The atmosphere the game sets up is astonishing.
A story-driven roguelike. It doesn't get much better than this.
Many ways in which your own story differs from everybody else's.
Some inexplicable performance drops.
Sunless Sea Review
Sunless Sea is a unique, beautiful and utterly devastating experience at the same time. Set in the vast universe of Fallen London, you’ll be exploring the grim Unterzee with an ever-so-randomized crew at your side. It’s a top-down game in which you take direct control over your ship and sail around the dark ocean in search of interesting stories to uncover. The system is fairly simple, but the execution is masterful.
Fallen London is exactly what the name says – a universe in which the city of London fell through the ground and landed into the underground ocean going by the name of Unterzee. The events depicted in Sunless Sea are happening by the end of nineteenth century, but with a steampunk twist added to it. At the beginning, you’re to create a ship captain as you see fit by selecting different options in the introductory dialogue. There aren’t too many of these options as it currently stands, but they offer a fair amount of customizability, as far as implications of one’s choices go at least. While your starting items, crew members and skill roster will vary greatly depending on what kind of character background you’ve gone with, their importance fades in comparison to the storyline changes that happen further down the line. Character reactions, events and so-called “stories” change dynamically depending on what has happened before in the current playthrough, and it’s all very intricately tied together.
Once that’s done, you’re ready to depart into the Unterzee. Manipulating the ship is a simple affair, with W/S its speed while A and D control the rudder. However, if you’ve ever played FTL you’ll know that nothing is ever quite as simple and harmless as it first seems in a roguelike. As you travel, you’ll have to keep track of a multitude of things. Hunger, fright level, fuel, ship integrity… these will all degrade or rise as you sail about, and the game will offer various options on how to deal with them along the way. Too hungry? Why not try eating the rats? However, this will increase the amount of fear your crew is subjected to, which might in turn cause a mutiny that could eventually end up with your captain being feasted upon. As I said, there are consequences to everything, and you’ll have to be extremely adaptive and considerate when dealing with these parameters.
In the beginning, you’ll want to stay fairly close to London itself instead of departing on long travels. Fuel and crew are expensive, and so are supplies. So your best course of action is to build up your arsenal, maybe even buy a new ship. Hoarding supplies will be mandatory too, before leaving for a substantial amount of time. You’ll learn to rely on your zee-bat. A scout of sorts that can be released out in the sea to reveal vague hints on where land might be. Plotting the course will become one of the most important things you can do, simply because “failure” comes so easily in Sunless Sea. You will often end up stranded in the middle of nowhere, without any fuel or food to rely on. I put the word “failure” in quotations because even if you do manage to “lose”, there’s a unique story that will unfurl organically from your failure. Indeed, this game’s most enthralling feature is that there’s no concrete storyline to speak of. Instead, there are snippets of information, events and happenings that you alone will have the chance to interact with and connect in whatever way you see fit. In doing so, you’ll be able to uncover information about the Unterzee, or maybe even escape the dreaded caverns should you so desire. It’s a system that works by playing on your imagination, with text being a beautifully simple and elegant, albeit barebones catalyst of your own ideas, aspirations and wishes. Honestly, playing Sunless Sea often feels like reading a good book. One that changes with every repeated reading, always offering a new adventure.
Of course, there’s the combat module, too. The game shifted from a semi-turn-based system it sported back when I previewed it to a fully integrated, dynamic (and simplified) mechanic. You’ll have to shine light on your adversary, be it a giant eldritch abomination, pirate vessel or whatever else you might run into. By shining your ship’s lights you’ll enable your crew to come up with a firing solution which then allows you to deal damage to your enemy. It’s a great improvement over the previously considered iteration, as it makes you deal with threats much more carefully and, dare I say, realistically. I’m very happy with it right now, and I’m sure most players will be too.
Granted, this was to be expected since the developers’ previous project was a browser-based choose-your-own-adventure kind of game – the much mentioned Fallen London. This game draws its lore and storylines from Fallen London, which is why it’s as rich and expansive as it is. Every once in a while you’ll be able to download additional stories that will painlessly (and for free) integrate into your game, thus providing even more content to what is already a filled-to-the-brim piece of software.
This is a visually pleasing game, also. Even though most of it will be shrouded in impenetrable darkness, the Unterzee’s greenish waters serve up a masterfully crafted atmosphere. The textures are detailed and intricate, while the images that pop up in dialogues nicely tickle one’s imaginative processes. As far as sounds go, expect creepy but inviting tones. Dynamic in their depiction of the given situation but also indifferent to your crew’s plights. The only thing that perplexes me is the fact that Sunless Sea runs strangely slowly on my computer. It’s not lagging, mind you, it’s just that I expected a much better framerate from a game that doesn’t seem too complex as far as its visuals go.
To summarize – Sunless Sea is a real catch for every roguelike lover. It’s a game that isn’t afraid of just throwing you out there with minimal guidance and letting you die a couple of times before finally getting to grips with what you’re actually supposed to do. Its ever-changing map layouts, dynamically building storylines whose author is the player him/herself, rich lore and wonderfully Lovecraftian monstrosities are sure to keep you coming back for more for a very long time. Not to forget about the free updates via the game’s “stories” mechanic either. A hearty recommendation from yours truly.
Sunless Sea Review
1st July 2015