Victorian London has sunken beneath the Earth’s surface, into a deep, dark underground ocean pockmarked with a sprinkling of islands and untold flora and fauna. As in times past, brave explorers must take to the sea and attempt to conquer it for their own purposes, facing the myriad of dangers that lie both above and below the waves.
Of course, that’s not to say that dry land is much safer, either. Treachery and intrigue abound ashore, as well, and it’s up to you to navigate all of this in today’s piece of the Big Steaming Pile, Sunless Sea, released in 2015 by Failbetter Games.
Sunless Sea is a spiritual sequel of sorts to an earlier RPG called Fallen London, and derives much of its lore and backstory from its predecessor. That doesn’t mean that you won’t understand what’s going on here without playing Fallen London, but there are some gaps in the narrative that aren’t covered in-depth here. Sunless Sea is a “Roguelike” adventure game, meaning that it heavily emphasizes exploration and inventory management instead of combat and fast reactions.
It also means that you are most likely not going to beat the game on your first attempt, for reasons that I’ll get into a bit later. You begin your adventure by creating your first character, creating a past for them that can affect certain actions later on, as well as divvying up your initial batch of skill points. You’ll also select an ambition, what you’d like to accomplish, that in essence decides what your victory conditions are. Do you want innumerable wealth? Do you want to find your father’s remains? Do you swing for the fences and attempt to uncover the secret to immortality itself? It’s up to you, and you can discover new ambitions along the way.
However, you won’t be terribly concerned with fulfilling your ambition at first. Your primary goals for a large chunk of the game will be survival and exploration. Your first ship is a rinky-dink steamer that is barely capable of taking on anything, even the lowest of sea creatures, and it takes a substantial investment to be able to upgrade to a sturdier ship and better weaponry. Not only that, but while you’re at sea, you’re constantly burning through fuel and supplies; running out of fuel leaves you to drift helplessly, and running short of supplies means you can’t eat or make repairs at sea, and will eventually drive you to cannibalizing the crew. As you go around exploring your surroundings, your discoveries will pay off in the form of Fragments, nuggets of information that eventually build into Secrets, which can be used to boost up your five attributes: Iron, which decides how much damage your attacks do; Mirrors, which boost your perception and shortens the amount of time it takes to obtain a firing solution at sea; Veils, which affects your ability for subterfuge and deception; Pages, which speeds up how quickly Fragments turn to Secrets; and Hearts, which represent courage and morale.
You’ll need money to keep buying fuel and supplies and to put aside towards a new ship or other equipment upgrades, of course, and the easiest way to scrounge up some cash is to discover new ports, dig up some information about them, and report your findings to the Admiralty at home at Wolfstack Docks. There’s no limit on how many times you can report the same findings, so this will be your most consistent form of income. Aside from that, there are enemy ships about that you can pillage for supplies and other curiosities, quests to complete, like bringing tourists from one port to another, and obtaining certain items for characters. You may also request the assistance of a patron if you’re in desperate need of fuel and supplies, but there will assuredly be a quid pro quo, and you may be asked to complete a task just as potentially deadly as running low on materials.
The other thing you’ll have to keep an eye on while you’re at sea is the Terror meter. The Unterzee is a nerve-wracking place, and the lack of light and solid ground wear heavily on you and your crew. Other actions, like hearing horror stories in port in or being chased away from a town, also drive Terror up, and if it reaches 100, your game will most likely come to an end unless you win a very high-stakes, low-odds dice roll to prevent a mutiny. Now, Terror can be lowered by certain actions in ports, random events at sea, or by returning to London, so the effects can be undone, but it does force you consider your actions, especially how far out you think you can make it on the next voyage before you reach the point of no return.
If and when (let’s face it, though, it’s more a question of when) your captain finds his or her way to the bottom of the sea, you will have to start over, but not entirely from scratch. Your next captain can select a Legacy, allowing him to retain something from your previous persona, for example, selecting the Correspondent’s Legacy allows you to retain your map the second time around, so you’ll know where everything you found already is without having to waste time and supplies probing around for it. Later in the game, you can sire a child, and if you’re diligent about readying him for a life at sea, you can make him a Scion, allowing him to select two Legacies after you die; and you can also create a will for your character that will allow your heir to inherit your house and any heirlooms you create, which can provide a huge boost for a new character just starting out.
If you can reconcile yourself to the fact that death lurks under every seashell and rides on every wave, the exploration aspect of the game is actually quite enjoyable. There’s a ton of fascinating lore in the world of Sunless Sea, like the island of Visage, where nobody is allowed to show their true face, to Nuncio, the island of disgruntled postal employees. Mount Nomad lurks in the north, a sentient mountain/iceberg hybrid that takes out its wrath on passing ships, but can be called upon and controlled by someone who wields the right item. If you purchase the expansion pack, Submariner, that opens up a new world beneath the waves; if you complete a certain side quest, your ships will gain the ability to submerge and explore the sea floors, as well as the dozen or so new locales to be found underwater.
It also doesn’t hurt that Sunless Sea looks and sounds exceptional. Despite the bulk of the game being in a top-down 2D perspective, the amount of detail in the islands, the glow of your ship’s lamp on the endless darkness of the water, the eerie feeling that sets in when a fog-bank closes in around your ship, all contribute to a quiet, disconcerting sense of isolation when you’re sailing. When you’re in port or otherwise engaging in conversations with NPCs, they’re drawn in a very unique, hand-drawn style, almost like someone drawing their recollections of their travels in a journal.
On the downside, though, I should mention that the actual quests you’ll be going on are not exactly labor- or thought-intensive. The overwhelming majority of tasks you’ll go on here are fetch quests – getting Item A from Port B and bringing it back to Person C. Even worse, sometimes you’ll need another item to trade for the one you need, but you won’t know it until you get to the spot, so you’ll have to go out of your way to go find THAT item and bring it back, assuming you remember where to find it. Combat is similarly simplistic; you basically putt around until you have a firing solution from one of your weapons and open fire, although there’s not really that much combat to be found here, so it’s not quite as much of a bust as you’d expect. Another component of gameplay that you probably won’t be terribly thrilled about is that there are a lot of actions that basically come down to dice rolls where your odds are dependent on your statistics. Granted, Sunless Sea is definitely more about the journey than the destination, more about decision making and planning than nonstop action, but it is a little disappointing that so much of the game comes down to fetch quests and dice rolls.
If there’s one word to describe Sunless Sea besides “Roguelike”, it’s “atmospheric”. While the gameplay might be on the rudimentary side, there’s a pretty substantial bit of world-building on display here, and the entire package is covered with a cozy blanket of gloom that beautifully straddles the line between “creepy” and “dark-humored”. Some people will probably get frustrated with the prospect of multiple deaths being nearly mandatory in order to make serious headway into the game, but those willing to tough it out will find a rather expansive universe with loads to discover and a never-ending cast of kooky characters, and much like the world of Fallen London itself, there’s still a lot of light to be found if you’re willing to look through the dark.
Current Price – $18.99, Submariner DLC – $10.99
Is It Worth It? – Yes, especially if you like survival games or open-world adventures.