty much all action in-port takes the form of dialogue boxes, true to the "choose your own adventure" style of Fallen London, which is not a weakness, unless you expect something other than what the game purports to be. Eventually, trade will also play a role, as certain items can be bought cheap in one port and sold at a profit in another. 

Combat is rather rudimentary, but fun enough. Essentially, when an enemy comes near you, you go into a sort of combat mode, and your crew will start to prepare a "firing solution". Once the firing solution is ready, you have a 100% chance of hitting your target. The trick is to figure out your enemy's pattern of movement, though I did find that this is a bit too easy when fighting other ships. Since they can't fire backwards, and generally move at the same speed, if you keep following them in a circle, you can hit them several times without retaliation. I sunk lots of ships this way, even ones which should by all rights have been able to blow me out of the water. In any event, you'll soon figure out that combat just isn't worth it. What you pay in hull repairs and wasted Fuel and Supplies completely outweighs anything you gain (usually Fuel Crates, food, or trade goods). One exception is that low-HP creatures that can be taken out in one or two hits do provide food, which might help you save Echoes. 

Ah, Echoes. This is where my criticism of Sunless Sea begins. Everything in the game costs Echoes, and they're not all that easy to obtain. Yes, players have figured out a variety of elaborate trading schemes to generate a decent income, but if the object of the game is to explore a world rich in detail and mystery, then forcing you to spend hours plying the same old trade routes just to get enough income for fuel and supplies kind of misses the point. A port report will get you maybe ten Echoes, for instance, which is the same price as a single unit of Fuel. Upgrades to weapons and engines are in the several hundred Echoes range, and ship upgrades in the thousands. Maybe I'm not good at the game, or maybe I'm too used to RPGs, but typically, as a game progresses, you start making money by picking up more expensive items or earning more from missions. I think this is one place where Sunless Sea has inherited some of the worst aspects of browser-based games I half expect the game to tell me "Looks like you're out of Echoes! You can purchase 100 Echoes for $.99 or 1000 for $9.99!"

Another problem (as I see it) with this game is the pace. It's. just. so. damn. tedious. I get that we're not talking about some Sonic the Hedgehog platformer or an action-packed FPS here, but come on. It takes forever to get from one location to another, even with a "fast" ship. This is actually fine when you're going out to zee to explore uncharted waters, coming across new sights and hoping you don't run into something that will destroy you. It adds to the immersion, for sure. But when you're making the same run for the tenth time, visiting the same ports and picking up the same goods, it's just obnoxious. A fast travel option between known locations is something they could have really used here, even if it cost extra resources. I know patience is part of the game, but this, and the need to make the same trip over and over and over and over and over again actually works against the fun of exploring the world of Sunless Sea and piecing together the story.

And this brings me to my last point, which is that I don't think this game "gets" what it means to be a rougelike, and that I don't think rougelike is the best format for this game, either. Like any roguelike, the gameplay is punishing, and you will lose many captains before you start to learn from your mistakes. It's even designed to be played with permadeath, though there is a "Mercy Mode" that allows you to manually save and reload. But the problem is that it's not random enough. Most of the map is randomly generated, and there are apparently 36 million possible configurations, but Fallen London, and everything on the southern and western edge of the map will always be in the same place, as will some other locations. And even the map tiles that move are not entirely free certain tiles will only be found in certain regions, which means nothing moves too far from where it was in the lifetime of your previous captain. You'll always spend the first several voyages visiting the same places so you can earn enough Echoes to venture farther out and explore, but nothing is ever so random that you'll be coming across new places each time you start with a new captain. So essentialy it's only random enough to be frustrating, with very little of the variety that makes a rougelike enjoyable. On the other hand, it's just diffferent enough each time that you can't really build on the knowledge gained by your previous (dead) captain. 

And is rougelike really the best way to play a game that is primarily about exploring a deep and immersive world? What happens is that you end up exploring the same places and getting the same bits of story over and over again before you get to do anything else. I think this really hinders players' ability to delve into the story. They would have done well to have even more randomness and allow you to visit new places each time you start with a new captain, or at least give you an option to turn off the randomness so you can build on your knowledge from each playthrough. Rage quitting isn't my usual style, but oh man, did it happen here. 



Sunless Sea is a gorgeous game rich in detail and a story with layers of depth reaching deep into the Unterzee. I was really impressed with it when I started playing it, but unfortunately the charm started to wear off once I played for a while. The appeal of the game is the story, the mystique of it all, and the exotic and colorful environment. But since the game forces you to constantly grind for Echoes, you spend hours discovering nothing new, and if you die, it's the same old thing over and over again. Maybe this would be forgivable if the actual gameplay was exciting, or if combat wasn't so bare-bones. And don't get me wrong -- I have no problem with basic combat and gameplay per se -- it's just that if this is a game where rather shallow gameplay is the vehicle for exploring a rich fantasy world, then you should be able to spend more time exploring instead of ferrying Tomb Colonists to Venderbight over and over again. As it is, I do not think Sunless Sea is worth the $18.99 it currently sells for. Maybe check it out when there's a sale or something, or when it's a bit older and drops in price -- it's certainly interesting enough. But twenty bucks is twenty bucks, and I think it could be better spent. (Chase Faucheux)

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