My maiden voyage was a disaster. I left port a fresh-faced young captain bound for unknown shores in a clunky old ship, accompanied by a feisty weasel and a suicidal engineer with hallucinogenic wasp larvae for eyes. We battled giant crabs, agreed to untenable bargains with shadowy kingpins and took lunch with bizarre sisters on a distant beach. I frittered my money away on carousing in dock before selling our scow for a tub the size of a dining table and entrusting repairs to swarms of warring rats. One of my crewmen was shot through the eyeball with a tiny mouse-sized musket. I never even knew his name.
And then we ran out of fuel, food and sanity miles from home in the inky abyss. My crew would have made a tasty snack if they hadn't murdered me. I can hardly blame them, in fairness.
Still, next time... okay, the next time was a disaster too. As was the time after that. Still, now I know what I'm doing, perhaps I'll finally return to my sweetheart with some stories to tell. Or pregnant. Or with the blood of my Zailors dripping off my teeth.
That's the point of Sunless Sea: stories. Building on the rich lore of Fallen London, Failbetter's latest project casts us as Zee Captains exploring the Unterzee, an enormous subterranean ocean formed when London inconveniently plummeted into the depths of the Earth. Victorian stiff upper lip being what it is, our only recourse is to set sail and spin our own deeply compelling yarn, revelling in some of the most superbly-written interactive storytelling outside of Spiderweb Software RPGs.
Given Failbetter's pedigree, perhaps the biggest surprise is that Sunless Sea is unquestionably a game. A gamey game, with WASD controls and everything! You'll create your captain from a range of backstories, ambitions and skills, muster a crew and set out into the deep, controlling your vessel as you push back the boundaries of your fog of war and travel from port to port in an effort to make money and collect reports to sell back to the admiralty. Perhaps a little like Sid Meier's Pirates by way of H.P. Lovecraft.
You'll run into any number of dangerous and bizarre enemies out there in the Unterzee, not limited to sentient icebergs, luminous giant crabs and pirates, who you'll face off against in serviceable click-heavy real time combat as your crew scurry to prepare firing solutions while you present as small a target to the enemy as possible. Or just as often tack away from as fast as humanly possible; most enemies can and will kill you in a hearbeat before you've graduated to tougher hulls and bigger cannons.
The Unterzee proves an unpredictable place, doubly so since landmasses are only generally found in the same location each time you play, making for plenty of nervous exploration as you send out Zeebats to locate nearby landmasses and prey that they sell essential supplies. Sunless Sea incredibly slow-paced due to the distances involved in getting anywhere and pushing back the fog, but what could have been boring ends up tense and astonishingly compelling. Partly this is down to the incredibly atmospheric lighting and sound design that gets under your skin, the unpredictable encounters play a role, but mainly this is due to the fact that resources are incredibly limited.
Getting anywhere burns precious fuel, potentially leaving you with only a dingy in the middle of dangerous waters. Your crew scoff down ship's biscuits like nobody's business and cannibalism is absolutely an option. Most interestingly of all, though, your crew's sanity is also directly represented as a terror gauge that increases as you put them in danger, leading to madness or worse. Will you turn your lights off to save fuel, knowing that the darkness might drive you insane?
Even the most straightforward voyage becomes an epic and tense undertaking, knowing that pushing forwards could result in riches or total ruin, forcing you to balance your wanderlust with grim practicality. Or more often than not cock up and die ignominiously miles from home. The rush of relief as you finally sight the Fallen London lightship is nearly orgasmic.
Though the thrill of progressing from clunker to dreadnought is undeniably addictive, the fact is that Sunless Sea is still a deeply narrative-driven game. As mentioned, it's best thought of as a tragedy simulator that's all about creating your own emergent and peerlessly-written stories. Every character and situation you face, both in port and miles out at Zee, is presented to you in beautifully-written text cards with plenty of opportunities to roll the dice and engage in chance-based encounters much like a choose-your-own-misadventure novel. Failbetter prove to be storytellers of exceptional talent, not wasting a single word in compact evocative dialogue that manages to be both pithy, humorous and deeply disturbing. Due to the unpredcitable structure of the game, each run brings new and unique avenues for memorable adventures.
Here's just a sampler. I've sold wild animals to mad collectors and smuggled souls to faraway lands. I've played chess with sentient ghosts. I've sourced wine for zombie colonists. I've fallen in love and even fallen pregnant at sea. My crewman was shot dead by a crew of rat navvies. A stray cat ate half my food supplies before I adopted it as a mascot. I've helped a suicidal parasite victim realise her dreams, I've trekked to the surface and returned with vast wealth, then celebrated with a tattoo that I swapped for a terrifying story. I've been murdered by my crew, I've eaten my crew, I've sacrificed my crew and I've earned enough to guarantee my crew a happy retirement. All of which funnels back into increasing stats and war chest too.
Sunless Sea is all about your legacy. Not just the stories I can bore you to tears with, but what you leave behind for future captains. As a self-professed Roguelike (a deeply dubious description... though I suppose that it is procedurally generated and you could argue that the Unterzee is a dungeon, but you're pushing it Failbetter), death is permanent but your next captain inherits something from his fallen predecessor. Perhaps their map, perhaps money, maybe even a valuable officer. As such, there's always a reason to succumb to the Zee's Ziren call for another run.
Or is there?
I could end the review here and move on. It would be so easy. But something is compelling me onwards, a clawing, nagging Something that has been steadily festering over the last few days.
Consider this: if everything I've written above is true -- and it is --then logically I should want to play Sunless Sea right now. Yet I just can't bring myself to click the play button. It took me a while to realise why.
I initially thought that the economy was the problem, and it certainly has its role to play. Put simply the early-game economy feels vidictive and punishing, offering tiny rewards for a lot of work while requiring massive outlay for sundries, fuel and Supplies. Supplies with a capital 'S,' since apparently enough weevily ship's biscuits to feed a small crew for a day costs nearly half as much as a serviceable deck cannon! I appreciate that growing food without sunlight is probably a tall order, but come on now.
As such it's all too easy to lock into an economic death spiral as the bills pile up and the returns diminish, leaving you in port without any hope of getting anywhere remotely profitable. Dying a horrible death miles from home is brilliant. You've got a story to tell and a legacy to leave. Running out of money in dock is boring!
There is money to be made in the Unterzee, of course. Certain early missions offer reasonable rewards, making completing them a must once you've memorised what and where they are. The admiralty awards fuel and sundries for port reports, allowing you to work out a profitable pattern. Certain skills and shipmates confer major benefits to supply consumption and survivability. Luck and skill can allow you to inherit a decent starting pot from previous captains. And if the worst comes to the worst, you can dim your lights and save precious fuel; terror is cheap, after all. So what's the problem?
That, dear reader, was my problem. The Something. Sunless Sea's early game becomes crushingly repetitive and tedious as you go about the same small set of optimal tasks just to make ends meet and get to the precious stories, but infinitely worse, each restart gradually conditions you to view the experience as a collection of mundane mechanics to exploit, not as a storytelling canvas. When it happens -- and it will happen -- the magic fades. You'll see systems, not stories. Skill bonuses and NPCs, not people. Numbers, not names. And the immersion breaks like a wave on the shore.
That's why I can't bring myself to click the button or hand over our Editor's Choice Award. Each time I begin afresh, I find myself respecting Sunless Sea more yet liking it less.
I'm still going to recommend Sunless Sea despite this personal bugbear, though. I've had to play it intensively due to my review timetable, whereas permadeath games like this are best enjoyed on a little and often basis, but more importantly I've already got my value: hours of unique entertainment and stories to tell. Eventually I won't be able to resist the call of the Zee and, when this happens, Sunless Sea will be waiting for me with yet another tragic tale of death, cannibalism and maybe even a happy ending.
- Exceptional evocative writing, scope for countless unique stories
- Zee exploration is compelling, tense and atmospheric
- Tough and rewarding, massively replayable
- Brutal economy can force you to exploit the game's systems rather than enjoying the stories
- Repetitive early game
- Supplies are too expensive
The Short Version: Sunless Sea is a masterpiece of interactive storytelling, atmosphere and exploration that spins a unique, tense and frequently tragic new yarn every time you play. It's a shame that the spiteful economy and repetitive early game gradually forces you to focus on the systems, not the stories, but the quality of the writing elevates Sunless Sea into something rather special indeed.
Whether you return to Fallen London a rich Zailor, half-mad cannibal or decaying flotsam, you'll have one heck of a story to tell.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Failbetter Games