The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.
“The following is a contributor post by the Blue Moon Mage.”
“Three decades ago, in the reign of Victoria, London was stolen by bats. Now it lies a mile below the surface. It was dreadfully inconvenient for everyone, but it opened a vast, black ocean to you. Welcome to the Unterzee.”
So begins Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition, a top-down, survival/exploration roguelike from Failbetter Games. The studio first rose to fame for their 2009 browser-based title Fallen London, an interactive narrative game which takes place in an alternate Victorian era rife with the macabre and the horrifying (a la H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe). The writing and world-building of Fallen London so entranced fans that Failbetter Games was easily able to raise the necessary funds on Kickstarter to produce a sequel: Sunless Sea.
After an adversity-filled development (complete with delays and reports of internal troubles and layoffs at Failbetter), Sunless Sea was released for Windows in February 2015. Though it was not a critical slam dunk, the reception was mostly positive, and again, Failbetter Games was able to ride the wave of success for another Kickstarter-funded sequel: Sunless Skies, which has currently been delayed to January 2019.
In the meantime, however, fans can entertain themselves with Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition, the original game plus expansion pack, available on PS4 as of August 2018.
Know What You’re Getting Into
Before I talk about what Sunless Sea is, I want to discuss what it is not. It is not steampunk Sea of Thieves. It is not Resident Evil on a ship. It does not give you action or excitement in the traditional video game sense. In fact, it’s less a video game at all than an interactive novel or choose-your-own-adventure book. If you want a guns-blazing, fast-paced thrill ride, look elsewhere.
Sunless Sea is a text-based game. You sail your ship through the Unterzee (or “Zee,” as it’s called in the game), questing and exploring while dodging monsters and enemy ships. Along the way, you must juggle factors like supplies, fuel, and your crew’s ever-growing terror level in order to survive. Things move very slowly on the screen, and while the game is thick in atmosphere, it’s a slow-burn type of experience.
How To Play
Most of the game takes place in the Gazetteer, which functions as a diary, log book, newspaper, and shop all in one. You will use it to begin your game in London, and every time you dock at a different location, new options will appear inside. In this way, you’ll navigate events, conversations, and quests in the game.
To begin, you’ll be prompted to choose a character type, and each type has a different stat bonus. For example, the priest gets a healing bonus while the veteran gets a damage bonus. I started with the street urchin, who has an evasion bonus. You’ll also pick an objective, which is what you must accomplish to complete the game. Riches or immortality are tempting choices, but I picked the goal of finding my late-father’s bones and bringing him home for burial.
From there, you simply set sail and try to accomplish as much as you can before you die. And you will die. Many times. When you do, the game will reset with a different, randomly-generated Zee layout, so each time you set sail with a new captain, you are pretty literally going into things blind.
But chin up! Every time your captain meets a cold and terror-filled end on the Zee, you have the opportunity to leave a legacy for your next captain, whether it be a bit of money or improved stats. In this way, you can chain together the knowledge and experiences of many generations of Zee captains to eventually succeed in beating the game.
The 8-bit Review
Failbetter Games’ world-building skills are in full flaunt mode in Sunless Sea. Gorgeous hand-drawn artwork is everywhere you look, and the amount of detail is insane. From the zee anemone and coral to the various ocean creatures and individual rock features, there is no shortage of things to look at. And everything is tied together with a Gothic color palette that somehow manages to be both gloomy and brilliant at the same time.
Each port is also given its own character and atmosphere. Some are sad, some are sinister, but all will spell doom for the captain who lets down their guard. There is Venderbight, the tomb colony, and Frostfound, whose towering ice spires greet those who sail too far North. Or you can visit the Fathomking’s Hold, where the Drownies call out to you to join them.
I want a coffee table book of art from this game. I want one bad.
At this point, you might be asking why I’ve only graded the visuals a 9/10 rather than giving them a perfect score. That’s a good question. It turns out there is one flaw in this otherwise absolutely stunning game: the screen is too busy. As you play, there are far too many tabs, icons, bars, and thumbnails dividing your attention, and much of it does not truly need to be there. And so, it’s because of this clutter that I’ve docked a point.
Do yourself a favor and hit play on the above video so you can listen to the music of Sunless Sea while you read. The OST by Maribeth Solomon and Brent Barkman (the same team behind the Fallen London OST) is fantastic. It’s part horror movie, part sea shanty, part Celtic jig, shaken together to create something haunted and lonely yet full of adventure.
FYI, both soundtracks are available for download on Bandcamp, and I highly recommend them.
The only problem with the game’s music is that there is far too little of it. The majority of play is spent in silence with only the game’s logistical sound effects for company. You’ll hear the pages of your Gazetteer turning, the ship’s bell warning you that your crew has been fed (and your supplies have subsequently gone down by one), and occasionally, you’ll hear your cannon as you fire it. But other than that, the Zee is quiet. Perhaps too quiet.
I do understand the role of silence in building suspense, and maybe this is simply personal preference talking, but I found the silence in Sunless Sea to be deafening. Give me more of that incredible soundtrack.
I already explained the gist of the gameplay above, and it’s a good thing that exploring Sunless Sea‘s intoxicating world is so much fun because the actual logistics of the gameplay are fairly irritating.
For starters, I mentioned that most of the game is spent navigating events in the Gazetteer. Within each tab are various options, and each option has several sub-options. Sometimes the sub-options have sub-options. Things can easily get confusing.
But worst of all, when you exit a sub-option, it takes you all the way back to the main menu rather than simply going up one sub-option level. So for example, if you are in a story, you will likely have several actions to choose from. If you choose action A but then decide you’d rather check out B and C before making your decision, you can’t just go back to the list of actions. You must go back to the main menu and make your way through the story all over again.
Another complaint with the Gazetteer…in this text-based game, many times there will be long sections of text that don’t fit on one page, so you need to scroll down to continue reading. However, tapping down (either on the D-pad or the analogue stick) shoots you straight to the end of the text. Then you’re forced to scroll back up to read what you missed. Ironically, tapping up gives you gradual upward movement, but not tapping down. You get all the down, all at once.
Other times, you’ll be trying to read something, but a pop-up will appear to obscure the very thing you’re trying to read (as I’ve shown in the image above). But it’s okay, because each time you die, the game starts you over from the very beginning, which means you must read the same starting text approximately four billion times. So even when the pop-ups obscure the text, you’ll soon have it memorized anyways.
I could label this category as “Narrative,” but when I say that the writing is utterly fantastic, I don’t mean the story. I mean the actual writing.
You peer through a half-open French window into a grand parlour: grand in size, if a little reduced in style by dust and neglect. A dark-haired, pale-skinned young woman bends earnestly over a piano keyboard. Another, fair-haired but unmistakably her sister, sprawls on the sofa with a book. A third sits by the fireplace, staring sorrowfully into the embers.
“Soon,” she says, and the piano music falters and stops. “We’ll go hungry, and then the end will come, for me but not for you.”
The pianist raises her eyes from the keyboard. “Hush! If we don’t speak of it – ” She frowns. Has she seen you at the window? You withdraw.
As I said earlier, Sunless Sea is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure story. The narrative is non-linear, and every choice you make affects the path of the various stories. The art and the music may set the stage, but it is the writing that brings you fully into this world. It is rich and dramatic and even funny in that gallows humor way that I always adore.
H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on modern science fiction and horror is undeniable, and yet his tales (to me) have not aged particularly well. The things that scared readers a century ago are not especially frightening to jaded modern audiences. However, Sunless Sea takes that Lovecraftian influence and gives it loving homage, producing stories that are fanciful and disturbing but without that over-the-top quality that always loses me on Lovecraft.
In many ways, I’d almost rather experience Sunless Sea as an actual choose-your-own-adventure book instead of a video game.
My greatest overall complaint about Sunless Sea is its brutal difficulty. The combat in particular is unbelievably frustrating. For example, you begin the game in London with a ship that has 75 hp. One might think that the enemies near London would be geared to a beginning-level ship, but no. On my first attempt at the game, my ship met a quick and merciless end at the hands of a 400 hp Dreadnought barely one minute from London’s docks.
Most of my early captains met similar ends, either at the hands (claws?) of giant crabs, enormous jellyfish, Lifebergs (which seem to be vengeful, sentient icebergs), or more Dreadnoughts. Once an enemy spots you, your starter ship is neither powerful enough to fight back nor fast enough to escape. Your only hope is to not be seen at all.
But even when I managed to escape detection by enemies, it was still usually not enough. Once I lost two crew members in a completely random fire. Another time, a whole string of captains died when I either ran out of supplies or ran out of fuel. In both instances, your crew will starve… or begin eating each other. Many ports offer no opportunity to restock anything, and even if they do, there’s a good chance you won’t have the Echo (the game’s currency) to pay for it.
There is hope though. Eventually the learning curve took hold, and I was able to find success. The key is to do one thing at a time until you’ve established yourself a bit. Visit one port and return immediately to London. Visit one more and return immediately to London. Read everything carefully, lest you accidentally trade all your supplies for an ugly cat (as I once did). Gradually you will build your stores and even upgrade your ship enough to explore the darker parts of the Zee.
And when that happens, those Dreadnoughts will get what’s coming to them.
Owing to the fact that Sunless Sea has both a procedurally-generated map and a non-linear, choice-driven plot, its replay potential is excellent. It will take several playthroughs to explore all the options in every sub-plot, story arc, and alternate ending. And even if you manage to do that, you could still continue to play hundreds of times and probably never get the same Zee twice.
I have never before experienced anything quite like Sunless Sea. Even among text-based games (and I admit that I’m not an expert in that genre), I think this game stands out from the crowd based on the sheer strength of its world-building. How often does one find a game with A+ art, A+ music, and A+ writing? Not very freaking often. Failbetter Games has truly created something special in their Fallen London universe.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I have such mixed feelings about Sunless Sea. On the one hand, I love this world that Failbetter Games has created, and I want to spend more time in it. A lot more. But on the other hand, I don’t necessarily want to do it by playing this game. The parts of it that are fun are really, really fun, but the parts of it that are annoying are really, really, really annoying.
I think what irks me the most about the game’s downsides (especially with regards to navigating in the Gazetteer) is that it seems like the issues could easily be addressed from the feedback of beta testers. Having not played the Windows version of the game, I don’t know whether these problems exist there, too. Perhaps they are unique to the PS4 port. But overall, Sunless Sea does give the impression that it wasn’t tested enough.
In spite of this, one thing Sunless Sea has done is leave me hungry for more. After this taste of the world-building prowess of Failbetter Games, you’d better believe that I’ll be first in line to check out Sunless Skies when it releases next year.
Aggregated Score: 7.9
The Blue Moon Mage, aka Blue Williams, is a nerd of many layers: video games, film, anime, manga, and cars. You can find her on Twitter at @wrytersview or at her other writing locales: The Loot Gaming, The Gamer, Hot Cars, and 799 Books.
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