Publisher: Failbetter Games
Developer: Failbeter Games
Release Date: 07/01/2104 (Early Access)
Sunless Sea is a sailing rogue-like based off a browser game called Fallen London. Fallen London is clearly inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. So you’ll probably forgive me when I decide to call Sunless Sea “Cthulhu on a Boat”. After all, it was the thing that made me want to play the game in the first place.
The game is currently in Early Access, and the developers are adding new things constantly. The final build is due out later this year, but I think it’s more than worth talking about in its current state.
So in this world, London has sunken beneath the surface. Fortunately, there’s an underground sea where it landed, so society has managed to cling to life. This vast, cavernous “zee” is both the lifeblood of Fallen London, and it’s worst nightmare. Strange creatures lurk beneath the waves, strange Gods guide the goings on, and gaslight is about the only light you’ll see. Still, humanity lives on.
You play as the captain of a steamship. You’ll start off with a small boat, a small crew, and an officer to help you. The game lets you choose between various goals for your life. That goal is what leads you to the end game. For the early version, players can choose whether to collect stories in order to write an epic masterpiece, or simply get ludicrously rich. Choosing a background for your character is paramount, as your past affects your starting stats and some other things.
The primary goal of the game is exploration. You start off at the most Midwestern point on the map. From there, you’re free to go where you want. The only catch is that you’ll need to make sure you have enough fuel and food to get there. Those things cost money, so you’ll soon find yourself doing odd jobs for the Admiralty. This consists of gathering intelligence from the various ports in the zee.
Each port comes with its own bit of lore and choices. For example, you can lunch with some wacky sisters on a nearby island. You can also take part in a “massive war” between rat people and sentient guinea pigs. Nope. Not making that up. If there’s one caveat, it’s that the stories mostly stay the same. If you get new stories, it will probably be in London, where various scenarios can happen to mix things up.
Where the game really sets itself apart is with its terror meter. By sailing the zee, your crew will acquire terror. Things like turning off the ship’s lights, fleeing from battle, and losing crew can increase your terror. Terror can also be accrued through the various events at sea and in ports. When your terror gets high enough, it will start causing problems. Returning to port with high terror can give you nightmares, crew can disappear during the night, and events can be inaccessible because you’re too afraid to leave your bed.
I’ll give you an idea of how bad terror can mess things up for you. On a recent run, I lost some crew to an event. This put my crew below half, which meant my ship ran at half speed. I was far from any friendly port, so my terror began to rise. When it got high enough, I got an event that resulted in he death of more crew, which made the terror rise even faster. Down to a fifth of my crew, I desperately needed to get to port. I made the rash decision to burn my engines at full capacity. The resulting fire destroyed my ship. I had to try though, or my crew would have been gone long before I could make it back to London. Either way would have been game over.
Combat in the game is turn based, but not entirely familiar. Enemies appear on the map and will usually chase you down. If you get in a fight, you can’t just start firing weapons. First, you need to illuminate your enemy in the gloom to even know where to shoot. You can steer your ship closer, send up flares, or even light the ocean on fire. Once you have enough illumination, you can fire your weapons, or just observe your enemy in order to learn new information.
In true rogue-like fashion, this game is tough. While there are a few dinky enemies at the beginning, you’ll quickly run into foes that can fell you with one hit. Avoiding combat is a must if you want to last more than ten minutes in this game. When you die, it’s game over. The only thing you’re allowed to take with you is a skill, an officer, or your sea chart. Everything else resets. Trust me. You will die. Even if things are going great, a bad terror event at the wrong time can spiral things out of control. Or, you could simply come across a bad foe. If you don’t stock up, you could even end up eating your own crew in order to stay alive.
As of now, the game certainly feels as incomplete as it is. Most of the ports have little to nothing going on in them. The game’s economy doesn’t seem built to allow players to make a profit unless they’re already rich enough to afford the best ship. Also, most of the game is spent grabbing the same old port reports and bringing them back for the same measly rewards.
Still, the game has a lot of promise. Exploring the depths is fun. You never know what kind of oddities you’ll find on a new island, or what lurks just beneath the surface. The exposition, though in text only, is deeply descriptive and perfect for the genre. The sense of dread when your terror meter starts to get out of control is almost palpable. I had a lot of fun with it.
Short Attention Span Summary
Fans of rogue-likes and Gothic fiction alike should definitely check this out. Even if they never get around to finishing it (which seems highly unlikely), what’s here is quite enjoyable enough on its own. I look forward to the finished version, and will write up a full review when that day comes.