London was once a grand city. She stood proud in the daylight; the grand capital of the Great British Empire. But that was a long time ago, before she was stolen by the darkness and left to drown in the Unterzee. This is the setting for Sunless Sea and it is here that you will struggle to make your living and attain your goals, while trying to remain both alive and sane. Currently under development by Failbetter Games, Sunless Sea is their third outing in the Echo Bazaar universe. It should be noted, however, that Sunless Sea can be dived into without having played the previous games, Fallen London and The Silver Tree. While these were text-based browser games, Sunless Sea is a sandbox 2D game that focuses on exploration.
Sunless Sea can be overwhelming when you first play. New players are thrown into a huge, expansive world randomly generated when New Game is selected. While there is a hint button available at all times, the information provided within is brief at best. As such, any initial forays will be confusing and short lived. Embrace the fact that your first few characters will meet a quick end; for the knowledge you learn will help the next captain live longer. At its core Sunless Sea is a rogue-like, but one that allows you to carry over some of your progress.
Death will present you with three choices, allowing you to keep an officer, a skill, or your map. As you progress further, options to write a will to pass on other items, such as your current lodgings, can also be unlocked. Whenever you create a new captain, there is the choice to select their background. This essentially allows you to choose which skills have an initial boost to them. Progress in Sunless Sea is automatically saved on entering a port. By default death of a captain is permanent. But players do have the option of switching to a manual save system if they’d rather not deal with perma-death.
The majority of user interactions in Sunless Sea are played out in the Gazetteer. It is here that you will select actions to perform when in port and make choices during events while at sea. Clearly the world of Sunless Sea is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. Most story events will affect the current level of terror present in your captain. When this gets too high, the result is likely to be disastrous. Such as seeing your character slaughter the entire crew. While many events encountered ultimately increase your level of fear, there are some that can reliably reduce it. Resting at your lodgings in Fallen London will do this at a cost of Echo, the in-game currency. Thus carefully managing your sanity is just a small part of the intricate balancing act that must be performed to ensure survival.
As a new captain, you only have a few Echo to your name. This will need to be spent on crew, supplies, and fuel. Until a fair amount of exploration has been done, players are very limited in their ability to earn more Echo. Trading would be one possibility but until key lucrative opportunities have been discovered, it is too difficult to reliably earn a profit. Many of the commodities that can be purchased in Fallen London either cannot be sold at other ports, or will sell at a loss. The items that do sell for higher usually only do so at 1 or 2 Echo more than the initial cost.
There are a few ways to earn Echo with no initial spending. Tomb colonists can be ferried up to Venderbight and the Admiralty will pay a small sum for port reports. The amount of supplies and fuel consumed on a journey depends on several factors. For example, running with the ship’s light on, may decrease the rate at which your terror increases, but will consume far more fuel than with it turned off. The less crew you have, the slower supplies are eaten, but with too few crew your maximum speed is halved. This can result in any potential monetary gain being wiped out on restocking for your next voyage.
I was fortunate in my play through of Sunless Sea. I had one of the high earning locations, The Salt Lions, placed fairly near to Fallen London. But even so, it still took around 7 hours of gameplay with my current captain before I had earned enough Echo to significantly upgrade my engines, weapons, and eventually purchase a new ship. But after this initial repetitive hurdle, the game does open up far more. While I would like to see the profits on trading improved to make it a more meaningful and viable option in the game, I do enjoy the current slow pace.
It makes the eventual payoff far more rewarding and helps with the overall slow-natured ambiance of the game. However, current items that cannot be sold at many ports, or those sold at a loss, should be revised to make them more appealing as trade commodities. This would help address the current repetitiveness of the initial game and give players some variety in how they earn their next vessel. Updates to the story content, such as the edition of a new trader, The Venturer, are occasionally made available as an in-game download from the main menu. Still, you will need to sign up for an account to download these. Although this can be done in-game, the need for an account feels like an unnecessary obstacle to new story content.
The Underzee is not a safe place; sooner or later a fight will be inevitable. Failbetter Games recently overhauled combat, introducing an action based system reminiscent of that in RTS games. This is still very much a work in progress though. Currently the enemy AI is very basic. All enemies, be it a pirate ship or a living iceberg, act in the same manner. Each weapon has a range and field of fire indicated by a red cone. Keeping foes within that cone allows your weapons to be charged. While firing is possible whenever the weapon charge is shown in green or orange, a hit can only be guaranteed when fully charged. In its current state combat is far too easy, but hopefully will be more enjoyable when further revised in later updates.
There are also a few options, such as making observations, that appear to be remnants of the old system and have yet to be re-implemented. It is worth noting that there are hotkeys for when engaging in battle. Tab will target, and number keys fire weapons. But these are not mentioned in the game. So some trial and error is required to work out which weapon will fire. The mouse can be used instead, but this feels awkward when trying to also navigate the ship – I prefer to use W to accelerate, S to decelerate, and the arrow keys to steer, but traditional WASD is also possible.
With Sunless Sea still in active development, large parts of the game are represented by place-holders. Many enemies have yet to be fleshed out, and islands are currently missing (although silhouettes indicate where they will appear in your map). Likewise storylines are still being worked on too. For example, each of your officers will have their own storyline that can be experienced when you meet certain criteria. Once in place, they should prove to be as varied and interesting as the other events waiting to be discovered.
Encountering an event or a new location will earn Fragments. These combine into Secrets when enough are obtained. Secrets are then used to level up skills by talking to your officers. But they can also be sold, or kept to achieve other goals. Skills often help determine the possible result of an event. For example, if your engines catch on fire your level in Hearts determine the extent of damage and the potential loss of crew.
Sunless Sea is beautifully rendered with hand-drawn art. Each port and island has its own unique features and discovering these after being surrounded by vast expanses of empty Zee is rewarding in itself. These graphics are complimented by a number of musical tracks that play periodically. The music ranges from haunting melodies to those that are melancholic, sad, unnerving, terrifying and very rarely, jovial. While Sunless Sea may be a 2D game, with so much going on there is still the occasional choppy frame rate. But this is something Failbetter Games is working on.
I have only encountered a few bugs. In one instance the Gazetteer displayed the options for Fallen London while I was actually in Venderbight. Quickly leaving the port and then entering again fixed that. Additionally, many of the buttons in the Gazetteer feature descriptions that are cut off. Adding pop-ups on mouse over would solve this. There are a limited range of options available for customizing graphic quality. A range of widescreen resolutions are supported, as is the ability to play in a window.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
Sunless Sea offers a long lasting experience to sink your teeth into. I have had immense difficulty in putting down Sunless Sea to write this review, and feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Like a great strategy game, there is a distinctive one more port feel that cannot be shaken. Even in its current Early Access state, Sunless Sea is one of those gems that clearly stands out as being worth your time and support. I would immediately pay the $18.99 ticket price.