“LOSE YOUR MIND. EAT YOUR CREW.”
If the above sounds appealing, then Sunless Sea has much to offer. But be warned: as effective as the marketing slogan may be, they neglected to add the thing you spend half the game doing: “READ LOTS OF TEXT.”
You’re the captain of a shoddy old steamboat looking to make a living on the Unterzee, a vast underground ocean filled with terrors, wonders and more terrors. Brave the dark to meet strange people and battle (or more likely flee from) cosmic abominations, then limp back to Fallen London to patch up your ship and stave off madness. It’s a format that’s drawn comparisons to Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Faster Than Light, but what Sunless Sea offers over its rivals is an interesting universe and writing that blows many big-budget titles out of the water. So while Faster Than Light revolves around frantic action, Sunless Sea is a more slow-burning affair that you might end up accompanying with a podcast.
Sailing around has that Pirates! quality of being simple to understand while still featuring some subtleties to master. Firing your guns is straightforward, say, but your crew ready the cannons faster if your target is illuminated, meaning it pays to time your movements between dodging and lining up to take a shot. Then you have your ever-dwindling supplies of food, fuel and sanity, which leave you with tiny profit margins at the start of your career, so trading isn’t nearly as lucrative as in Pirates!, further incentivising the exploration that leads to perhaps the game’s finest feature: the joy of discovery.
This is one of those rare titles where finding a new character can be at least as exciting as the action. The weird world and quality writing give much-needed context to mechanics that might merely have been serviceable by themselves; sailing north to an island is one thing, but sailing north with an undead passenger who wants to emigrate to a mummy colony and complains about the lack of booze when you arrive is something far more special. Just be aware that this as much a game about reading as it is about sailing, and it’ll divide people for that very reason.
Indeed, it seems strange that Sunless Sea has been billed as part of the recent permadeath craze, since that genre works best with short-lived characters to incentivise throwing yourself at the challenge just one more time, whereas Sunless Sea’s pace is far slower and the appeal is as much about following little stories as battling pirates. Having to start over from scratch after hours of investment might be too harsh a punishment and the procedural events won’t be as interesting the second time, so better to turn permadeath off, take your time exploring the weird world and then maybe try the extra challenge later.
Sunless Sea’s speed will definitely be divisive, but it caters to a niche the AAA scene has neglected and shows how a developer can create atmosphere and immersion even with limited resources. The Unterzee is a character in and of itself that comes alive in those moments when a simple quest ends with you fleeing back to town with half your crew dead and the rest quietly weeping. And it’s a beautiful thing.
Sunless Sea is out now for PC. Image rights: Failbetter Games