Victorian London has sunk beneath the earth and supernatural forces roam this new sunken world, you are the newest Captain in the city ready to make your way into the unknown realm of the Unterzee. This is Sunless Sea from UK studio, Failbetter Games, a rogue like exploration game with a heavy emphasis on storytelling.
Each new game has you creating a Captain, you start by selecting your background, were you a street urchin? A poet? A war veteran? An ordained priest? Or are you a natural philosopher? Your choice of background decides which of your stats get a starting bonus and an appropriate officer to help run your ship, the officers give another bonus to your skills and can be improved with quests, or until you find a better replacement.
The next step is to choose an ambition, what is your end goal? How will you decide if you win or lose?
There are 3 choices:
Find your father’s bones, recover your father’s remains so he may have a proper burial.
Fulfilment, gather enough knowledge to write a masterpiece and retire.
Wealth, get rich, buy a mansion, maybe even have servants and start a family.
Finally you will decide on your name and how you will be addressed are you a Sir, Madam, Captain or Citizen? You then choose your character portrait. I’m quite fond of my Lord with a pipe smoking silhouette. With that in the bag you are released into Fallen London.
Whilst in the various ports Sunless Sea plays out like a choose your own adventure book. Select an area of the port you wish to visit and depending on your skills and items in your inventory, you have a variety options to select from. For example whilst in London you may choose to visit the Labyrinth Of Tigers, a supernatural zoo of sorts, if you have enough money you could choose to buy a specimen, if you had acquired a certain item you could offer to sell one to them.
Visiting all the locations in the ports will reveal a variety of tasks to complete, sometimes you will have a passenger who wants safe passage to a certain location, maybe someone wants information about a place; someone may want a certain item returned to that port. Collect your tasks and it’s time to head out to zee. As always your starter ship is fairly unimpressive, but eventually you can upgrade to bigger, better and faster ships over the course of your story.
Whilst you’re in exploration mode Sunless Sea changes to an overhead viewpoint, now that you’re in charge of your boat you have to use W, S, A, D to control your speed and direction as you head out to find Fame, Fortune or your Fathers bones.
Sunless Seas game map is huge, and randomly generates with each new game meaning a slightly different experience each time you die, if you are like me you will die a lot. Death may be due to roving pirates, a flock of zee bats, giant mutant sea crabs or jellyfish, once I was even sunk by a sentient iceberg…
Combat is a simple affair, you can fit a variety of guns, cannons and torpedo launchers onto your ship to attack or defend yourself. When you find yourself in a battle you will see a firing arc onscreen, one for each weapon you have installed on your ship, as long as you keep the enemy within that arc (or arcs) your weapons will charge up, you may fire before the bar is full, but your accuracy will suffer.
Combat is not the only way to die, you need to keep an eye on your fuel, supplies and terror levels as well. Run out of fuel at sea and you’re informed that your lovely little boat has just become an oddly shaped house floating in the ocean. If this happens you’re given the choice, float aimlessly for a while, pray to a zee god for help, try to signal distress, or abandon ship. Running out of supplies is similar, the lower the supplies dwindle, the more your crew loses heart before falling into the lure of cannibalism. Combine these with running out of fuel and you are basically left watching your crew eat itself. Your terror rises through a combination of situations such as sailing with the lights off, sailing in the middle of the zee, taking damage and some quests result in your terror levels rising. Once the terror reaches maximum level your crew will mutiny, that never ends well.
Death is just around the corner on most journeys, and when you do sink below the waves after a misjudged battle, starvation or a rather violent mutiny, you’re presented with the Legacy screen. From the legacy screen you can select any perks or items you wish to leave to the next captain, I’ve had the same not quite-as-rubbish as the starter deck guns passed down through the last 5 captains.
I found Sunless Sea very entertaining to play, with its Gothic Steampunk visuals with hints of Lovecraftian horror themes, the fact that the stories differed with each new game added to the enjoyment. Failbetter Games say they were influenced by such games as Faster Than Light (FTL), Don’t Starve, Sid Meier’s Pirates, and Elite, so if you are a fan of these you will find Sunless Sea a lot of fun to play.
It is not without its faults though; travelling between the islands towards the start of the game can be quite slow.
The AI can easily become confused in battle if you manage to approach an enemy from the rear and stay squarely behind them they will try to turn to face you constantly, and as weapons and attacks only charge while your opponent is in the targeting arc, this can lead to an entire battle in which your opponent may have 3 times the health of you but won’t fire off a single shot.
Simple, easy to understand controls
randomly generated maps add to replayability
Heavy emphasis on storytelling
Massive selection of stories and quests to run through
Very slow pacing to start
Enemy AI can be a bit clunky