Sunless Sea is hard and unforgiving; the kind of game that requires many, many deaths to master. Based on the award-winning world of Fallen London (a free browser game), Sunless Sea is a journey through the otherworldly Unterzee, an entire ocean that exists beneath the surface of Victorian Gothic London. Featuring exploration, resource management, highly inventive world-building, and gameplay so complex that it has you alternating between shouting curses and victoriously pumping your fist, Sunless Sea is a unique experience that shows the revolutionary power of indie games.
Don’t Let Sunless Sea‘s Mystery Drive You Mad
Half the fun of Sunless Sea is discovering the story as you go, piecing together snippets of information to build your own version of Fallen London’s history. To simply explain the story would be to undermine the potential to explore. While the game does provide you with some hints, you only uncover the story through exploration. What you do know is that the setting is the mysterious, dark Unterzee, populated by pirates, mysterious beasts, and strange denizens. This is a Victorian Gothic under-London—think steampunk, but powered by the fires of Hell rather than the steam engine.
You play a captain of interchangeable backgrounds—a street urchin, poet, or war veteran, for instance—out to make a name for yourself in whatever manner you choose. You have the option of choosing one of a variety of paths. For example, you can opt for a peaceful, deceitful, or aggressive technique, and the game does not seem to favor one playstyle over another. All methods of making a living are fair game in Unterzee, and death always lurks below the murky waters whether you’re a ruthless pirate or an inquisitive poet.
There’s a map available on the game’s Wiki, but it’s far more satisfying to proceed without the additional information. You’ll die, of course, but that’s all part of the fun. Sunless Sea‘s atmosphere is an incredible draw whether you get the story or not—Poe, Lovecraft, and Machen play heavy influential roles, making Sunless Sea‘s world one of lurking, unknowable horror and the unavoidable threat of madness.
Combat Needs Improvement, Overall Gameplay is Solid
While the atmosphere of mystery and nascent storyline are fabulous, the gameplay could be better. That’s not to say it’s bad—there’s really no aspect of Sunless Sea that’s outright bad. The problem here is that, in comparison to the inventiveness of every other aspect of the game, the gameplay ultimately falls a little flat.
First of all, exploring the vast ‘zee’ is slow and often tedious, but that actually serves the game well. As soon as you develop a false sense of security, something unbelievable happens—an enormous eye opens beneath the water’s surface, or an iceberg closes in on you and threatens your demise. The overall method of quiet, slow exploration makes these moments of panic a more visceral reaction for the player.
Second, the game is very text-heavy. While some players won’t mind a game that progresses through text, others may find it boring—Sunless Sea plays rather like an interactive novel that requires you to pass challenges to access more story. That said, the text is well-written and spooky, with just the right amount of humor. To skip over it would be to miss one of the finer attributes.
While the other parts are easy to justify, the same can’t be said of the combat. Encountering ships or monsters at zee is often an exercise in annoyance—the battles are rarely difficult to win once you’ve upgraded your ship a bit, and they never seem to get more interesting. Combat is a necessary part of the gameplay—it’s just one of many ways your captain can die—but it’s easily the least interesting part of the game. A little more variation in attack styles on the part of enemies would go a long way. As it is, creatures ram you and ships shoot at you, making combat a predictable and tedious experience.
A Couple Shortcomings Don’t Distract From This Game’s Greatness
Despite some combat annoyances, Sunless Sea is a pretty amazing game. It’s text-heavy and requires a significant amount of time to get invested, so it’s not for everybody, but the worldbuilding and atmosphere created through the story, music, and overall aesthetic should more than make it worth your while.
There’s a ton to do in Sunless Sea, and if the premise intrigues you, then it’s well worth the money…and all the dying. There’s a variety of ways to play and the subtle changes with each new captain keep the story feeling fresh and exciting. While it’s not perfect, Failbetter Games sets a high bar for their future work, and if the creativity of Sunless Sea is anything to go by, this studio has set sail toward a very bright future.
Sunless Sea is available now for $18.99 through Steam or GoG.com.