Sunless Sea

Review of: Sunless Sea
Video Game:
Failbetter Games

Reviewed by:
On August 18, 2014
Last modified:January 2, 2016


Sum of TradeWinds and Wind Waker divided by Amnesia to the power of Neil Gaiman equals Sunless Sea.

A lot of people rip on the recent “early access” trend in PC gaming, decrying it as a way to peddle broken releases in exchange for free bug testing.  I’ve never understood this.  It’s for that very reason that it makes perfect economic sense, particularly for small developers who haven’t yet become established and evolved the ability to really screw us over. Plus, anyone who gets in at this stage usually gets future DLC for free.  In general, I’m a big believer in “buyer beware.”  You pay for what you get and if you haven’t done your due diligence about it, you deserve the result. In the case of Sunless Sea, which I bought after watching a single trailer and skimming its Steam page, I’d say I lucked out.

There’s an odd free-to-play browser game out there called Fallen London that’s all the rage with the Neil Gaiman crowd.  It looks and feels exactly like one of those Facebook games we all played in high school – click a button, flavor text happens, and numbers go up.  But if you actually pause to read the flavor text, you realize you’ve stumbled into a lovingly crafted, tantalizingly written Gothic romance in which you are the protagonist.  I don’t use “lovingly crafted” lightly – this is the sort of game a slightly less literate, less racist H.P. Lovecraft would write if we brought him back from the dead and put him in charge of a studio in his native Providence.  The characters and setting are a tapestry of hidden agendas, and every item that comes into your possession is a stray thread inviting you to unravel the whole affair. Sunless Sea takes place in this world – a vast, soulless underground cavern into which the city of London has mysteriously collapsed.  England’s sunken capital is now a nexus of trade and exploration in the mysterious Unterzee, foremost among the lonely outposts of civilization (human and otherwise).  You are a “Zee-captain”, driven from the surface world and forced to seek your fortune in the abyss.

My first reaction was a pang of nostalgia – essentially, this is TradeWinds for weird-fiction enthusiasts.  Your time is spent performing questionable tasks for the unquestionable Admiralty, sailing from island to island with a shady crew and collecting port reports and subterranean goods for the highest bidder, all with the goal of…something.  Buying the biggest and best ship from the Iron & Misery Company, so far.  That’s one of the game’s big flaws – while there’s a bevy of islands to explore with stories and questions to keep you sailing well into the night, the game’s short on endings and answers.  Yes, I am intrigued by the reclusive sisters of Hunter’s Keep, and I’d love to take a side in the holy war between sentient rats and guinea pigs on Pigmote Isle, but until I get a sense that there’s a larger resolution to work towards, I feel like I’m just flipping through a mildly intriguing series of steampunk novels.

The sparse story should of course be remedied later this year as we get closer to the final build, but it’s easy to tire of running errands for the Dark-Spectacled Admiral when that’s all there really is to do right now. Yet one would be mistaken in judging the setting by its gameplay. You might recognize a dash of The Wind Waker in the sailing and exploration, with a little Amnesia thrown in for flavor.  As you drop anchor in new ports and discover ancient horrors, your map fills in with landmarks and settlements, making the hostile world seem just a little bit more familiar.  Much of the Unterzee is shrouded in unrelenting darkness, kept at bay by weak lanterns, glowing crystal formations and the occasional lighthouse.  Every second spent away from the light and the land accumulates Terror among your crew, who will mutiny and potentially end your game when the gauge maxes out.  This simple mechanic makes the unknown a constant threat; coupled with the need to manage fast-depleting fuel and supplies for a hungry ship and a hungrier crew, you’ll feel an unshakable sense of cloying intimidation at zee and breathtaking relief in port.

Unfortunately, the combat is less thrilling.  In RPGs of any flavor, turn-based battles are easy to implement and even easier to overcomplicate.  Your first task in any encounter is to raise the enemy’s Illumination with flares – it’s dark, after all, and you need to see what you’re aiming at.  Then you can fire, with stronger weapons available at higher levels of Illumination.  Want to escape?  Increase your Distance, because you can only flee when you’re far enough away from your enemy.  There’s one or two too many ancillary factors at work here: the more powerful flares are counterproductive because you have to power them with the rare fuel your ship runs on, and running is equally futile because your enemy’s efforts to discover you are equally as powerful as your Evade command, if not more so.  You ultimately resort to avoiding all but the weakest crabs and pirates, for fear of an arbitrary death at the hands of a sentient iceberg that’s faster than you are.  You’re supposed to feel insignificant in the Unterzee, but there’s a line between respectful caution and exasperated avoidance that the combat crosses too easily.

It’s not a good sign if a game makes you want to avoid an entire aspect of playing it.  Your fate is influenced by random events and often-unclear decisions made in port and, true to Sunless Sea’s parent game, you can only raise your chances of success by grinding to increase your stats.  In many cases the little stories you’d otherwise read are too expensive to feel good about playing – money and resources are hard to come by and, while playing conservatively is part of the oppressive setting, it’s frustrating to blow hours of work on a high-percentage challenge only for the random number generator to decide you should have put in more. Click a button, things happen.

Sunless Sea is immersive in ways I’ve only seen shadows of in other games, but the elements that create that immersion are self-defeatingly unpredictable at times. Yet despite the hundreds of Echoes spent on failed crew recruitment, despite the Snared Sharks I can’t escape from, despite the stories that don’t yet have endings, I can’t stop playing.  There’s more to the Unterzee beyond and between my horizons than I’ve been able to discover, and in the coming months Failbetter Games promises even more uncharted seas to explore, get lost and die horribly in.  When the full game finally casts off, I’ll have a first-class ticket on that maiden voyage.

About Joss Taylor Olson (15 Articles)
English major, editor and professional Cards Against Humanity player. Hopes to one day rewrite Oldboy as a Jacobean revenge tragedy.