The sea has never been friendly to man.
At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.
– Joseph Conrad
The fog rolls in off the coast of Fallen London, the crew are restless and eager to leave port. Above you, the chatter of bats can be heard piercing the sky. There is no day or night in the Unterzee, just the dripping of water, the low dull tones of harbour bells, and the ever-looming terror gnawing at the back of your mind. Welcome to Sunless Sea.
To put it as simply as possible, Sunless Sea a Story-Heavy Lovecraftian Naval Roguelike. This game is unique in every way. But for the sake of trying to relate to it, think of FTL in and underground ocean, then you’re on your way to figuring out this enigma of a game. You control a ship and explore the seas. Going from port to port, trading knowledge, secrets, goods, and killing monsters and pirates in between.
At the start of the game you are given a ship, and after that everything else is up to you. The world keeps a similar layout each play through, with the main cities of the Unterzee usually in the same spot. It’s the smaller islands and random events that give it that truly fresh feel when you play as a new character. You could be on the same quest as your last captain, transporting a passenger to another dock, when suddenly the passenger goes mad and pulls a knife on your crew, or is eaten by a giant crab, or simply crumbles into dust. You can never tell what you’re in for when you accept a mission in this game.
Straight off the bat Sunless Sea tells you that your first captain will probably die. Such is the nature of the roguelike-like genre. With a focus on permadeath and replayability you’ll never be playing as a superhuman Captain of an unstoppable ship. You’ll always be one step away from death, and it’s that drive to succeed against insurmountable odds that keeps us coming back. With the passing of every character you play you’ll retain some skill, some items, and some officers. This legacy system is interesting. Once your captain retires, dies, drowns, disintegrates, etc… you choose who to play as next. Do you play as a rival of the former captain? A colleague? Or a direct heir? What you choose dictates what is passed down. It’s a nice way to get slightly better each time. Work hard enough and you’ll afford an ironclad will, securing even more resources for your next doomed captain.
Combat is tough. You begin with a slow ship and a single deck gun. Warding off pirates, crabs, bats, and living icebergs (lifebergs) can prove to be deadly. It’s not a forgiving game at the start, and that can be a little off-putting. But you’ll soon discover that exploration is valued over combat prowess, and maybe burning an extra barrel of fuel to get away is in the best interest of the crew until you can arm yourself with more formidable weaponry. The game encourages you to explore the map and discover new areas until you’re comfortable enough to tackle some of the harder quests.
To put it bluntly, if you don’t like to read while you play, get out now. This game is not for you at all. Fallen London is a world of ten thousand tales, and you’ll be reading your fair share when you play Sunless Sea. Everything you do will almost always have a mysterious tale attached to it, and it’s up to you whether you want to see how far the rabbit hole goes. Take it from me, it goes deep. You’ll come across interesting people, who may or may not have your best interest in mind. At one point I was given the option to triple my supplies by a “generous benefactor”, and unlike normal RPGs where free items are free items, this game instils a sense of suspicion into you. I wanted to know exactly why he wanted to give me these free goods, how “free” were they, and what favours I would need to pay in return. In the end I was low on supplies and had little choice. So far I haven’t been approached to hide any dead bodies yet, but with this game I know something like it is just around the corner.
The world is delightfully Lovecraftian. It’s set in the Victorian age, and everything that seems relatively normal has a sense of whimsical chaos about it. You’ll discover a frozen fortress surrounded by squatters, an entire island that uses rats for currency, enormous Egyptian Sphinx monuments in the middle of the sea. You’ll never guess what is just ahead of you, lurking in the darkness. Failbetter have crafted a living world over the last 3-4 years with their browser game Fallen London, formerly Echo Bazaar. This world coexists with the browser game and you can even connect the two together, unlocking unique items to find as you scour the Unterzee.
With the locket of a lovely lass in my jacket pocket, and a comatose ferret at my side, my captain set out in search of his father’s bones, lost at sea. He had seen enough haunting memories to last a lifetime being a veteran of the ’68 invasion of Hell. Sunless Sea is a game that you can fall into and become a part of. But you need patience and imagination to even attempt it. This is no action game full of aliens to blast or zombies to hack. This is a game that queries whether you should hire the alien as a cook, and if it is wise to ferry the zombie across the channel to the Tomb-Colonies.
Do you trade? Do you explore? Do you seek out giant crabs to fire cannon upon and feast on their entrails? It’s up to you. There are ten thousand tales in Fallen London, make this one yours.
Sunless Sea is available to purchase on Steam, GOG, and directly through FailBetter Games. All purchase links can be found at http://www.failbettergames.com/sunless/