Welcome back everyone. Today we’re reviewing Sunless Sea by Failbetter Games, which exited Early Access just this February. In it, you play a captain working out of Fallen London (yes, the same as featured in the browser game of the same name), daring to venture out into the Unterzee in search of… well, that’s up to you, really. But odds are you’re just going to die, hopefully in as painless a way as possible.
The game does a fair job of explaining the basics, but it’s less specific about how you should get started on the game. So I wallowed around in the Unterzee and repeatedly ran out of fuel and supplies. I guess they weren’t kidding when they said be bold and explore. But even then, it took me several attempts to understand that port reports are important (compile one everywhere you dock), and that trade is, at least thus far in my playing, of limited value.
Your captain has stats that are measured in idiosyncratic units, such as Iron for combat ability, Veils for deception, and Pages for knowledge. As you explore, you will accrue Fragments which will ultimately form Secrets. These Secrets can be used to improve said stats, provided you have a crew member that can teach your Captain the finer points of whatever you are trying to study. The crew members have their own stories, to be explored or ignored as you wish. Anyway, these stats determine the odds of success on various challenges, and have minor effects outside of them, such as Iron helping to determine weapon damage.
The writing, have I mentioned it yet? The writing is fantastic. Nearly everything past “here is an ocean, and ocean-related things” is expressed via text, as in Escape Velocity, another game I adore for its storytelling. That said, Sunless Sea may just do a better job than my current favorite when it comes to storytelling in games. The descriptions of everything, the characters, the events, the places, it all paints a grim picture of the tumultuous life in the Unterzee. What graphics there are help to further immerse the player. The view distance is relatively short compared to the distances players will often have to travel, which can mean large periods of time where no land masses can be seen, leaving the mind to wander. Thankfully, there is a “locate nearest island” key that I made good use of.
SS has been described as “Exploration Horror,” and frankly, it fits. It’s the little things that serve to ratchet up the tension, like seeing a ship in front of you in the home waters suddenly disappear. Or seeing “You are being watched” in the event log.
There are more direct threats, such as pirates and hostile Unterzee life, but those usually come down to terribly one-sided fights. And even when your nerves aren’t shot to hell, your crew becomes steadily more terrified as you venture further and further from the shore and into the darkness. Then there’s the previously mentioned food and fuel that was always running out at the worst times. Maybe it’s just my latent fear of anything oceanic talking, but I found the game to be tension-inducing, in addition to its other qualities. The haunting music certainly didn’t help. One area’s ambiance music screams “You sailed into the wrong sea.”
Overall, I enjoyed this game. I’m a little worn out on the whole “start over from scratch every time you die” mechanic that is central to roguelikes, but Sunless Sea gave me the option to avoid that. If anything playing that way only increased my enjoyment of the game, and as such I believe including that option was a good decision. If you’re looking for a mildly scary naval game, or wish to further explore the world Fallen London is set in, I highly advise trying Sunless Sea.
Sunless Sea is available on Steam for $19. An unusual price for an unusual game.