It’s almost tailor-made for me. A steam-punk, alternate history, Lovecraft-inspired, text-heavy, slow-paced, story-based single player Rogue-like game. On paper, it’s perfect. In action, it isn’t. It comes close, but the places where it falls down seem all the more glaring in contrast to the many things it gets right.
It’s 1888. Thirty years ago, something happened and London fell into a vast subterranean cavern. Unlikely as it seems, plenty of the population survived, and got on with their lives in the newly christened ‘Fallen London’. The city is now on the shore of an inky Unterzee in which Lovecraftian things swim and the various islands that dot it move around through some incomprehensible means. You play as the captain of a steam ship, and you will explore the always-changing Unterzee. You’ll try to achieve your main goal (what that is will depend on how you set your character up, but it could be to gain enormous wealth, to find your father’s bones and return them to London for a proper burial, or several other aims). You’ll recruit officers and try to achieve their main goals too. You’ll meet strange and interesting people, and complete jobs for them. You’ll have to keep your ship supplied with fuel, and your crew supplied with food. You’ll try to manage the creeping, building terror that all who explore the Unterzee experience. You’ll desperately attempt to stop your crew going mad. You’ll fight pirates, sea creatures and monsters, and you’ll die. A lot. Sunless Sea is a Rogue-like, after all. It has a slower, more dreamlike pace than many games of its ilk, and it’s possibly a little more forgiving, but death is still constantly around the corner. You’ll be starting many, many new captains in your time with the game.
When you do start a new captain, you’ll get to choose various attributes for them: Their name, what they look like, what their background is, and what their life goal is. Once that’s done, you’ll be in charge of your squat, under-powered little ship. You’ll be given a crew, a mascot and an officer. You’ll have a map, but the only thing that will be marked on it – unless you inherited the previous captain’s map, but more on that later – will be Fallen London. All the rest of the map is a forbidding, featureless black. You’ll also be given a small amount of fuel so that your ship can explore the vast darkness of the Unterzee, and some stores so that your crew don’t immediately have to resort to cannibalism. The rest is up to you.
You set sail from Fallen London, and as you explore, your map is updated accordingly. Your plucky little vessel has a single gun and a light. The gun is used for shooting things, as you might expect. The light is a little more complicated. Your crew, it turns out, are afraid of the dark. They’re right to be: there are hungry, incomprehensible things out there waiting for you. Using your ship’s light allows you to see further, and calms the crew’s fear a little. Their terror still increases when you’re away from port or one of the few light buoys dotted around, but more slowly than if you have your light turned off. The drawbacks to using your light are that it increases the rate you burn fuel at, and it also means those ravenous, hunting things can see you better. Balancing your crew’s terror, your fuel reserves and the need for stealth (especially at the start of the game) is an interestingly delicate mechanic. Let the crew get too terrified, and they go insane, which causes bad things to happen and can end up with you being killed or set adrift. Burn the light too much, and you will be attacked by pirates, giant crabs, living icebergs or something equally bizarre and deadly. You’ll also very possibly get killed. Or if you’re lucky and manage to avoid the horrors swarming the Unterzee, you could run out of fuel, and end up starving to death or killed by the hungry crew….
One way of staving this sort of demise off a little is through developing your officers’ abilities. They offer bonuses to various attributes with such interesting names as veils, iron, hearts and mirrors. Each attribute does something different. Veils is your stealth attribute: it allows you to hide better in the inky darkness. Mirrors allows you to see more clearly through the black. Iron is how good at shooting you are. Hearts is how good at resisting the terror of the Unterzee the crew are. Upgrade your officers’ attributes and your ship will fare slightly better. It’s a long, slow process though, and you’ll need to do other things too.
Another way to stay alive longer is to visit as many ports as you can. In these ports you can reduce terror by giving your crew shore leave, you can buy supplies and fuel, and you can upgrade your ship if you have the money. You can also, theoretically, trade. However, in my experience, there’s so little money to be made by trading that it isn’t worth attempting.
Speaking of money, there are various ways of making it. The most reliable (but least profitable) is to produce reports on the state of the many ports in the game. The Admiralty back in Fallen London pay for this information, and they’ll pay for a new report each time you visit a location. They don’t pay very much though, so you’ll need to supplement this activity by finding mysterious artefacts for various shady characters, doing ‘favours’ for disreputable sorts, ferrying passengers from one port to another, and several more commercial ventures.
You can also gain supplies and fuel through combat. Kill one of the many different monstrous zee creatures and you can usually gather food from its remains. Attack another ship, and if you destroy it, you can often gain fuel or supplies (or both) from the wreckage. Of course, the downside to attacking zee monsters or other vessels is that they fight back, and you may well end up dead.
Luckily, when one captain dies, the next one you start is their ‘successor’, and you’ll get to choose a ‘legacy’ for the new captain. This could be the old captain’s map (very helpful, as it means the ports in the Unterzee will be in the same place); some of the old captain’s attributes; a weapon and so on. The legacy you choose will be informed by how well the previous captain did – there’s no point choosing a weapon if the previous captain only had the starting equipment, after all – but it does help ease things for your new game, and give you a sense of incremental progress. That’s a good thing, as along with the Rogue-like frequent deaths, there’s plenty of grinding at the beginning of the game, and without the legacy system, it would become frustrating very quickly.
Of course, as with each of the mechanics in Sunless Sea, there’s a downside to every legacy. If you choose the previous captain’s map for example, you don’t have to discover every port again. However, when you discover a port for the first time, you gain ‘fragments’. Discover enough fragments and they form ‘secrets’. You use these secrets to increase your officers’ attributes. So if you’ve already discovered most of the ports you will find it much harder to improve your officers’ skills.
The mechanics all fit together well, with each one having an impact on at least one other mechanic (even if only slightly in some cases). That’s not to suggest Sunless Sea is primarily about the interplay of mechanics though. Stories are the beating heart of this Lovecraftian maritime horror. They’re everywhere: almost every person, port, officer and unknowable uncaring deity has their own story for you to discover. These stories are Sunless Sea‘s real strength, but they’re also where it falls down slightly.
The narrative part of Sunless Sea shares most of its DNA with Fallen London, Failbetter’s previous game. That was a browser-based text RPG with a dreadful free to play mentality, chock full of timers and currencies to buy and interminable grinding. Thankfully, Sunless Sea has done away with most of that, but some aspects still remain, and they’re the weakest part of the game.
The grind, for instance. As I mentioned earlier, it’s too much at the start of the game. The routine of getting the same missions from the same people with the same text every hour or so can get very wearisome. The game’s stories open up the further you get into the game, but in a Rogue-like, where death is pretty common, the opening is far too samey. There’s also a curious bleed-over from Fallen London in some of the terminology, which is unexplained. You’ll occasionally be told about the ‘storylet’ you’re reading, or that one of your ‘qualities’ has changed. You’re never told what a storylet or a quality is or does though.
It can be overly laborious to do simple things at times, too. If you destroy a pirate, you’ll be greeted with a screen full of text saying that you’ve done so, and you’re given a single choice: to scuttle the pirate’s ship. On clicking ‘scuttle’, you’re taken to a new screen where you’re told that you’ve recovered some cargo – “you now have one of the following: a cache of curiosities” – again with only a single choice you can take. You click ‘okay’, and are presented with another screen telling you that you should open the cache. On the next screen you’re told what’s in the cache. That’s four screens full of text to click through every time you defeat an enemy ship before you find out what cargo you got from them. It’s perhaps forgivable that Sunless Sea wallows a bit in text: that text is, for the most part, fantastic. There’s a palpable sense, when you’re reading the reams and reams of text, that Failbetter Games love language. There’s a playful, tactile, sensuous use of words. A sense of otherness is deftly created with a single phrase here and there. A world of shadows populated by half-seen, unseen, unseeable horrors is conjured, and it’s a pleasure to inhabit. As pleasurable as it is, though, it’s slightly inconsistent.
Names, speech and locales are all fantastic, but the overall realisation of the world falls just short. Failbetter occasionally replace ‘s’ with ‘z’ but without any sort of consistency. Sea becomes zee. Sailors become zailors. Soup becomes zoup. Sulphur retains its ‘s’, though, as do most words. I wondered if perhaps the s/z shift was something to do with liquid (sea is a liquid and so is soup…) but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Zee-monsters, for example, swim. Why they don’t zwim, I have no idea. And for all that, the game throws hundreds of thousands of words onscreen whenever it possibly can, sometimes it’s far too vague to be satisfying. For example, you’ll scout round a port and your captain will pick up some rumours and secrets. You, the player, will never learn what they are though. You’ll literally be told that you pick up rumours and secrets, and that will be that. It’s very unsatisfying being informed I know a secret but not what that secret actually is, or at least what it concerns. “You overhear some rumours regarding unrest in the Tomb Colonies” would be far more interesting than simply “You overhear some rumours.”
Another picky problem is that the tone of the game is occasionally at odds with itself, which is unfortunate. Sunless Sea does a fantastic job of creating a dream-like atmosphere of unnamed dread and inexorable menacing disaster, but then the atmosphere will be punctured by a character saying or doing something silly. That’s not to say I want a relentlessly grimdark game. I appreciate a bit of levity. But Sunless Sea doesn’t get it right, somehow. The levity comes at the wrong times. I can’t put my finger on why, or say when it should come instead but it’s an irritant all the same.
Of course, the fact that I’m complaining about something being not quite right in an indefinable way is a sort of backhanded compliment. The game is so well-written for the most part that what wouldn’t even be a noticeable issue in most games becomes one of my big complaints in this one.
Unfortunately, this is the over-arching impression I take away every time I play Sunless Sea. I love my time with it. I delight in the language, I love discovering new places (even if I’ve discovered them in a different place previously) and unlocking more stories. But there’s always a niggle. A slight hesitation; a vague annoyance. A feeling that the game could be better, and that it should be. This isn’t a potentially good game that’s crippled technically, or full of bugs, or badly designed. it’s an extremely good game which just doesn’t feel properly finished. It’s not quite a final draft. It’s still damned good fun though.