Sunless Sea Review: Build A Fine Crew. And Then Eat Them.
I remember when my first zee captain’s career came to a sudden and brutal end. It all started when we ran out of fuel and didn’t have the money to pay the exorbitant prices offered in the ports far away from London’s home waters. So there we were, stuck in the middle of the zee with no fuel and little in the way of supplies. We decided to pray to one of the zee gods that we had paid homage to in the past, and to our horror it answered. The cruel god’s idea of “rescuing” us was to bring us to a decrepit old shrine on a mountain at the edge of the world, farther away from home than we had ever been before. That’s when desperation really sank in and I began ordering crewmen to be sacrificed to gain the god’s favor, but alas, the uncaring gods of the zee remained silent this time. Unsurprisingly, the crew didn’t exactly like the idea of being sacrificed and mutinied. I can only imagine that they soon starved to death after killing me.
Sunless Sea is a narrative-driven oceanic adventure game by Failbetter Games and set in the same universe as their Fallen London (formerly Echo Bazaar) browser game. Thirty years ago, a swarm of bats carried the city of London a mile beneath the surface. Surrounded by a vast underground ocean called the Unterzee, you take on the role of a zee captain navigating both the pirates and horrifying eldritch monsters inhabiting the zee as well as the political intrigue of London and the other nations that have been spirited away beneath the earth.
Unsurprisingly, since Sunless Sea is a spin-off of a text-based browser game that has been around for over half a decade, the writing and setting are by far the game’s biggest strengths. While the game is usually described as a roguelike, it would be far more accurate to call it a choose-your-own-adventure game. While permadeath exists, the game isn’t as focused on procedural generation as other roguelites/likes. The home waters around London are always the same, with places get a bit more randomized the further you travel from home, but all the most important locations are always in roughly the same general area. Combat and exploration are in the game, but the real reason why you’ll keep playing is the fantastic writing and the bizarre Victorian Gothic setting of the Fallen London universe. The writing is frequently humorous, but also full of mystery and horror as you encounter pirates, criminals, Lovecraftian monsters, and devils.
One of the stranger mechanics based around the writing is the fact that stories and recent news are effectively a form of currency. After reading the latest newspaper in London or narrowly escaping from a giant sea serpent, you’ll get these trading card-like items that represent an event or piece of valuable information. It is pretty confusing at first, but you’ll eventually figure out that you need to accumulate them for certain quests or you can trade them to some people for favors or money. It’s a really odd concept that slowly starts to make sense in the context of the setting. For example, one potential way you can “beat” the game is to accumulate a massive number of various sea stories and use them to retire and create a biography of your adventures.
While the exceptional writing is easily the game’s strongest feature, the combat is easily the weakest. It mostly involves maneuvering around enemy ships or monsters and avoiding their line of fire while you wait for your crew to get a firing solution. You’ll quickly find out that you can cheese many non-boss encounters by just hugging their rear, leaving them unable to properly move and target your vessel. The other big issue with combat is a lack of weapon options, which ties into the game’s pacing problem that I’ll get to in a moment. The basic ship in particular has very few item slots and is limited to just a deck gun, so you’ll need to buy a new ship to really get a chance to play with the more interesting weapons and ship parts. Actually saving up the money to buy a new ship, however, is a long and tedious grind since you’ll need to spend a lot of your earnings on fuel and supplies to ensure that you don’t end up stranded and starving.
These pacing problems extend to quests and travel. Your standard ship with basic engine is painfully slow, leaving you with a lot of downtime when traveling between previously explored areas. Some quests, particularly the endgame ones that allow you to retire, require you to hoard vast quantities of rare items and money. This can be difficult when you are also constantly trying to save up for better ships and equipment.
The fact that quests and encounters aren’t procedurally generated like in most true roguelites can also cause problems when replaying the game. You’ll encounter the same quests each time, even if you retire and choose a legacy that allows you to start a new game with bonuses acquired by your previous captain. While the writing is a joy to read, seeing the same quests appear in subsequent playthroughs will likely result in lots of skipping over dialogue. Luckily, most quests and encounters do have multiple outcomes, and Failbetter Games is devoted to regularly updating Sunless Sea with new stories and quests on a regular basis. In fact, new content has already been added since the game launched from Early Access earlier this month.
Even with its boring combat and pacing problems, the writing and setting of Sunless Sea are strong enough to carry the game, assuming you don’t mind a lot of reading. Anyone interested in text-based games and choose-your-own-adventures should definitely check the game out. The base game already has dozens of hours of quality writing and exploration, and the promise of new, free stories and quests will only help to improve the game’s replay value over time. You can currently find Sunless Sea for $19 on Steam, GOG, and Humble Store. While you are at it, you can find more adventure set in the world of Fallen London on Failbetter Games’ official website via the free browser game of the same name.