Review: Sunless Sea

London has fallen. That’s not a metaphor – cosmic horrors have literally dragged it into the stygian abyss. The whole city now lies at the edge of the Unterzee, a vast underground ocean housed within an impossibly enormous cavern. The dark waters teem with monstrous creatures – immense crabs, sharks bound in chains, and huge, white eels with a taste for blood – and the Victorian city is just a stone’s throw away from the very mouth of hell (this is also not a metaphor). This is the world of Fallen London, one of the greatest social games ever made, and the first title from British indie studio Failbetter Games. Their second original game, Sunless Sea, takes place in the waters that surround the city, though it’s about as far from a social game as you can get. Sunless Sea is a seafaring roguelike about loneliness, insanity, and occasionally cannibalism.

You are a Zee Captain, an intrepid adventurer who embarks upon the Unterzee in search of treasure, or fame, or your lost father’s remains – the why of it is largely up to you. For whatever reason, you leave the relative safety of Fallen London, where death is a perplexing rarity, to sail blackened waters where it lurks just beneath the surface. It’s a dangerous life, but if you can outwit the monsters and pirates that prowl the depths – and stay on the good side of the capricious gods who rule the zee – you can find riches beyond your wildest dreams. Just be warned: dreams can get pretty wild out on the Unterzee. Your captain will die, and when they do you’ll need to start over from square one – well, almost. With enough capital you can buy a nice house and leave them something in your will.

A big part of Sunless Sea is its real-time, top-down combat system. You maneuver through the Unterzee using simple tank controls, and engage enemy ships and monsters using the same inputs. Your ship’s cannons have a certain firing range, indicated by a vision cone at the fore of the vessel. So long as enemies are within that range, your crew will draw a bead on them and a meter on your gun will fill up until it’s ready to fire. You can shoot before the meter is full, but you risk missing and having to reload. While keeping your guns trained on the enemy, you’ll also want to move out of their firing range – or in the case of zee beasts keep a safe distance so they can’t ram you. Each of the game’s enemies requires a slightly different approach, which keeps combat from getting stale. As you progress you’ll be able to buy bigger and better ships and guns, which make it possible to venture further across the murky waters.

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Outside of combat, you’ll need to keep a careful eye on your fuel and supplies, which dwindle steadily as time passes. Run out of fuel and you’ll be stranded, needing to pray to the gods, make costly deals with unscrupulous zailors, or take your chances in a lifeboat to make it back ashore. Run out of supplies and your crew will start to starve, forcing you to cook precious cargo or even less… appetizing… meat in order to survive your voyage. You can replenish food by slaughtering zee beasts, and conserve fuel by keeping your lights off, but doing so will cause your crew’s terror to build much more quickly. It’s never easy to maintain a balance between your resources and sanity, and that constant tension does a great deal for Sunless Sea’s chilling tone.

Of course, fuel and supplies are only part of it. Like its predecessor Fallen London, Sunless Sea treats everything from quests to crew members as commodities. You can trade in treasures and goods, but you can also find good prices for a thrilling zee story, or a bit of news from London. As you complete quests and explore you’ll accrue “qualities” that provide you with new opportunities. Some of these, in particular “favors,” can be spent to gain advantages. When you start a new run, your captain will have one bit of “beginner’s luck” which can be spent to gain a serious early windfall on certain islands. Even EXP and stats are treated as commodities – in order to increase your “iron” or “veils” (strength or stealth) you’ll have to trade secrets to your ship’s officers in exchange for training. This isn’t exactly surprising coming from Failbetter Games – Fallen London also has a delightfully convoluted economy – but it does make each interaction feel very different from your standard Roguelike.

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The game tells you at the outset that you can only get ahead by taking risks, and while that’s not entirely true (there’s a somewhat tedious but reliable trading route you can use to build up capital at a decent pace) you will be richly rewarded for your successful gambles. Your main goal is to find new islands, almost all of which have a strange story to tell. On a given island you might encounter a den of drug smugglers, warring tribes of intelligent rodents, or a society built around officiously bureaucratic acting. Completing these stories successfully (there are many ways to fail if you’re ill-prepared or underequipped) will earn you some great loot, but they’re well-written enough to be rewarding in their own right.

It feels strange to review Sunless Sea in the same week as we covered The Book of Unwritten Tales 2, which wears the influence of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld on its sleeve. Pratchett, with his dark satirical bent and scientific approach to magic, has a lot in common with Neil Gaiman (the two co-wrote Good Omens, a fantastic feel-good novel about the boyhood adventures of the antichrist), and Sunless Sea draws clear inspiration from Gaiman’s work. The very concept of Fallen London, with its talking rats and dark magic, where the displaced residents of London cling to a twisted parody of their old social structure, is practically lifted straight from Gaiman’s Neverwhere – though there are shades of Lovecraft and Verne and dozens of other authors mixed in as well.

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That’s far from a complaint. If you’re going to ape the style of any author, there are few better choices than Gaiman, especially when it comes to writing horror fantasy. Failbetter cribs from enough different sources that the game feels like an homage rather than a ripoff, and if you’ve played their browser game you know that Fallen London is one of the most distinctive and fully-realized settings in gaming. The characters you’ll encounter on your voyage are invariably bizarre and often sinister, though you can usually avoid trouble by playing along with their customs and maintaining a polite façade. Each island is unique and fascinating, and you’ll uncover plenty in the way of compelling mystery, dark humor, and spine-chilling horror as you sail around.

With that said, the game isn’t exactly perfect. You can find yourself out at sea for long stretches where nothing happens, sending your zee bat out over and over again in the hopes of discovering a new island to spice things up. Once you’ve played through an island’s story, there isn’t much reason to return save for commodity trading, which can get pretty mind-numbing if there’s no new story content immediately available. Also, while the detached top-down perspective helps to create a sense of isolation, I think the atmosphere and horror elements would be considerably more effective from a third-person 3D viewpoint, although obviously the approach Failbetter has taken is far more budget-friendly.

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Closing Comments:

Sunless Sea is a little darker and less cheerful than its already morbid sister Fallen London, but it’s no less delightful. The Unterzee is awash with clever, well-written stories, and you’re sure to find something new every time you set sail – even if actually finding it can take a while. If you enjoy weird horror with a dark comedic bent, or if you’re in the mood for a roguelike that focuses on economics and politics (albeit very strange politics) over more standard fantasy themes, then this will keep you occupied for hours on end. You’ll get even more out of it if you play Fallen London, as Failbetter games is constantly releasing new story content that ties the two games together.