Publisher: Failbetter Games
Developer: Failbetter Games
Release Date: 02/06/2015
Sunless Sea is a game that invites players to sail an underground sea. Sounds fun, right? Well too bad that sea is filled with terrifying monsters and eldritch horrors. Still, a sailor has got to make a living, and you’ll have to keep your ship and your sanity intact in order to make it through this adventure.
Instead of having a plot, the game asks you to inhabit a world. It starts with creating a character, complete with back story and life’s ambition. From there, it’s off to explore the depths. You’ll meet fascinating people and come across strange events in your quest. Whether you want to retire a wealthy man or recover the bones of your father, the journey is largely the same. It’s all about visiting various ports and interacting. Then you come back home to Fallen London to deliver the news/stock up for your next trip.
It would all be quite dull if not for the exceptional writing at work here. Everything is described with vivid detail, letting you get a good feel for the universe you’re exploring. It makes going out to explore a rewarding venture. If you’re a fan of Lovecraft or similar writing styles, you’ll find it right up your alley.
Another thing going for the game is its art style. Everything you see is from a top down perspective, and a bird’s eye view at that. You don’t really get to walk through the dirty streets of London (although the writing does a good job of helping you to visualize that). However, there’s still a lot of great art design here. Each of the game’s many different locations looks interesting and unique, which is no mean feat. Of particular note is a a giant sunken statue, giant lions made of salt, and Fallen London herself. The lighting is phenomenal. The game world is entirely underground, and the sparse light is a comparative safe refuge from the overwhelming darkness. While the game’s models and designs are simple and hardly impressive on their own, the overall look is quite beautiful because of all of this attention to the details.
SS has a solid aural package, despite the complete lack of vocals. It accomplishes this with nautically themed tunes that just fit with naval exploration. However, the game really shines when it goes minimal. The terror of the sea becomes real when the music cuts out and all you can hear is the slow sloshing sound of the waves crashing against your tiny boat. You’ll really come to cherish those songs, as they mean you’re back in home waters. It really gives the game a great atmosphere.
When it comes to sailing in Sunless Sea, the controls are simple and easy to understand. You simply use the WASD buttons. W and S speed you up and slow you down, while A and D control your rudder. Your top speed and maneuverability are determined by factors such as the size of your ship and the number of crew members you have. The primary mechanic is simply sailing around until you find a port to dock in. All you have to do there is drive next to the dock and press a button.
Once you’re docked, you have a number of options, all of which depend on the location you’re visiting. Most of what you’ll do is click text boxes that represent visiting various areas of the port as well as talking to people. You can pile port reports that sell for cash, hire on crew members, visit shops, or get sucked into a a bit of lore that will leave you terrified. Often, you’ll have decisions to make. For example, a stranger might offer you a beverage. It’s possible it’s a trap, and it’s just as likely it’s a gesture of good faith. You won’t know unless you try. There are also various skill based challenges. For example, you might try your hand at sneaking into an area you’re not supposed to be. If your “veils” skill isn’t good enough, you’ll find yourself dealing with the negative consequences. Making decisions at these ports will ultimately lead to your success or failure. You need to investigate in order to acquire the necessary funds to uncover the game’s later content. Money begets bigger ships which beget being able to traverse deadlier water.
At some point, you’ll have to drop all pretense and start battling. At any point, you can enter into a battle mode where your weapon will start charging up. To do this, you need to keep your enemy inside a field of vision for your equipped weapon. When that weapon is fully charged, you can fire and deal damage. All the while, you’ll be steering your ship to keep out of your opponents line of sight as well as avoiding any other obstacles. Its not a deep system, but there are various items that can make it more interesting. For example, flares can be fired which charge your weapons faster, you can buy torpedoes, etc. Also, sea monsters use different tactics than enemy ships. They charge straight at you and are more difficult to maneuver around. Of course, you can always attempt to avoid combat by sailing away. You can even put your engines on full power to get a burst of speed. There’s just the off chance that doing so will cause your ship to catch on fire.
There are a number of ways to fail at this game. The most basic one is that your ship is destroyed at sea. However, you can just as easily run out of fuel mid-voyage or get so low on food that you starve to death. There’s also every chance that your insanity meter will build too high and your crew will start murdering each other. If you do die, you can leave a legacy that can be given to your next character. This can be several different things, such as wealth, sea charts, or even a ship weapon. How they get that weapon back after you’ve sunk many leagues away, only the gods of the sea can know.
The problems for this game really start when it comes to repetition of multiple playthroughs. A big part of the game is knowing what the optimal paths are, and the only way you’re going to find that out is through trial and error. This results in the early portions of the game being repeated constantly. You’re going to visit Hunter’s Keep so many times, that you’ll have all of the lines memorized. It makes things less exciting. While your first attempt or two is filled with dread and intrigue, subsequent attempts will feel like a chore. That’s simply not good for a rogue-like where you’re supposed to die a lot.
Short Attention Span Summary
Sunless Sea is an interesting game that will appeal to the Lovecraft fan in all of us. The clever writing and sense of dread that permeates every second at sea go a long way into making this a great experience for horror fans. The downside is that you’ll have to endure the beginning of this game several times as you work your way through the path that will lead to accomplishing your chosen goal. For those that can get past this, the game will be fantastic. For others, they will likely quit playing before long.