Sunless Sea is the debut commercial release of British indie developer Failbetter Games, who developed ‘the storynexus’, a toolkit for aspiring writers to create their own adventures. Through it they brought us Fallen London: a free to play, text-based browser game with an emphasis on story and roleplaying. After an unsuccessful attempt at kickstarting “a story-fuelled, dungeon delving digital card game” BELOW in 2012, Failbetter Games were not dissuaded and had Sunless Sea backed in late 2013. The game has been available on Steam’s early access since mid-2014, updated on a weekly basis and is now officially released.
Although regularly cited as a rogue-like, the game is much more similar to visual novels (this one is decidedly less anime than the likes of Hatoful Boyfriend). As the captain of a small ship on ‘the Unterzee’ you sail uncharted waters, while braving pirates and zee monsters, in search of new islands. Unlike Sid Meier’s Pirates each port has its own unique stories, ranging from the mundane (listening to fishermen’s tales) to the bizarre (far too many to list and spoil), with their own consequences. It is these stories that are the main focus of the game, the naval combat and trading are merely the icing on the delicious friend – not the primary selling point.
Sunless Sea is set in the Fallen London mythos, so players of Failbetter Games’ original game will be familiar with the world of Tomb Colonists, Rubbery Men and Devils. Additionally for those who play both games, you may link your Fallen London account with your Sunless Sea game in order to gain small rewards – although it is nothing significantly game changing. Something that is borrowed from Fallen London is its unique inventory system. Simply put, both physical objects or abstract concepts (such as a tale of terror or zee story) are items that can be used to barter with or engage in certain stories. However, whether a veteran or a newcomer to the series, Sunless Sea primarily takes place on the far reaches of the Unterzee so has enough new adventures for those who have explored Fallen London, while showcasing Failbetter’s teasingly subtle explanations of the world for those setting sail for the first time. For a game that relies on immersing the player in its Lovecraftian (Kennedian?) atmosphere; Sunless Sea does it remarkably well with its teal colour palette, a large amount of new artwork and musical score.
But the most important thing that Sunless Sea needed, and Failbetter Games always provides, is solid writing. Whether it’s humour, tension, darkness or just general puzzlement, Sunless Sea hits its mark with whatever it tries to do. This is because, unlike other development teams, Failbetter Games prioritises writing first. Not only are the developers passionate bilbiophiles but as an experiment for Sunless Sea they invited several guest writers to create stories for separate islands in order to get a variation in tone.
Death is always a looming threat in Sunless Sea, either while sailing at sea (or in my case into land) or from adventuring. In the highly likely event that you die you start once again in London, with the ability to inherit some of your predecessor’s possessions. Thankfully Sunless Sea is highly replayable, letting you choose your captain’s portrait and backstory and presenting multiple-choice options in most stories which will warrant several playthroughs to see all of the content. Failbetter Games have publicly stated that there will be future DLCs and additional free stories that will keep the game fresh for those nearing completion.
Sadly the game is not as polished as it could be. The UI can become chaotically cluttered and it’s awkward to look up certain objectives if you’ve forgotten where exactly you’re supposed to go. There are some instances, generally to do with smuggling, of a UI glitch where required items will encroach on the text (I can still read it but it’s the principle of the matter) which has been an issue for a while and is still persistently present in the release build.
The audio, while serviceable with around 7 tracks and numerous decent sound effects, did not rise to the heights that it could have. As a very text heavy game an engaging narrator (maybe they could borrow the one from Darkest Dungeon) would have been a boon in adding to the atmosphere. Even if complete narration was not an option (Sunless Sea boasts an impressive number of words which would be financially taxing to record dialogue for), it would have been nice to provide voice acting for the ship officers or other characters encountered in the game.
During development, Sunless Sea’s combat was more similar to FTL with a pseudo turn based system where the player would queue actions. This received overall negative feedback due to being too slow and eventually led to the real time combat that is present in the release build. Your ship, and enemy ships, have an arc in front of them that charges an attack. Once it is halfway charged you may fire potshots in an attempt to hit your target, or wait until it’s completely charged to guarantee a hit. Turning the ship’s light on increases the rate at which this is charged, as do some items, at the cost of using more fuel. Although the combat is an engaging addition unfortunately the AI struggles to deal with the tactic of tailing the enemy, which keeps you safe while attacking. The problem of adjusting the balance at this stage is that if the player is made slower, or the enemies are made faster, to prevent this strategy from being so strong then players will be unable to escape from encounters.
While not perfect, Sunless Sea is a good game that sets itself above other games. Although it may not have an overarching story like most traditional games, Sunless Sea is very successful in its aim of developing its own lore and individual stories of each adventure. In this regard Sunless Sea is very much like an anthology of short stories, where you can read each island’s story separately and occasionally they will interlink. If you’re looking for a game that has engaging writing with real consequences for your character and your crew then Sunless Sea could be the game for you. On the other hand if you want another rogue-like to sink countless hours into I would recommend seeing a few gameplay videos to make sure the combat would not become too repetitive.
- Good atmosphere and setting
- Masterful writing, among the best available in video games
- High levels of replayability
- Messy UI. Unity engine does not allow for font resizing
- Basic audio
- Imbalanced combat