Sail into Hell’s seventh circle, and back again.
We don’t remember where our first captain was lost – almost certainly sailing in home waters, between Fallen London and Hunter’s Keep. Later captains – men, women, citizens, all of the same doomed family – made it further. Another, fleeing with money stolen from the Smiling Man, made it as far as Khan’s Shadow before the Khanate Navy sent his raggedy boat to the sea’s bottom. We think one froze to death in the waters off Frostmourn. But none retired to a quiet life to put their seaboots up on the table. They all died in the shadowed seas, leaving their meagre legacies to the next generation.
Sunless Sea is a narrative-heavy sailing game in a version of Victorian London that’s literally descended into hell. Players take the role of a sea captain who sails that Unterzee, the great pool of water that fills the cavern to the east of the fallen city. You decide your goal at the start of the game -whether that’s to find your father’s bones, amass a great fortune or just to have more stories to tell than anyone else.You fulfil your goal by sailing the seas, talking to its denizens and pursuing the stories of those you encounter to their final conclusion. However, the world is extremely hostile, so death is always just around the corner, either through the top-down exploration system or story choices. Players have to be careful or they’ll have to restart from scratch (including the resetting of nearly all the story elements) with a new captain.
Shortly, this is a combination of a roguelike and a narrative game. Though they’re both implemented exceptionally, we’d quibble whether the two core game types fit together well. Roguelikes require relentless replays and easy, frequent death. Narrative games are best when you encounter each story element just once and, as Monkey Island demonstrated, are better if they have no fail state.
Developer Failbetter tries its damnedest to make these two work together, but they aren’t a natural fit – meaning the game’s normal mode, with permadeath and no manual save, simply doesn’t work as well as the ’save whenever you want’ mode. When you’ve replayed the well-scripted Hunter’s Keep sequence for the tenth time, it gets wearing, and you may find yourself switching to the more-forgiving manual mode, just so you can enjoy new content, rather than grinding away at the (slightly dull) exploration roguelike.
Despite that, Sunless Sea’s narrative is compelling enough to support the slightly shonky main structure. Fallen London is where you start your journey and where you return each time, to hand in quests and sell your loot and trade goods. But as you explore the world, more prospects open up and previously hostile islands reveal secrets – while previously welcoming islands close down.
They do this through a choose-your-own-adventure style game, mediated by your character. Each captain has a set of abstract skills derived from his abilities and those of his officers. So a high veils skill will allow you to avoid being spotted by enemies at sea, as well as passing tests on land that cover sneaking and deception. A high pages skill allows you to learn faster, hence unlocking increases in other skills faster. A high iron skill improves violence, on land and at sea. A high mirrors allows you to see better. And high hearts keeps you alive longer. It’s a simple but effective way of gating your access to content.Stories link together in unexpected ways. Picking up a strong box from a random encounter in Khan’s Heart might do nothing until you happen across an island facility that’s otherwise sealed. Deliver the box, and a range of other missions will unlock that tell you more about the odd semi-automata clay men, more about the world and more about your own crew. Your ship’s officers, who you pick up mainly in London, but sometimes on distant shores, each have their own story, if you can wine and dine them enough to get it out. Every story is exceptionally written, with tight descriptions that evoke the strange, darkly funny subterranean world.As you explore the Unterzee, you’ll encounter the denizens of the deep and piratical types, who you can avoid or fight. Those skills we mentioned translate nicely to this, helping you avoid combat (veils), improving your damage (mirrors and iron) and health (hearts). Though the combat is simple – it can’t be said that it’s complex or rewarding – you swiftly work out what you can and can’t defeat, and after that they become at most an annoyance, at best something to farm for resources.
Any great wealth you accrue can be spent on upgrading your ship, though often it bleeds away on fuel and supplies instead (and if you run out of those, you’re doomed in many interesting ways). Indeed, in the early game it can be hard to hold onto any money. Gradually, as you play, and as captains die, you work out good ways of making money – though they don’t always last long. Simply travelling the sea, battling pirates and visiting old and new ports is often the best way to make a living – though everything is a risk.Sunless Sea is, essentially, a text adventure like Failbetter’s previous effort Fallen London, with a pretty-pretty graphical user interface and a shallow combat mechanic. The roguelike elements breadcrumb out the enjoyment from the story, the exploration of the randomised world means that it’s up to you how you explore it and what you find, and the combat adds a little peril to the otherwise dull steamboat experience.With that criticism aside, the storytelling and atmosphere alone is enough to carry the game. Sunless Sea’s world is so intriguing, its characters so grotesque, and its mechanics so obscure, that it’s the promise of exploring unusual minds in an unusual world from an unusual perspective, which makes for an unusually enticing prospect.