I would have never come across Sunless Sea if not for GOG’s Summer Sale. The game popped up on the list and its cover graphic looked intriguing, so I had to learn about the game more. The trailer was climatic, the graphics beautiful and creating a dark but enchanting atmosphere, and the fellow gamers’ reviews offered a fresh approach to a rogue-like genre.
But it was the story that bought me. Because in Sunless Sea, London had fallen, and it had fallen in a quite literary way: the bats took it under the ground. Now it lies at the shore of a mysterious zee, where the daylight never reaches, and the dark waters hide many secrets for the zailors to uncover.
The loading screen that greets the player is a beautiful graphic with Joseph Condrads’s quote: “The sea has never been friendly to a man. At most it has been the accomplice for human restlessness.” and this quote alone sets the mood of Sunless Sea. The game combines Lovecraftian aesthetics and atmosphere with steampunky goodness of Victorian London in an artful, engaging way. Aside for London, there are many ports to discover, and each of them offers fresh ideas and unsettling but original and gripping imagery.
The gameplay itself focuses on controlling a little steamer ship that carries news, cargo, and people through the zee, but even though we don’t really get to see the character we create in the beginning, his or her history and ambitions will affect the gameplay. Through the journal entries at ports we make choices, purchase goods, and unveil intriguing snippets of storylines. It will also determine the path to the victory, though the victory itself is quite an illusive pursuit, and the game creators don’t try to pretend otherwise. Below the quote I’ve mentioned above, there’s another message greeting the player: “Explore. Take risks. Your first captain will probably die. Later captains may succeed.”
Yes, the zee in the Sunless Sea is unforgiving, and one wrong decision, one temptation, or one day spent far out in the darkness, without enough supplies and fuel for a trip back might end with the captain’s death. At the same time, after one or two games it’s easy enough to get the hang of things and the game becomes much easier… not less deadly, not less forgiving, but with experience comes knowledge of how much one can risk. Of course, until the next wrong decision that seemed like a harmless idea at the time.
And then… In its initial mode, Sunless Sea doesn’t offer multiple save games, so backtracking one’s trail of wrong choices so common in other games is not going to happen. It adds to the feeling of threat and danger, pushing one out of the cozy bubble and forcing consider options and decisions.
A bit of consolation is the inheritance system that allows to pass some of the money, items or crew members onto the next captain, but getting there won’t be easy.
So far, I’ve had eight or nine captains, and as you can guess, all but the last one had perished to the zee, attacked by the zee-beasts, suffering from nightmares, or going down with a ship, and each game, even though similar at its core, provided me a lot of fun.
While some points on the map don’t change, the rest of the islands is generated randomly, providing opportunity to explore again and again, trace safe routes, and desperately trying to find that one place you want to go to next. Same goes for the officers: even though their number is limited, and they always have the same story to share (and their past opens up interesting and weird opportunities), their appearance is semi-random, so each game might be a bit different.
One of the biggest downsides of the game is the speed of the ship. With the zee being quite vast, and with the points of interest limited, the player spends a lot of time zailing through the empty spaces with an occasional monster to pop up. I often found myself playing a phone game or checking social media while my ship made it through already uncovered territories, because there’s nothing else to do. Opening The Gazettier which allows access to stories, cargo, and officers pauses the game, so you can’t browse through these while zailing.
The second one is the limited storage space. While it makes sense on the ships, forcing the decisions what to take on the journey and how much cargo hold leave for the things found during the journey, it makes it almost impossible to collect some the items necessary for quests. We have no means of store cargo in Fallen London (even after purchasing a house), so many items that could be useful in the future gets sold or thrown away which causes a lot of frustration and slows the progress. I don’t mind grinding to get the desired resources or money that would allow me to get a better ship or equipment, but when at some point it brings the game’s progress to almost a complete halt and prevents following some of the stories, it stops being fun. It also makes me wonder whether it’s a way to conceal the lack of content.
I haven’t completed the game yet, and as much as I enjoy its atmosphere (with beautiful music enhancing the eerie mood), I’m slowly getting worn down by being unable to progress to things I haven’t tried or discovered yet. After seven or eight captains the grind starts feeling too repetitive, and with the game being so story-bound, there’s too little of randomness of locations, opponents, and content to keep the gameplay fresh.
The expansion to the game, The Zubmariner, offers a bit of new content and storylines, but it doesn’t address other issues. Also, most of the new additions are not available until much later in the game… to which you might never get, seeing as your captain might just die randomly.
Still, even with its downsides, Sunless Sea is definitely worth playing, and the original and weird atmosphere of the game, so beautifully woven by a unique style, would definitely get imagination going.
- Story: Very High
- Immersion: Medium
- Inspiration: Very High
- Relaxation factor: High
- Procrastination risk: Medium
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.