Sunless Sea is about many things: exploration, roleplaying, mysteries, adventure, survival, and death. A lot of death.
Currently available on Steam Early Access, Sunless Sea is an engrossing experience that strikes a unique tone through writing, art, and storytelling. In it you play a ship captain exploring a vast sea…or zee, called the Unterzee. What happens beyond that is up to you.
Failbetter, Fallen London, and the World of Sunless Sea
Sunless Sea is made by Failbetter Games, best known for its text-based roleplaying game, Fallen London. I don’t think I could write this review without endorsing Fallen London. It’s over a million words of whimsical-creepy fiction, and you can devote as much or as little time as you please to it per session.
Why talk about Fallen London? Its world is the foundation of Sunless Sea. Although Fallen London is a text-based adventure and Sunless Sea is 2D sailing game, the two complement each other.
In Fallen London’s story, London was stolen by bats in 1862. It now resides underground, on the edge of the Unterzee.
Fallen London establishes London, its inhabitants, and its haunts. Sunless Sea takes the player beyond the relative safety of London, island-hopping across the zee. Sunless Sea is a game that makes you cherish each dim light in the abyss, because it means that for a second you might be safe.
The writing of Fallen London has always made its setting loom large, but interacting with the world in real time, as you can in Sunless Sea, is an entirely new and magical experience. That being said, I don’t think previous experience is critical to understanding and appreciating Sunless Sea. The thing is, even after playing Fallen London on and off for five years, I still have so much left to learn. It’s intentionally mysterious, dangerous, and dark. The game excels at making small discoveries feel like grand achievements.
After all, you survived long enough to make them.
As you might guess from the title, Sunless Sea is about sailing (or zailing). Most of the game consists of piloting your ship around the Unterzee, discovering islands, and fleeing or fighting pirates and sea monsters while running errands for various shady masters.
The player juggles fuel, supplies, and the terror level of the crew. Being stranded when your ship runs out of fuel is an ever-present danger, and with constant harassment by pirates and giant crabs, your crew can easily get too frightened and mutiny. And of course, if you run out of supplies…well, you might have to eat a few of them.
Just a few.
When you encounter enemies on the Unterzee you can either flee them or battle them. At low levels, the turn-based battle system quickly becomes a matter of repetition. You’re trying to illuminate your enemies to make your attacks more effective while evading their attempts to illuminate you. It’s a cool concept that makes use of the omnipresent darkness of the setting.
It can drag a little bit, though—especially at low levels. Early in the game you are too weak to take on most of the enemies you find, but the minor enemies are absolutely no challenge at all.
Sometimes this is a relief. When I encounter the smaller crabs or swarms of bats, I’m thankful because I know I can easily take them out and use them as supplies to feed my starving crew.
But fighting giant sea monsters isn’t really the point of the game. Where it excels is sailing, exploration, and world-building. As you explore the Unterzee you reveal more islands, filling in your sea chart. The strange subterranean world knits itself together, and as you bob from port to port it becomes familiar—but no less frightening.
There’s an edge to the kind of familiarity that lets you say, “Ah yes, whenever I approach this place from the South I get killed by living icebergs.”
Sunless Sea makes you reroll a new character every time you die. You can choose to keep one thing, be it your chart, one of your officers, or a skill. On Merciful Mode, you can save manually and return to a previous save if something goes wrong.
Because the world is so dynamic and there are new encounters every time you play, dying isn’t a terrible disappointment.
Still, after a dozen or so attempts I have now switched to Merciful Mode to see if I can learn more of the story. Getting a financial foothold in the game is very difficult, as the most financially rewarding missions are often the most dangerous. The game is still in development, though, and the creators have said it will get easier by its projected late September release.
Writing and Zee-stories
One part of Sunless Sea’s story is the same for every player: you are the captain of a steamship, and you are sailing the Unterzee. It’s up to the player to make choices to flesh out the character’s past, motivations, and abilities.
After some 10 hours of gameplay I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the stories the player can experience.
The writing in Sunless Sea is pitch perfect. It paints the picture of a subterranean Victorian-Gothic world without ever slipping into cliché. It’s as full of humor as it is darkness.
One of the reasons Fallen London became such a successful game is that London is brought to visceral, creeping life through words. The writing talent is just as evident in Sunless Sea, evoking a stylishly dark world and strange characters without ever trying too hard to fit into the Gothic niche. Alexis Kennedy’s prose is frustratingly good—he knows exactly where to elaborate and exactly where to let the player’s imagination fill in the dark places.
A Painted Ship on a Painted Ocean
The text rests comfortably next to Paul Arendt’s stunning visuals. Arendt’s art has always been a part of Failbetter’s London, but here it takes a well-deserved major role. The vast, dark zee feels alive with dangerous potential, and the islands are ominous but still welcoming, with their lights puncturing the darkness and calling your ship to port.
The game is viewed from the top down, and it feels like looking at a beautiful painted map, with ships gliding across its surface like toys.
The character designs are equally compelling. Failbetter has always been very open about its efforts to be diverse and inclusive. The non-player characters in Sunless Sea come from every walk of life, and it’s incredibly refreshing. The player character is represented by a silhouetted cameo, leaving appearance largely to the player’s imagination and preferences. It also offers no less than six options in how others address your character—two of which are the ungendered “captain” and “citizen.”
I often play Sunless Sea side-by-side with my roommate on the couch. The soundtrack of the game is subdued, lovely, and menacing. It doesn’t matter that we have two computers running it at once. The moments of silence and the moments of song don’t clash when they coincide.
We discuss our next moves. “Can you show me on your map where Mount Palmerston is?” he asks, and I pull up my chart—he has just died, and he’s chosen to save a crewmember instead of his chart. I’ve chosen to preserve my chart, and it has been passed down from captain to captain. It’s the product of many voyages.
“Up here. Straight east from the Chapel of Lights.”
We’re not playing the same game. Sunless Sea isn’t multiplayer, we don’t encounter the same enemies, and he’s alluded to a few disastrous in-game events that I haven’t even come close to experiencing.
But in the living room, on our red couch, it feels like we’re sending messages from ship to ship. When I hear that he’s arrived back in London after a long voyage I feel relieved, though I might be miles out at sea. We hold our breath together as we run from pirates and giant crabs. We trade battle strategies.
We’ve made Sunless Sea our own co-op experience, and though the functionality isn’t in the game, I think the emotional framework is there. It’s a game of exploration and secrets, a game that makes you want to talk about it and share your experiences. Playing it side-by-side with a friend is the best way to do that.
Sunless Sea isn’t for everyone. It’s methodical and literary and eager to kill you.
It also has incredible world-building and character design, and from here it looks endless.
Sunless Sea is scheduled for release in late September, for PC and Mac. However, it is fully playable on Steam right now, and you can pick it up for $18.99. There’s much more content to come between now and then, and based on Failbetter’s history of dazzling me I have high hopes for what this game will become.
Sunless Sea was reviewed on PC with the up-to-date Steam Early Access version. This review will be edited as necessary when the full game is released.