Sunless Sea review

Sunless Sea review

My ship has been swallowed up by the darker-than-black ocean. It should have been a simple trade run, ferrying lost souls and spider-silk across the underground sea, back to Fallen London, a Victorian metropolis dragged beneath the earth by bats. But I’ve overextended, travelling too far in search of goods, and now I’m out of fuel and supplies. 

As is so often the case in Sunless Sea, my crew is now mad, throwing themselves overboard, shrieking and fighting, brains unable to parse the existence of stars underground or the monstrous sea beasts they’ve seen. Either at the hands of mutineers or mad men, I’m going to die, and it’s going to be permanent.

That almost, but not quite, inevitable climax, death, looms over every nautical journey in Failbetter Games’ top-down seafaring sandbox. With every text-adventure-style quest embarked upon, there’s always the question: is this the one that will send me over the edge? 

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

The answer is, of course, eat their flesh and sacrifice the rest. The cavernous ocean of Sunless Sea, the unterzee, is a cruel, expansive nightmare populated by the mad and damned, the secretive and mercurial, and countless subterranean monstrosities and fickle gods. It’s a world that’s been fleshed out over several years in the brilliant, predominantly text-based browser game, Fallen London. But Sunless Sea gives it new, animated, life and unsettling stories.

It is a game crafted by those with an irrepressible love, and possibly hunger, for words and tales. The lavishly written adventure has enough text to fill two books, full of strange colloquialisms and odd people (as well as quite a few odd not-people). In the beginning, the story appears to be about a new captain, looking to get rich, write an epic piece of literature or discover their father’s bones, but the vast unterzee quickly gets in the way with a multitude of threads unravelling into bizarre quests. 

Docking at a port opens up “the Gazette”, a log of quests, ship and storage information, and character histories. It also displays a list of potential activities and plot points with little painted icons. While Sunless Sea is more animated and involved that its progenitor, Fallen London, it still has the trappings of a text adventure. 

These portside activities range from incidental things, like a game of riddles or an evening carousing the docks, to much larger quest lines with objectives laid out across the sea. Embarking on any activity has consequences. Some of them are good, like a skill increase, the little RPG numbers rising, but captains rarely get anywhere without first giving something up. Sacrifice is the name of the game. Almost everything has a cost, whether it’s mundane currency or the ominous acquisition of terror.

There time of her sailing is now drawing nigh;

Farewell, pretty May, I must bid you goodbye;

Farewell to old England and all there we hold dear,

Bound away in the Dreadnought, to the west'ard we'll steer.

Simply being out at sea, or zee, causes terror. The darkness, the strange beasts, they plant a seed in the hearts of sailors, and that seed grows into a tree of fear with roots that spread out across the entire ship. And the more afraid the crew is, the more round the bend they go. 

A vessel can be torn apart by a mad crew, and when one goes off the deep end, it infects the others. Terror is the one currency in Sunless Sea that’s in abundance but unwanted. And it persists, even after its been cured, in the form of nightmares that can only be laid to rest over time through relaxing evenings spent away from the ocean, safe in an inn or at home. There’s respite to be found, but it’s easy to overextend and end up far from home, sinking into insanity, or just the water.

While the zee is undoubtedly a foe, most of the time, it’s also the source of many treasures; some stolen from defeated foes in real-time combat, where lighting up enemies in the darkness and smart positioning is key to victory, and some found on the many islands peppering it. Mapping it, filling in the black with coastlines and landmarks, is a singular delight. 

There are many mysteries in Sunless Sea, but the one at the forefront is the mystery of what lies out there, in the mare incognitum. In the middle of nowhere, north of Where The Hell Are We, implausible things can appear out of the fog. Great frozen cities, ancient, formidable leviathans  and foreign fortresses come into view, promising more oddities and the occasional fight, or bizarre denizens and curiosities to trade for. They are like lighthouses, beckoning captains to dock and explore.

I'm a deep water sailor just come from Hong Kong

You give me some whisky, I'll sing you a song

Whisky? How about some fungal spirits instead? Maybe with a bowl of bat wings? There’s little of the ordinary in the unterzee, and anything that does at first seem normal soon reveals itself to be a wee bit warped.

Sunless Sea’s strangeness, the way that it uncomfortably plays with words and expectations, informs even the well-trodden aspects of the game. Trade is a simple affair, for instance, with different ports having different prices and goods, so the trick is to simply buy cheap and sell high, but it’s twisted by the fiction. Souls can be sold to unscrupulous sorts, romantic literature can be shifted on the blackmarket, and an uneventful trip with cargo and passengers can end in a drunken sword fight with a mummy (they like to be called Tomb Colonists). 

With everything being so strange and alien, the unexpected is never far away. This makes the abundant decisions that rise up in every port or in the middle of a voyage extremely risky. Underneath the text are convenient icons and explanations that note the cost of an action and some of its potential results, but they are purposefully vague. The effects of a decision can appear when least expected, surprising with a spot of good fortune, or some rather terrible news. 

Amid all the chaos and dangers, however, is optimism. Sunless Sea taps into that romantic notion that a life at sea is liberating, where any man or woman can make something of themselves, something better. Captain’s backgrounds, chosen at the start of the game, inform different skills and confer a free, unique, officer - special sailors with their own stories and bonuses - for the ship, but they are all explorers and all in some way trying to better themselves. That adventurous spirit and derring-do is something to hold on to when the zee gets choppy. 

I love a maid across the water,

Aye, aye, roll and go!

She is Sal herself, yet Sally's daughter

Spend my money on Sally Brown.

Back on land, between the moments when the zee is calling, relationships can blossom. They can be cruelly snuffed out too because, like living, happiness is not guaranteed in the unterzee. But if a captain’s special lass or handsome fella sticks around, then the relationship can bear fruit in the form of an heir, a chance at a sliver of immortality. 

Death is inevitable. And it’s likely close by. Mismanaged supplies can leave a crew starving, sparking a mutiny. An engine pushed too hard can explode, burning the ship and everyone in it to ash. Everyone could just go mad. Most captains will die, horribly, without achieving anything great, but they leave behind a legacy, giving others, like their child, the chance to succeed where they failed. 

Again, Sunless Sea plays with the romanticism of a living made on the deck of a ship. A child stuck at home, its mother or father always out at sea, briefly coming home with incredible stories of impossible places; a teenager running away to follow in its distant parent’s wake, making its own mark on the world.

An heir that’s run off to sea takes the place of their dead parent, maybe getting their old map, some of their secrets, and if there’s an ironclad will involved, an estate. Death isn’t pleasant, but it’s not the end. Even without an heir, a captain can pass something on to their successor, whether they are a rival or an old friend, perhaps with new goals. All that can be flung aside in favour of a completely fresh start, however, with a new, randomised map.

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

So we’ve come full circle. With every life that ends beneath the stone sky, another one steps in to take its place. But there’s always a sense of progress. A better knowledge of the islands jutting out of the darkness, more skill in fighting, a shrewder mind - all these things can be passed on. And scenarios that pop up again can be tackled differently. What shall we do with a drunken sailor? Well, maybe this time we’ll just let him enjoy himself. Maybe the whole crew deserves some shore leave. 

Failbetter has concocted a game that sticks around, even after it’s been exited. Not just with questions needing answers that are still being hunted for, but in the way the beautiful writing and haunting music lingers. As fantastical and confusing as it might be, it’s been constructed so expertly that it’s utterly convincing. 

Sunless Sea does demand a lot from its captains, though. Patience, mainly. It’s a slow, deliberate game, where a journey across the map can take an age, and where secrets are unfurled without haste. But the sea offers up a veritable bounty of rewards, and absolutely the best writing in any video game since, well, as long as I can remember.  

10/10

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Shriven avatarVaggysagina avatarZeroSum avatarFraser Brown avatarUrabutln avatar
Shriven Avatar
3353
Shriven(2 hours played)
2 Years ago

MUST BUY!

2
ZeroSum Avatar
21
2 Years ago

To say that this game is a 10/10 is to say that it is utterly without flaw, and I just can't agree with that. This is a fine little game with some good writing and some tough resource management, but it blunders in its pacing. It requires an extreme amount of grind to push its limited narrative forward and I don't think that the rewards are worth the grind.

In the ~5-10 hours I've played, I've managed to keep my captain alive and to explore most of the map. I don't find the game to be particularly challenging so long as you're willing to spend your cash to do sensible things, like buy food and fuel when you're running low even if it is expensive.

The quests in this game largely revolve around stats-based dice rolls. It's a choose-your-own-adventure story that is walled off behind the need to grind up for a better chance at success. Succeeding can sometimes move a small story forward, but I've been struggling to find some sort of larger meaning and point to the game.

At any rate, the game is worth buying, but a 10 out of 10 it most certainly is not.

2
Fraser Brown Avatar
956
2 Years ago

That's why we spend more than 5-10 hours with what is quite a large game before reviewing it and deciding on a score.

-1
ZeroSum Avatar
21
2 Years ago

I'm not sure what you mean by this. Does the game improve past 10 hours? I think the flaws I've noticed are evident within the first few hours of play. I know that you both love the game and wrote this article, so you might be a bit defensive about my comment; that said, I'm not sure how spending more time than me can give you a greater insight into how this game ultimately deserves the absolute highest praise that a game can receive when its flaws are visible early in the game.

I do think Sunless Sea is a good game, but I think you've overlooked some mechanical shortcomings due to a sincere love for its setting and the feels it inspires in you.

1
Urabutln Avatar
1
2 Years ago

Well, i've played same 80hrs. I've completed the "Find your father's bones"-quest. I love the game. It's Space Rangers 2 by way of Pirates! and FTL, written by China Mieville.

But - everything ZeroSum says is true. It is by no means a perfect game. Hell, I've even run into unfinished quests and placeholders during my run-through, and one of the larger quests requires a pretty momentous decision (helping the Dawn people at the expense of London) to complete. So while I agree that this is an awesome game and heartily recommend it, ZeroSum has some very good points, and snarkily dismissing him is why we have those GamerGate wankers to begin it.

1
Fraser Brown Avatar
956
2 Years ago

No snark was intended.

Anyway! Sunless Sea isn't a perfect game. Perfection is something aspired to but never achieved. 10/10 does not mean a perfect game. And anyone bothered by the score can completely ignore it. In fact, I absolutely recommend ignoring scores.

1
Vaggysagina Avatar
11
2 Years ago

This is just blatant advertising. If you want to advertise a game then do so, but don't pretend its a review. I find it very appropriate that the ad lining the edges are also ads for Sunless Sea. How can anyone take your reviews seriously if you just advertise games with little to no input? I've heard church songs that sing with less praise, and all this about a game that definitely has a niche market. Lets just label this what it is, "I got paid to advertise a game, so here is that game BRB bathtubsofmoney."

-3
Shriven Avatar
3353
Shriven(2 hours played)
2 Years ago

hmmm............................

My adds are Xbox One/Evolve....

Google Ads decides what is on the side bars im afraid.

1
Vaggysagina Avatar
11
2 Years ago

I didn't say the article caused the adds, I said it was appropriate.

-2