January 2, 18--. Day 3.
"Still Hungry. So hungry. Everyone is gone. Where did they go? They were right here. The Chief Engineer won't speak to me now. He just sits there, constantly casting me an accusatory glare when I try to approach him. I ask him where everyone has gone to, but he won't listen. He won't answer. The Surgeon's eyeless skull tells me that I ripped out the Engineer's throat with my teeth, but I don't believe him. He's lied to me before. I have just finished my last meal. But why am I still so hungry?"
I hate this game.
As someone who grew up slamming missiles into hapless robots in Descent, waging Global Thermonuclear War in Civilization II, and being Death Incarnate in Marathon, I've come to revel in the traditional role of games as power fantasies. In Escape Velocity Nova, I was Malcolm Reynolds, Jean-Luc Picard, and Han Solo all-in-one, commanding a fearsome vessel whom enemy captains would speak of in hushed tones, voices tremulous with fear and loathing. Nothing could touch me. So I sallied forth in Sunless Sea, expecting to brave the dark, foreboding expanse of the zee with all of the wide-eyed enthusiasm that I had when I launched from the Kane Band in my little shuttlecraft.
Minutes later, I found myself alone in my boat. Powerless, helpless and surrounded by darkness beyond any trace of hope. The steaming entrails of my officers lay all around me, my mouth was stained a deep crimson, and strands of hair, chips of teeth, and flecks of bone coated my jacket like crumbs from breakfast toast, savoured on a sunny childhood day l'd long forgotten. My crew was dead. My hunger was sated. For now. This was supposed to be a simple passenger run. What happened?
Sunless Sea, the indie sensation fresh out of Steam Early Access by Failbetter Games, has defied characterization by many gamers. Comparisons to Rogue-Likes and Rogue-Lites have been made, with the most common connection being made to 2012's FTL. But Sunless Sea's core gameplay is most reminiscent of the Escape Velocity games, casting the player into an expanse of uncharted territory, full of danger and opportunity. However, Sunless Sea trades EV's sci-fi, swashbuckling, action-adventure aesthetic for one of Lovecraftian, Victorian, Steampunk Horror. EV put you in the middle of a bustling, active universe, with the power to change the course of history. Sunless Sea puts you in the middle of an empty, bleak universe full of eldritch horror. And in the face of cosmic and unearthly powers far beyond imagining, it is utterly indifferent to your actions.
This all sounds disheartening and depressing, but it doesn't take long before the game's mechanics start to become more engaging: to survive and prosper, you need to upgrade your stats, as well as your ship's weapons and items (or at least think about getting a better ship). With better weapons and a better ship, combat becomes viable, and soon enough many of the monsters and pirates that earlier sent you running will eventually become easy and satisfying sources of loot, fuel, and supplies.
In addition to fuel and supplies, sanity is also a precious resource. Fear will slowly creep up on you the more time you spend out at sea, and certain missions and events are even dependent on the amount of fear you have at any given time. Turning on your light substantially reduces the rate you accumulate fear (in addition to giving you a boost in combat), at the cost of making your ship more visible to monsters and hostile ships (as well as fuel).
Ship upgrades cost money (Echoes) which the player gets through completing missions for various people, and factions, and to a limited extent, trading of goods between ports. Most of the money earned, at least early on, will come from missions, and it's here where Sunless Sea expertly draws the player into the its rich lore and narrative abundance.
January 15, 18--. Day 156.
"The Fathomking looked at us with the eyes of a child, expectant and innocent, cast on the face of a teacher, lines creased with the burdens of knowledge gained only by living beyond your death. He knew what we were going to say, he knew what we were going to do, even before we could take a single step into his cavernous chamber.
'Come.' He beckoned. 'Your comrade awaits you. Know that the price you must pay to ransom her from death is not a boon to me. It is to satisfy the balance that the zee demands. To the zee you must give, before you can receive.'"
I love this game.
As someone who revels in the rich lore of games like Baldur's Gate II, Marathon Infinity, and Avernum, I’ve always been drawn to the power of narrative in gaming. Games are more than just mechanics. They are entire universes filled with living people, coping with real struggles, and sharing in real triumphs. Stories of failure and betrayal, vengeance, and redemption. Such stories are at the heart of Sunless Sea, and one story that stands out among the rest in my experience, was that of my ship's surgeon.
My Surgeon was an elegant, olive-skinned middle-aged woman, whose lethal secret was shared with me in confidence over a darkened supper table. Despite being hardened from her countless years at war, she was quaking with fear at her hidden condition: a disease so deadly that her death would be her consumption in flames. I took the news in stride, I was calm. I didn't take it seriously. We'd gather the materials she needed to assemble her cure after the next mirrorbox run, or after the next Admiralty mission, or after we'd sell off our next box of Red Honey…And then one day, she came to me with her eyes cast downward. It was time. When we cast her shrouded body over the deck of the ship, committing her to the zee, I knew what a horrible mistake I'd made. It was a mistake that I had to set right, no matter the cost. As it turned out, my callous complacency ended up carrying an expensive price. Her story is one of many, of life and death in the zee.
The game delivers such stories through excellent writing, with an unsettling surreality that's equal parts H.P. Lovecraft and Terry Prachett, with a little bit of the absurdity of Douglas Adams thrown in for good measure. Reminiscent of Kentucky Route Zero, the discomforting emotion of the writing can crawl under one's skin at times, with its perversion of real-world situations and ideas. This also extends to the stories of your officers, who you can recruit to your ship at certain ports to give you specific stat bonuses. Interacting with your officers can upgrade your stats, give you resources, or help you complete a given mission. But, in addition to that, they can also have their own complete arcs where they can grow (or regress) as characters, giving them upgrade paths as well.
The game's sound design, sparse soundtrack and graphics all add immensely to the Sunless Sea's immersive factor. The music changes in recognition of your approach to ports, adding to the excitement of finding a new destination, or the relief of finally reaching a safe haven where you can refuel and resupply. Pulling back into the home waters of Fallen London prompts an upbeat tune that evokes an image of your crew dancing gaily on the deck of your ship. Weapons make satisfying impact sounds as their shots find their mark (especially torpedoes, which can hit especially hard).
The glue which holds it all together is the game's unrelenting "Rogue-like" brutality. Unfortunately, it is also where Sunless Sea starts to mechanically fall apart.
The model of player progression is apparently reliant upon your character constantly dying. In a manner reminiscent of Rogue Legacy, or Infinity Blade, the story of your character is deeply tied into all of your other past characters, and the horrible, frustrating ways in which they died. On the next playthrough, your Captain can inherit wealth, weaponry, or officers from their deceased predecessors; money can also be passed down through treasures and heirlooms, willed to descendants in the hope that they will find greater success than their forefathers. But underpinning it all is the notion that you will die, and die a lot -- or at least get screwed over and/or crippled due to an unlucky turn of RNG-based fate. That's all well and good for a game designed to be played in short packeted bursts, such as FTL. However, this is an exploration-based, semi-open-world game in which you can invest substantial amounts of time and effort. At times I found I found it maddeningly frustrating to have my progress yanked out from under me through a nasty run of bad luck, and I imagine this factor alone could make or break the game for some players.
I also found early progression to be brutally unfair, with no easy way to earn the cash base and upgrades that are key to opening up more of the game. To alleviate this, there really should be more easily obtainable quests or missions available (like bounty hunting missions, fetch quests or general deliveries to nearby ports) to give players a reasonable way of earning Echoes.
My other issue is the role of Fallen London. Harking back to its roots in the titular browser-based game, the port of Fallen London is your hub city, and it is the only place where you can repair, upgrade, and purchase ships of immediate value. Why aren't there more ports with shipyards, or at least dry docks where you can have hull repairs? Why can't there be more selection of ships available to the player in the shipyards? It would also be nice to get the ability to ally with specific factions that have their own hub ports and ships, like The Dawn Machine or The Khanate.
As mentioned above, Sunless Sea is a game that I can't help but both love and hate at the same time, and that makes it a game that I find hard to recommend, in spite of its beauty and narrative splendour. I fear that the game’s punishing and unfair difficulty early on will make many people quit it in frustration and disgust. Yet, with resolute persistence, the game rewards players with the richness of its lore and the immersive depth of its expertly-realized world. Sunless Sea offers a truly unique narrative and gameplay experience, but only if you have the tolerance to see past the many times that it will wear your patience thin.
- Extremely atmospheric and immersive
- A unique and original setting
- Excellent writing and story
- Early player progression is, arguably, borderline unfair
- Heavy reliance on one hub city and little opportunity to ally with alternate factions
- Frustrating, almost game-breaking reliance on RNG events can lead to the loss of many hours of progress