With the tagline “Lose your mind, eat your crew”, how could you not want to give Sunless Sea a try? This narrative-horror-sea-roguelike just released on Steam and Humble Bundle, and is available on PC and Mac. The game is currently still in early access, and the developers describe the present state of the game as “a late beta with a huge amount of story content, waiting on more content, balancing changes and final polish.” The TL:DR version of this review is: Great atmosphere and story, can’t wait for it to actually be finished.
Sunless Sea takes place in Failbetter’s fictional Fallen London universe (like their previous games, including the browser game called Fallen London). In short, Victorian London was pulled into a vast underground cavern, and now exists in a world of supernatural beings and eternal darkness. You are a zee-captain, taking your small boat from port to port delivering goods, collecting reports, and generally getting involved where you probably shouldn’t. And this is where the game really shines.
One poster on the steam discussion board compared the game to a choose your own adventure novel, and while there are enough rpg elements and other mechanics for me to disagree slightly, it’s true that the game owes some of its best moments to the interactive narrative genre. As you explore the Unterzee on your ship various mini-stories, or storylets, as the developers call them, will open up. In most storylets, your character’s abilities will have a substantial impact on the results. Learning about and interacting with the creepy, haunted environment of the Fallen London world is by far the most engaging part of the game.
The mood of the game is done exceptionally well: the soundtrack is gorgeous and manages to balance the general horror mood against both the time period and the sea-faring aspect’ the visuals follow the hand-painted style established in Failbetter’s previous games and are absolutely gorgeous, and the the text of the game (predicted to be at over 200,000 words by the end of development) is masterfully written and truly evocative. Leaving port and sailing out into the unknown black zee with no buoys or lights to be seen made me feel quite small and alone, while returning to the relative safety of Fallen London, your home base throughout the game, was always a sign of relief.
As part of your exploration, you must manage your resources, and this refers not only to the basics you might expect (food and fuel), but also to your crew’s terror level. The Unterzee is an expansive black ocean with no sun or sky, and the further you stray from the coast line the quicker your crew begin to go mad. This creates some interesting tension in the game, as I often found myself debating between a longer route that would keep me close to the shoreline- a choice that uses more fuel and supplies but keeps crew calmer- or taking a more direct route that would lead us through long stretches of maddening blackness. All choices are risky- run out of fuel and you’re dead in the water, run out of supplies and you’ll have to eat each other, max out on terror and you face mutiny or worse.
I should also mention that the game seems far more balanced in terms of representation than many others out there. At the start of the game you select your form of address and a portrait for your zee-captain, but you never rigidly identify a gender. Your choices for address include madam, sir, citizen, my lady, my lord, and captain; and the game highlights that while this determines what “people” (NPCs) will call you, your actual gender is up to you. There are also a wide variety of options for avatar portrait, again providing for a wide range of expression. Your crew is equally diverse: I’ve included a picture of the crew I’ve amassed so far (though I’m still unlocking more), and there’s a fair amount of diversity in both gender and race. Finally, zailors throughout the game are referred to by both masculine and feminine pronouns, suggesting a fair amount of equality on the high zees.
As I mentioned previously, the game is still in early access. This has a couple important ramifications. Some of these are fairly straight-forward: I ran into a giant moth in one area of the sea, and was a little disappointed to find that he was a place-holder beastie. Likewise, it’s fairly easy to reach the edge of the map in the current build; the the designers do have a fairly clear and aggressive plan for releasing the rest of the map, but it’s not active quite yet. More important, however, is the fact that things aren’t quite balanced yet: the cost of goods is still in flux, and a recent patch broke some of the trading routes players had been using to make any sort of profit. Consequently, I’ve found it something of a struggle to get started, and have only just now begun to make any kind of significant progress in the story. Similarly, combat seems a bit rough (it’s very easy to run in to beasties that can one-shot your ship quite early in the game and with the trade routes broken it’s difficult to earn enough currency to upgrade the started ship). Nonetheless, the game is far more complete than many others in early access, and I whole heartedly recommend it.
If you’re in the mood for something a bit quieter, a bit slower-paced, something to get immersed in for a few hours, Sunless Sea will give you all of that with a dark, brooding horror vibe.
As an aside, this review was initially intended to be a power hour review, a first look after only one hour of playing. Sadly, this happened:
Perhaps that’s the best recommendation I could give.