You sail past undersea vents belching up green smoke. Your armoured guinea pig mascot tells you a giant crab is closing in on your ship, while coffins rattle in your cargo hold along with animate mudmen. This is the world of Sunless Sea, the first videogame from Failbetter Games who previously worked on the browser game, Fallen London. We were able to play the Early Access version, which is being updated prior to its December release date. Should you set sail upon the Zee, or should it be left in the murky depths?
Sunless Sea is a 2D navigation game, where you are placed as a ship captain sailing the Unterzee, a giant subterranean ocean filled with all sorts of eldritch horrors, devils and talking guinea pigs. Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft and Terry Pratchett worked together on a story, you’d get a world similar to this. The aim of the game is to fulfil one of your life goals as a ‘zailor’, by either composing a great tale of the Zee, discovering all the Zee has to hide, or by just amassing as much money as possible. The game is very open to what your win conditions are, being partly set by how you build your character at the beginning of the game.
You can first choose what you were in a previous life, with your choices impacting your stats and starting crew, and then you can pick your goal, which could be to amass a great fortune, or so on. In the current Early Access build, only two end goals were available, but even so, I was nowhere near close to achieving them during my time spent with the game.
Just a cargo hold full of mudmen, horror stories and secrets. Pretty standard stuff.
This brings us to one of the major elements of Sunless Sea. This game is hard. It is very similar to games like Rogue Legacy, where you may die a lot during your journeys but each time you die, you can pass on something to your next playthrough, like your map, a skill or even a crew member. This alleviates some of the stress from subsequent campaigns, but it doesn’t change the fact that this game is a difficult one.
The gameplay itself is if you smashed Sid Meier’s Pirates and Don’t Starve together. You have a wide open Zee to explore, with various islands and quests to fulfil at your own pace, while at the same time, you must worry about your sanity, your ship’s fuel, your supplies, the welfare of your crew, and more. Failure to take these into account whilst sailing could leave you marooned in a nasty patch of water, having to eat your crew or possibly hallucinating about demons coming from the depths to devour you. As I said, this is not a friendly world. The world of Sunless Sea will charm you, but it will also want to kill you in the most horrific ways possible.
The game works by starting you off with a ship and limited supplies, and then basically gives you free reign to do whatever you want. Sure, you can try and complete your end goal, but Sunless Sea does not force you to sit through a tutorial, teaching you the controls or sending you into a baby stretch of ocean before you are dropped into the big bad blackness. You can sail straight out of harbour as soon as you get off the main menu and end up face to face with a hostile ship in seconds. While this is great for veteran players as you are not constantly babied every time you start a new playthrough, it certainly isn’t welcoming for beginners. I started this game on stream with people helping me in the chat, and even then I was stuck for the first 20 minutes trying to wrap my head round what to do. As good as it is to be open and let players do what they want, clearer guidance on your first playthrough of how ports work or even just how to fight enemy ships would be nice to make your first experience on the water a little smoother.
Insert ‘Giant Enemy Crab’ joke here.
This also isn’t helped by the onslaught of information you have to process when you first fire up Sunless Sea. From the very first screen, you are bombarded with lore, controls, menus, submenus, and so forth, that makes your first playthrough quite the intense experience. While Failbetter have made it clear that they want to make the game challenging, the old school menu system and sheer barrage of text that you are confronted with is just overwhelming. You can see Failbetter’s background from Fallen London shining through in the game’s menu design, filled with submenus and headers straight out of a journal found in an old text adventure. While this is quite authentic, it is not necessarily the best way to lay out information, which led to me going to the wrong menu or interrupting a conversation in another submenu as I tried to get a hold of what everything does. You will eventually get your head around it, but it isn’t smooth sailing I’ll tell you.
As for the game’s story, it is more about crafting your own journey within this already well-established universe, rather than following the tale of a famous character in the Fallen London mythos. The game’s writing is one of the major standouts, with island descriptions and mission text being very well written and in some cases, very funny. Sunless Sea, like its companion game Fallen London (which has over 1 million words in it) is chock full of text. However, for all the well written prose and humorous description, the sheer amount of writing starts to drag after a while. After hearing the same mission text for the 7th time, you’ll have a tendency to simply skip over prose in order to get back to sailing or trading goods you have collected along your way. It would be nice if there was a bit more visual storytelling, in the form of sunken wrecks of other ships as you sail into uncharted waters or intricate artwork on new islands, rather than just experiencing another text dump when you reach somewhere new. It would be better if Failbetter had used all the media games have to offer when telling their story, rather than just overloading players with more text.
This rat is a veteran of guinea pig wars of Pigmote Island.
In the version I played, the game’s combat system is drastically overhauled, now being an active system where you can control your ship whilst your cannons take aim, with enemies trying to flank you or ram straight into you. The system works well, and again, feels very similar to the combat found in games like Sid Meier’s Pirates, but I just wish there was a little more meat to it. Sure, you can switch your main lights off to sneak past enemies and you can use torpedoes instead of regular guns, but I feel that the combat lacks the identity that the writing so clearly has. Let us inflict monstrosities upon our enemies and make them flee in terror, or release giant bat swarms to fight off mad sharks. If Sunless Sea exuded as much charm in other places as it did in its writing, it would be absolutely fantastic.
Another problem is that the Zee feels a bit empty of life. Although you get the occasional giant crab or corsair, you never see friendly trade ships making their local freight journey or abandoned cruisers looking for help. While the Zee does seem an unforgiving place, giving us more people to share its absurdity with would be a welcome touch.
As for the game’s presentation, Sunless Sea has a lot of charm in its 2D visuals, with living icebergs often clashing with volcanic islands or outcropping of bioluminescent roses. It isn’t the prettiest or most visual stunning game, but it does the job and definitely corresponds with the sunken world of the Unterzee. As for the music and sound, the soundtrack does an admirable job in conjuring up the contrasting nature of the Sunless Sea, with the melancholy theme of the London docks contrasting with the heavy drums of the volcanic isles, or the Eastern twang of Khan’s Glory. As for the sound effects, they do need some work, with the plop of missed cannonball shots sounding like something from a MIDI sound pack from the early 90s. The game is still in Early Access, so things will no doubt be edited and improved, but the game’s sound effects really need some work.
This looks all very lovely, until an eldritch abomination of the depths sinks your ship.
While the game does suffer from some questionable menu design and a tendency to put too much text in your face, Sunless Sea is definitely worth a look if you are a fan of gothic horror, sailing, or just like a game with a well written universe. If you are on the fence, I’d wait ‘til December when the full game is out, but if this sounds up your pier, get the Early Access version and become a zailor. We look forward to the full game and you can expect a full written review upon the game’s release in December.