Thirty years ago, London was stolen by bats and sent to the depths of the Earth, off to the shores of a hidden ocean known as The Unterzee. There it survived an invasion of hell spawns, was sold to the Masters Of The Bazaar and strives in a very peculiar way, with other kingdoms as her neighbors, demonic influences and strange powers that play their cards in ways that nobody seems to comprehend. This particular scenario is the basis for one of the most important and well-known browser based games: Fallen London, a narrative built with thousand of tiny pieces that puts us in the skin of one of the denizens of the Victorian Capital, living mundane stories, magical, terrible or incredible ones, according to our own decisions and to the people who we may find in our way. Failbetter Games, the studio responsible for Fallen London, organized a Kickstarter campaign to enlarge Fallen London, and based on its success, they decided to place a higher bet and create a new game, one that will take us far away from the British Capital.
The fruit of the second Kickstarter campaign has materialized in the shape of Sunless Sea, which was created using a different formula but is set in the same universe as Fallen London. In Sunless Sea, we take the place of one of the few daring zailors that sets out from London to explore the dangerous Unterzee. London is not the only city in this underworld, and a Zee Captain can make a fortune if he is brave enough to sail through the dark waters of this underground ocean. There are other motives other than money to explore the Unterzee, the thrill of going where no man has gone before, the accomplishment of some personal goal, or the service to Her Majesty’s government, always willing to receive information about what’s happening outside its borders. In any case, the idea is to get a ship, a crew and set sail, with all the freedom, and the uncertainty of not knowing if we’ll ever return home again.
The first issue I have to address in this review is the mandatory comparison with Fallen London. First of all, Sunless Sea maintains the same gothic, dark and humorous tone that Fallen London has. Secondly, the music goes very well with the theme that Failbetter Games has been developing for many years. It is very revealing to be able to finally get to know places that in Fallen London we only get to know by description as Venderbight or Polythreme. The real-time combat is kind of a culture shock for players of Fallen London. In Fallen London you are limited by the pool of actions, pretty much like in Kingdom of Loathing, while in Sunless Sea in you are limited by resources (crew, wounds, terror, fuel, supplies) that are consumed in real time.
The game features an aerial view and the ship is controlled easily: it has two speeds ahead, two speeds backward, the possibility to turn left or right, and little else. It also has weapons that we can use to fight deadly creatures and hostile ships. Zee combat is completely uncomplicated, since it’s based on our current position and pointing our guns correctly, and staying in that position until we can fire them. There are several ship types, more advanced ships tend to have more weapons that point in different directions, but it’s pretty basic in general. It’s also avoidable (in most cases), so we can choose which battles to fight and which battles to flee from. We can also take another measures to be cautious and stay one step ahead from our enemies like turning off the ship’s lights -it’s not a flawless technique, but it can help us escape certain doom more than one time.
Combat is only a tiny threat to our survival when compared to others. What really endangers our journey are more everyday things, like fuel, supplies or terror. If you fail to calculate the distance between two ports, if you don’t have enough supplies or spend a long time on the loneliness of the vast ocean, the effects can be deadlier than any Zee monster. If you run out of fuel mid-trip, you can try to burn supplies to get a little boost, but if you run out off supplies your men will starve to death or you’ll have to resort to inadvisable measures such as cannibalism. If more than a third of our crew dies, our ship won’t be able to reach max speed even if we have plenty fuel, which will certainly doom us to a slow and agonizing death, with fewer and fewer chances of dodging enemy battles. Terror can also kill, create nightmares or even hallucinations, related to some events that may happen during our journey, or heightened by circumstances such as sailing through the Unterzee without lights for a long time.
It is very easy and expectable to die in Sunless Sea. Every mistake is paid dearly. Sometimes, your only chance to get out of impending trouble is to pray to the mighty but whimsical Gods of the Unterzee, even in that case you have low hopes -and miracles are very, very expensive-. It is also possible to shipwreck or have all of our crewmen die, in which case there is no salvation. Sunless Sea has a roguelike component in it, meaning that the player is expected to fail many, many times before accomplishing big objectives. Once dead, you can choose some aspects of another Zee Captain, which will allow him to share some traits with his dead ancestor. It is possible to share some of his personality traits and skills, half of his fortune, or an officer of the former crew, which gives us the opportunity to start off a little better than before. Given the ever-changing nature of the Unterzee, the map changes for every new Zee Captain, sharing some things with the earlier map but altering them just enough to get completely lost when trying to find a familiar location.
At the same time, Sunless Sea features a role-playing component, present in the way that we can develop the player character. We can level up skills for him such as Heart -courage and bravery-, Veils -the ability to sail faster, more stealthily and to lay low while on the ground- or Mirrors -the ability to dwell more clearly into events that are just about to happen- among other skills. These skills affect both navigation and the outcome of the events that will happen to us during our journeys, whether it is the explosion of the ship’s engine, or a fight to death in a far away shore town full of pirates. At the start of every gameplay, we can choose from a series of backgrounds for our Zee Captain that favor certain skills at the sacrifice of others -a poet has the ability to talk his way out of tricky situations, while a war veteran will be well versed in fights and brawls-, but it is during our journeys that we can allow the skills to fully grow. Likewise, at the start of every journey we can choose which will be the final objective for the current Zee Captain whether it is to find the remains of his late father lost in the Zee, to create a literary masterpiece about our journeys, or simply making a fortune and retiring to a luxurious zeeside mansion.
The narrative is mainly based in the same “micro-stories” used in Fallen London. Despite Sunless Sea being far more “interactive” than the browser-based game, it remains a game with a dense narrative, filled with bright, imaginative and weird descriptions of what we see and hear on every step of our journey. Everything is text-based and on every port we can find a new story, a new character, faced with a new decision or a new mission that will develop our captain and extend his influence. We will find unexplainable places, even for the logic fo this twisted universe, we will cross the doorway to hell int he so-called “Iron Republic” in search for poetry and novels forbidden in London, we will chat with three mysterious sisters as they share tea and biscuits with us, each one with a different story to tell us. There was much imagination poured into this game and that requires sitting down peacefully to read and carefully absorb all the information that is being revealed to us directly and, sometimes, indirectly as well. You should take notice that the game provides no localisation, so you shouldn’t recommend it to friends who aren’t skillful in the language of Shakespeare.
Beyond our final objective, we actually have the liberty to do whatever we please, always taking into account that we need resources to keep sailing and such resources aren’t. Trade is an option, contraband is a more lucrative one as well as it is riskier, but there are other sources of income such as The Admiralty, which will reward us for developing reports on all the ports that we set foot in or for securing delicate information for The Empire. Or the Univeristy, that will pay us for interesting Zee Stories and for any mysterious object that may fall into our hands. There are other characters that may be willing to help us for a price. Following the same formula that Fallen London perfected, it is the sum of micro-stories and relationships that entangle themselves and form an elaborate plot that changes with every new captain and that is one of the most interesting aspects of the game as well. We can also hire officers, with defined personalities, that will provide bonuses for our ship, but they also have each their own backstory that we can develop and become primary actors as well. If we gain enough resources to procure a better ship, that will heavily increase our chances of survival.
Sunless Sea is mainly an exploration game with a steep difficulty curve that makes it not suitable for everyone. The start of a gameplay is always slow and it takes a lot of effort to secure the resources in order to progress, sometimes making a lot of repetitive journeys. And the more exploring we do, the harder everything gets, with zones featuring small to none ports in which we can resupply, making journeys even more tedious. It’s not an action game by any means, but a game that requires a lot of nerve and patience as our ship slowly sails through the dangers of the Unterzee, with many storylines and possibilities that do not open until you have advanced up to a certain point. The shared Lovecraftian universe of Fallen London and Sunless sea is fantastic, worthy of exploring and you will be able to enjoy it in all of its perfection even if you haven’t played Fallen London before, the imagination and hard work poured into this game can be appreciated. It’s a game that marches to the beat of its own drummer, that requires a lot of calmness and patience to learn to enjoy it, so before boarding a ship and sailing into the depths of the Unterzee you might as well ask yourself if you’re willing to engage into this kind of experience.