Your donations keep RPGWatch running!

Sunless Sea Preview

by Soulbane, 2015-01-26

Captain’s Log, 19 June 1887

"The frenzied cries are dying down slowly outside, and my cabin’s reinforced door has held fast. I can still hear the occasional panicked shriek on deck and the following dull splash when one of my last men chooses a dark descent into a bottomless oblivion rather than face the thing that is lurking outside the reach of our gas lamps. The rest lie dead on the deck, bled out by their own companions who went mad with fear. How have we come to this? It is, of course, a rhetorical question; I know now that we came to this, because I choose a risky proposition from the Masters in the Bazaar in hopes of gaining their support and enough Echoes to buy a new ship and break out from amongst mediocre captains and run-down crews. I know that it was foolish to trust the devils of the Brass Embassy, that the box they provided in exchange for all my savings would be enough to contain the… cargo… that we were sent out to retrieve. I am fully aware that I should have turned back the moment we found the island and I could lay eyes upon the twisted ruins that covered its cold, lifeless rocks and felt the shiver run down my spine. But the war was long ago, and my hunches and my judgment diminished significantly it seems; and I wanted to do right by my men. But no, they are not to be blamed. Only me. Me, their captain, who led them into death and insanity. But they shall be avenged!

That the creature lurking below the waves wants the artifact from the island is certain now. I cannot harm the beast, we never could have, never had a chance, but I can destroy this damned thing it craves so much. In a few moments, when the clamor dies down outside, I’ll take it, run to the engine room, and toss it in the flames. I hope my resolve will be enough to resist the creature’s mind, that terrible thing with the whispers and the wails… to which my good men all fell prey to. With Salt willing, I shall succeed, but I suspect no matter what, these are my last lines. It is all quiet. I must go now. For the Empress!"

last entry of Captain Higgins’s log, retrieved by the HMS Arbiter from a wreckage near Station III. in October 1896

On History and Introductions

Sunless Sea is the second game by indie developer Failbetter Games. Being a small team, Failbetter became known when they released their first title – Fallen London – in 2009, a browser-based choose your own adventure game set in a unique alternative Victorian Gothic steampunk world. After the award-winning first title, Failbetter went on to capitalize on their success and launched a Kickstarter campaign for Sunless Sea in 2013, which was funded quickly. Sunless Sea strives to retain Failbetter’s strengths (namely, their high quality writing, unusual and intriguing setting, and some of the choose your own adventure style) while adding in exploration, combat, some rogue-like mechanics, and roleplaying elements with more depth than previously seen. The game entered Early Access in July 2014, and just recently we’ve been provided the release date of February 6 this year.

Having no experience with Fallen London myself, and being antagonistic towards Early Access in general, I accidentally found videos of others playing Sunless Sea and decided to take it up immediately. If I had any doubts by then, they swiftly became immaterial after the first few hours in the game, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The developers have been updating the game weekly, adding and changing small things throughout last year, with the occasional larger update every month or so. There was only one occasion of delay last September when Failbetter – to the pressure of some of the player base – did a complete redesign of combat (more on that later). At the moment, Sunless Sea is very close to being completed, although some optimization, bug hunting, and additional content implementation still remains. Even so, the game has been in a playable state for over half a year now, and I have every confidence in the developers to wrap up by February.

On the Neath and the Fall of London

Even though the game does not operate with a fixed storyline or easily accessible lore (which is part of the fun, really), the backstory of the setting is considered common knowledge in-game (especially since many have played Fallen London before). Therefore, without spoiling anything let me provide a basic outline to give a feel of the setting.

Around 1855, the city of London was stolen by mystical bats and moved to a cyclopean underground cavern called the Neath, which is inhabited by all sorts of strange beings and is covered mostly by a vast sea that never sees the light of the sun. Yes, by bats. Lots of them. Anyhow, this was not the first case of city-theft: according to Neath legends, London is the fifth city to be taken this way, with many horrifying stories surrounding the previous ones and their eventual fate below. The bats serve the Masters of the Echo Bazaar, a strange, living marketplace that has become the heart of Fallen London, now governed as much by the Bazaar as the Empress (Queen Victoria) and her Navy. Why or how the Masters achieved all this… well, that’s something you may or may not find out during your adventures in the deep, dark reaches. In the past 30 years, London has acclimated and adapted itself to the Neath and its strange denizens, amongst whom are Devils (since the Neath is close to Hell itself, Hell’s forces march up and down the cavern), Drownies (their gurgling presence is the nightmare of all zailors), taciturn Clay Men (from the living island of Polythreme), dreadful Sorrow Spiders (feeding on secrets), Tomb-colonists (people don’t die in the Neath; they go to the Tomb-colonies instead and exist in a state of strange, catatonic undeath), and many, many more, including the Gods of the Zee (yes, they are the tentacly kind). Fallen London and its people by in-game present time have varied and complicated relationships with these creatures, factions, nations, sects, and gods, and there’s a huge game going on between the greatest powers that includes politics, espionage, certain black arts, and the occasional war here and there. There is a way to access the surface (a complex system of canals), but denizens of the Neath cannot live in the light of the sun any longer, so mostly they avoid going up there. Because a large part of the action, trade, and exploration takes place over the Zee, your character took up the life of a zailor. When the game begins, you set out with a small steamer ship and a skeleton crew (no, not literally skeleton; you have to make sure in this game) to explore, trade, exploit, and fight your way through the gigantic blackness speckled with many weird islands.

As it is apparent from this synopsis, the game’s setting is quite distinctive. It could best be described as Victorian Age Lovecraftian steampunk with some elements of Gothic horror and science fiction inspired by the works of Jules Verne. The atmosphere of the game is dark and creepy, but it is rather subtle, so it never gets outright oppressive. Rather, it operates with macabre and witty humor, fantastic descriptions, and sometimes even philosophical and moral discourse presented in an interesting, non-intrusive way. The quality of the writing is so high, in fact, that it has been recognized and awarded even before Sunless Sea ever came close to release. The reading parts are presented very similar to choose-your-own-adventure books when you enter ports or trigger events, and because reading is never overdone, it doesn’t get tiresome.

On Zee Captains and Aspirations

In Sunless Sea, players take on the role of a steamer ship captain; but why that is the case is completely up to them. Character creation is made up of three steps. First, players need to choose their captain’s background. Each of the five backgrounds will be quite skillful in one of the five base captain stats and mediocre in the other four. So the war veteran is good at Irons (the skill for personal and crew combat as well as ship cannon damage), the street urchin at Veils (the skill for sneaking, smuggling, and espionage as well as the ability to bypass ship combat), the ex-priest at Hearts (the skill for withstanding physical and mental damage for captain and crew), the natural philosopher at Mirrors (the skill for observation and search as well as the speed of ship combat cooldowns), and the poet at Pages (the skill for trickery and knowledge, as well as the ability to level up skills faster). You can also choose to play a mystery captain which puts you immediately into the game and lets you find out your background later on. Each type of captain is better at a certain type of task or game element, but differences are not too great to keep you from trying your hand at the rest. Your past also defines the officer you receive upon start.

After choosing your past, you must choose your ambition, that is, the winning condition of the game. Currently three are available, but Failbetter promises at least two more by release. From the ones available, the Wealth option is probably the easiest and most straightforward - you have to get rich and buy a mansion. For Fulfillment the player needs to craft a peculiar item that will take much longer and require careful planning and saving up of rare materials. The recently added Your Father’s Bones ambition is the closest to a main quest or storyline; in it, you have to locate the bones of your father who got lost at sea years prior, a quest that will drag you through the Unterzee and force you to make some really tough decisions along the way. Reaching these goals does not end the game, however, as you can choose to retire in London at any time if you reached your ambition, but you can just as well play as long as you want to. The upcoming two ambitions - one that has you try to break out of bounds of the map and another that sees you through establishing your very own colony - also sound really interesting.

The final touches are the selection of a portrait, providing a name for your character, and choosing how the world should address you (however, your actual gender is entirely up to you). With that you are ready to set sail from London. The tutorial can be found in the form of a somewhat interactive text, and is generally very informative.

Captain pasts and ambitions present an easy way to customise your game and provide a lot of replay value, but they also have more depth than it first meets the eye. There are numerous triggers in the game for both ambitions and backgrounds, as well as tons of quests that have multiple solutions depending on your past, ambition, stats, and skills.

On Zailing and Shore Leave

The game can be divided into two types of interactions. First and foremost, you control your ship from a top-down view in real time. You can pause the game any time. The game world is vast, and apart from the Western and Southern coasts, it is randomly generated by mixing up the 36 map tiles. This also provides a huge amount of replay value in subsequent runs. Initially, with the exception of Fallen London, the entire map is black, but soon you’ll find islands, trade routes, whirlpools, reefs, and monsters all around. Your charts are vital; that’s where you’ll plan out your voyages. You can find ports in certain locations where you can dock.

The other major part of the game is text-based choose-your-own-adventure events. These come up when you dock on an island or sometimes on open zee because of some kind of event and they appear in the form of the gazetteer’s story tab (basically a window for various interactions). Choices vary greatly from story to story, port to port, but most quests and story-lines involve skill tests (the rate of success is indicated), usage of items, money or conditions you can get elsewhere, dialog choices as well as a combination of several of these (for example, a test of Pages and 100 coins in exchange for rumors around the port). The other tabs include shops for trading wares (not all the islands have them, though) and shipyard for buying new ships (only a select few ports have them at the moment). Trading, at first, can seem to be the least lucrative option when making money, but it can be deceptive. Some curiosity items and luxury goods can get you a neat profit if done right. However, Failbetter keeps emphasizing that although trading is a fairly important aspect of the game, Sunless Sea is not a trade simulator, so the best means to gather riches will always be doing quests and trafficking information. The latter is especially interesting, because it encourages exploration; you can submit port reports, strategic information from islands in London, and have your own agents in certain harbors. This provides you with a steady income.

The hold, officers, and journal tabs of the gazetteer are accessible not only inside ports, but your interaction with them is mostly limited to viewing when out at zee. Your hold contains everything you gather on your journeys, but not all of those items take up hold space; especially because some of them are manifested concepts or even stranger things. You can also equip your ship with modifications you bought or obtained otherwise, like cannons, engines, lamps, and a lot of other odd equipment. Upgrading your ship is, of course, vital, but you can also change ships if you have the means. The selection of ships is not large at the moment, but there is a ship for every kind of captain. It is advised to put off buying a new ship until you figure out what suits your play-style best. The journal is the collection of your quests, information you gathered, and conditions. Often, these conditions (for example, ‘Visited Port Carnelian’) have a numeric value and some kind of information attached, and can be required by quests or story nodes. Quests are also represented here, and if handholding is what you seek, you’d better go look elsewhere, because figuring out some of the tasks is half the challenge. That said, quests are not as railroaded and streamlined as in most games, so you’ll often engage in some other activity to be able to progress: gain money to fund travels to far away islands, explore the map to find your destination, or gather some kind of rare materials. Admittedly, this tab has been a mess ever since Early Access, but Failbetter is cleaning it up and making it more and more useful as we are getting closer to release; it has already improved a lot.

On Company, Necessities, and Madness

All your main resources, stats, and skills are visible on the UI at all times. Your ship’s hull depends on the vessel’s hull rating, and if it goes to zero, you sink and die. Fuel is consumed as you sail, and takes up hold space. Balancing how many units of fuel to bring on a venture is one of the more important aspects of zailing. Running out of fuel usually kills your character and crew, though you can sometimes use other means to get the last push to a port. Supplies are eaten by crew and also take up cargo space. Running out of supplies is not immediately lethal, but if you don’t have any strange cargo to eat, you’ll end up eating your crew, which can spiral down towards madness and mutiny fast. Terror is the level of panic and angst on board. If you sail with lamps while hugging coasts and islands, Terror does not increase. If, however, you get out to open zee or turn lights off (to help avoid monsters for example), the Terror indicator starts to charge up. Terror can go up to 100 before your crew goes mad with fear and attacks you (even if you survive, you’ll have killed most of them and will be seriously set back), but can have diverse effects above 50 - most of them unpleasant. You can get rid of Terror in ports, especially London, but the higher it is, the more difficult it is to heal. Letting Terror accumulate causes your captain to have nightmares, which are difficult to get rid of and will quickly become a major problem when sailing. A large part of successful exploration in the game revolves around managing these stats as best you can to survive. It usually involves careful planning, quick decisions out at zee, and some luck. The larger voyages you go to, the harder it will be to balance cargo space, Terror, supplies, to gouge the risks and rewards of combat, and to finance your travels. The game encourages careful exploration, but at the same time makes you crave for new islands, dark wonders, and creepy encounters, so you’ll always push your steamer and crew to the limits, which creates an interesting dynamic - and the occasional gruesome death.

Your currently used Officers are shown next to your captain. You can have as many officers as you want, but only one of each type (Mascot, Chief Engineer, Gunnery Officer, Cook, Surgeon, and First Officer) active. You can get officers via quests or in London if you look and pay for them. Officers not only give you flat skill bonuses, but also can raise one of your skills in exchange for Secrets (the game’s equivalent for experience), and can be talked to, often having questlines of their own, which can be quite demanding, but often upgrade the officer. Romance options to some of them will be available later. In general, officers are interesting and varied, each with their own backstory and goals. The current modified Hearts, Veils, Pages, Mirrors, and Irons are shown below the Officers. The number of your crew is also crucial, because the less crew you have, the slower your ship goes, so you end up using up fuel and can’t outrun monsters or Terror effectively. However, more crew means supplies are consumed faster.

On Glory and Adversity

Initially, combat in the game was real time with pause and took place in a separate window that came up whenever your ship touched an enemy on the zee. It involved watching cooldowns, deciding if you want to illuminate your foe, fire away, or try to make some distance, but little else. Altogether it was a fine system, but became way too grindy after a while, so Failbetter - listening to the majority of feedback from players - decided to completely revamp the combat system last August, delaying the game by a month or two. Combat now is real time (though to be fair, you can pause it, you just don’t need to) and happens on the zee. It involves building up firing solutions by keeping the enemy in range and firing arc of your cannons while trying to keep yourself out of line of fire of the enemy ship or trying to outdistance monsters. I admit that at first it seemed like an odd choice for a story-oriented game and I wanted to get the old combat system back, but after several updates they managed to give enough depth to the new combat system so that now it actually feels superior. It is still far from action-y, and it’s more about positioning and knowing your foe than anything else. Combat also occurs much less frequently, but is more of a challenge, and it can also be avoided much more reliably.

On Things to Behold and Hark

Visually, the game is very pleasing. The top-down view may be old school, but the developers managed to give the game a dark charm saturated by sickly green. Every island looks unique, everything is hand-drawn, with some elements animated to give a living feel to the silent, gloomy world. There are few games with such a unique and strong atmosphere. In the gazette, locations and story stages are illustrated by hand-drawn images that mesh really well with the style of presentation. Some drawings are a bit cartoonish, which often works to enhance the dread of the stories you read.

Sound is nothing special and serves its purpose well: the sound of waves and the whirring of the steam engine create an almost tranquil state of mind when sailing. That is, until the shriek of a Lorn Fluke makes your heart jump. Music is simply magnificent, with each area of the Unterzee having its own theme that adds a lot to the already great atmosphere and strengthens the alien, otherworldy feeling of the darkest reaches, while invokes a sense of nostalgia when near home waters.

On Similarities to Knaves

Since the game is advertised as a rogue-like, one can make the assumption that it involves a lot of dying and restarting, but it is important to point out that it can also be played using normal save games. So basically, you get a rogue-like with autosaves on exit, and a non-rogue-like game where you can save in ports any time. The rogue-like gameplay is further enhanced by the random world generation option, and the legacy system. Whenever your captain dies (or retires), you can choose something for the new captain to inherit. It can be a stat, items, your charts, money, even ship equipment, and so on. You can unlock legacies in various ways, some of which aren’t implemented yet.

Final Thoughts

Even though this analysis is only scratching the surface of the complex RPG that is Sunless Sea, it is fairly easy to decide if it’s a game for you. If you enjoy reading prose with black humor about a dark, strange, yet familiar world, if you like Lovecraft’s works and Victorian Age settings, if you liked Pirates!, and if you love exploration, this game is definitely for you. If you, however, dislike reading text on screens, hated choose-your-own-adventure games, expect turn based or visceral real time combat, want to play a trading simulator, like more handholding, or dislike 2D hand-drawn graphics, it is best to avoid this adventure. Difficulty can also be an issue, as the learning curve is quite steep in Sunless Sea, and the Neath is a really unforgiving place. As for content, the game is vast already, with more to come before release. I have been playing on the same captain during all the added content since the Early Access release last summer, and now have almost 100 hours in the game. Granted, I explore every corner and complete all the stories, plus the occasional money grind, so you can probably get away with much less. Also, I have barely experimented with the rogue-like aspects and the legacy system, which are another large chunk of the game. Sunless Sea is in Early Access until 6 February, and purchasing it before release means you get free DLC in the future (they are committed to at least one due to Kickstarter goals); but the price won’t change afterwards either. If you decide to give it a spin, I wish you an intriguing voyage on the silent dark waves, Captain! Lose your mind! Eat your crew!



Sunless Sea can feel slow at times, it's got a steep learning curve, and a lot of systems (like trade, combat, and UI) are still being tweaked in the days before launch.  But the game's got plenty of perks as well, including top-notch writing, a strong, unique atmosphere, a lovely soundtrack, and plenty of replay value.  If you're a steampunk fan, if you like roguelikes, or you just want a world with its own distinct flavor, Sunless Sea may be a safe bet for you.

It's set to release February 6. -Aubrielle

Box Art

Information about

Sunless Sea

Developer: Failbetter Games

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Steampunk
Genre: Roguelike
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: Unlimited
Voice-acting: Partially voiced

Regions & platforms
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2015-02-06
· Publisher: Failbetter Games

More information