London has fallen! London has fallen. Fallen into a vast, cavernous sea deep underground. Where talking rats fix ship engines and sailors do battle with giant sea monsters. Welcome, you poor wretched soul, to the Unterzee.
Sunless Sea is a game that caught me totally of guard. I have never played a game quite like this one before. It’s so deeply intriguing, like reading an absorbing novel… Yet it’s also utterly cold and locked up tighter than a bank vault. I want to be cosy with you Sunless Sea, let me get to know you, stop bitch-slapping me damnit!
Sunless Sea is a direct addition of sorts to the web browser game, ‘Fallen London’, and is set in the same Gothic-Victorian themed industrial world. It’s not quite Cthuluian, but it is a rather interesting game. Indeed putting me in mind of those old text based browser/adventure games. You know the type; heavy on text and DnD esque stat checks – No clear path to anything. Just this sprawling mess of things you’re trying to untangle and make sense of, all the while emerging you in a dark and foreign world that’s beautifully crafted.
Gameplay boils down to exploring this vast underground sea via boat, finding new ports, and exploring various islands and colonies via various text prompts and options. It is a hard-core rougelike, but there is an option to manually save the game at any time, which prevents you from getting an achievement… But who cares about that? As far as intense pulse-pounding gameplay, you’re not going to get much, it’s a far more methodical game, and it’s up to you to get involved. You’re not some important lord or hero, you’re just a dude, a dude in a big scary world full of death and misfortune.
…But, there is one glaring issue, the game’s lack of hand holding. There is basically nothing in the way of explanations. Why are you here? That’s up to you, where do you go? Up to you, what do you do? I’ll let you guess that answer. I said before, It’s cold and unloving; Sunless Sea gives you squat in the way of help or hints. The game revolves around exploration and constantly revisiting ports and colonies – To do this you have to balance three resources. Supplies, which can be bought at most, but not all ports, for varying amounts of money, or found via looting pirate ships or scavenging on certain islands through stat checks. Fuel, also bought or found in similar ways, and Crew, usually exclusively bought at port. Doesn’t sound too bad right?
…Well, sadly, it all costs money, and oh boy, is Sunless Sea tight-arsed with money. Its Ebenezer Scrooge levels of stingy with money. It’s not a forgiving game either. Run out of fuel? You lose. Run out of crew? You lose. Ran out of money? Guess what, you lose. There’s no safety net, no safe ground, no sure thing; every trip out of port could be your last… And when you die, that’s it, you lose everything – All your progress down the toilet.
Between not telling you what to do, where to go, or how to do it, and being a bit hard on resource management, you’re going to die a lot. But you learn as you go, when you die, you get to pick a legacy, which lets you carry some small amount of stuff to your next run. The map is huge, fuel burns alarmingly and unfairly fast, ports have hole books worth of text prompts, options and trees. It’s a game you certainly get your money’s worth. Let me impart to you, my first 6 hours of the game.
I started anew, fresh into things after downloading it; I picked the priest background, giving me a bonus to the Hearts stat, dictating moral and medical stat checks. The sort of thing I’d go for cause I like to help people and I’m a charismatic clown of a person. I read the tutorial book that you get every time you start, gleamed a little information, roamed around London, took my first request and set out. I barely made it out of port before I ran out of fuel and had to abandon ship whereupon I died. I started again. I picked the same starting profession, the same goal, and set out a bit more cautiously this time. I explored, found a few close by ports, and ran out of fuel again. Ok, not a good start so far.
Third start I picked street urchin as my starting proficiency, I picked the wealth goal, and read the prompts a little closer, finding out that my first request location was just north of London. I had been under the impression that the game was procedurally generated. I made it up north to Vanderbight, let my passenger off, explored around a bit more, and kept my fuel and supplies stocked, but I’m running out of coin fast. So I take a request from a shady individual, asking me to ferry illegal goods up north, to Mount Palmerston. After a long voyage, I desperately make port at the Guilders Morn, and sell off everything I can to buy more fuel, so I can make it home. Whereupon said shady individual kills all my crew and I lose. Fourth start? I limp into London port, and run out of fuel inches from the dock, my ship is stolen by salvagers in return for helping me ashore. I lose. Fifth start? Sunk by pirates.
It wasn’t until my sixth start that I get some traction, starting to get rather annoyed, thinking, oh great, I wasted my money on a game again. But then something hit me. I had been going ok, but my terror levels were really high and most of my crew had willingly jumped into the jaws of sea monsters. I had little money and no clue where to go or what to do still. So, I bought an upgraded gun with the last of my money, sailed out to Zee, and died. I picked the legacy that let me keep my new gun, picked the war veteran profession, and started anew with the ‘find my father’s bones’ goal. I played as a trader this time, following text as close as possible, exploring and keeping my resources on tap, exploiting every avenue I could to my benefit. I helped an island of talking rodents establish a colony, I found new locations, traded wine, souls, sapphires and other things. I had found a way to survive.
That’s what Sunless Sea teaches you. Learn from your mistakes, or keep making them and get nowhere. You do play the game your way, you want to be a trader? Be one, want to be a brutish pirate? A sneaky spy for the British government? Trade your soul away to the gods for fortune and favour? Then do it. It’s Rich, its deep, it’s immeasurably dense and vague at the same time. But it’s up to you to participate and act. There is no “go here and fight evil o-great hero!” no “yes sir here’s where you’ll find answers”, no, it’s up to you. You’re nobody, no one, just a person trying to make a living.
Made by Failbetter games and released in 2015, Sunless Sea is a game that I believe, has aged well. It’s a niche thing yeah. But it’s fantastic for what it is.
In Summary, a great text heavy game for lovers of the old browser adventure type games, Sunless Sea is an entity that is utterly fascinating if hard to get into.
I give Sunless Sea a 8/10; please stop killing me Sunless Sea. Please.