Ah, Sunless Sea. It’s finally here! Long-term readers of Ninja Blues and listeners of our Discourse Dojo podcast — such as it is — may remember that I name-dropped Sunless Sea as one of the few games whose Early Access program I actually liked in the podcast of that topic. I even very specifically added a note about its projected February 2015 release date in the post-podcast post. And hey, look at that! Failbetter Games basically came through on their promise 100%.
Hell, even-more-long-term followers of my work may even remember that my on-again-off-again infatuation with Failbetter Games’ magnum opus, Fallen London, was the principle reason I first got on Twitter in the first place! That I would write about Sunless Sea, spiritual successor to a game that’s brought me so much joy and randomly arguing with strangers instead of sleeping on time, at the earliest opportunity was basically a given.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium-high.)
(Game source: Kickstarter reward.)
I played two stretches of Sunless Sea when it was in Early Access. Once fairly early in, back in the unspecified time of the turn-based combat system, and once around October 2014, following the Carnelian Update — I remember running into Saviour’s Rocks. It was a lot of fun to play either build, and I’m very glad I did so… but this also puts me in a bit of bind re: writing about it. I can’t very well do my usual Indie Wonderland thing here, filling the first page with my very-first-ever impressions, unless I’m willing to pretend that this third iteration of Sunless Sea is so far removed from my earlier experiences that it constitutes a whole new game. And, you know what? It probably isn’t.
Simultaneously, I doubt most of you are very interested in a Sunless Sea article that’s basically me going ‘I remember this from earlier builds’ and ‘I don’t remember this from earlier builds’. I try to write this articles for the amusement and betterment of every reader, after all, not just for fellow enthusiasts of Video Game Archaeology. Which, by the by, should totally be a discipline in its own right: “From the graphical fidelity of this screenshot, and the way the UI is laid out rightward, I can deduce it was made in build… 0.2.5, or maybe early 0.2.6a.” But that’s a discussion for another time.
The best route that remains, then, is trying to split the difference a little. Both the fresh first look and the veteran’s eye have their merits, and it wouldn’t do to ignore either approach out of some strange sense of loyalty to my ‘format’. I’ll try to keep stuff as accessibly to new players as possible, but don’t be surprised to catch me reminiscing about the good old days here and there.
Sunless Sea starts off our amazing adventure by reminding me to connect it to my Fallen London account, if I have one. It’s not necessary, says Sunless Sea, the game is standalone and feature-complete, but connecting a Fallen London account — which, by the way, is completely free and browser-based, maybe you should check our other game out as well, it’s won a lot of awards! — conveys your new captains with some additional benefits. Well, joke’s on you, Sunless Sea: I’ve already made that connection, ages ago. Of course I would have.
Next step: the downloading of new stories. Like its browser-based counterpart, Sunless Sea is something of a living game: while the current version is essentially ‘complete’, it’s always been Failbetter Games’ modus operandi to add new stories and content to their games over time. A big yellow button reminds me that new stories are available, and that I’m to push it if I want those stories. It… doesn’t auto-update, for some reason? But sure, whatever. Get me my new stories, game.
Sunless Sea’s options are straightforwardly sparse. Resolution, windowed mode, ‘screen effects’, and three levels of graphical quality — ‘adequate’, ‘charming’ and ‘sublime’. Two audio sliders — which, by the way, immediately jump to the location of your mouse cursor if you click the ‘audio settings’ button. It’s kind of strange. And a handful of strange-sounding keybindings.
And with that, I’ve exhausted the title screen options! I stay around for a little while longer, enjoying the menu tunes and the lapping waves. It’s so calm here. Dark, and green, and not a ray of searing sunlight in sight. But eventually, duty calls, and with one click of the New Game button, I find myself…
If you’ve played any Fallen London at all, you’ll recognize this scene as… well, fallen London. Wolfstack Docks, to be precise, London’s gateway to the broad Unterzee. It was a homecoming-of-sorts for me, the first time I played it: an entirely new location in an entirely new game, and yet, strangely and intimately familiar. If you haven’t played Fallen London… well, I reckon you’ll probably have some questions, starting with ‘why is London beneath the surface of the earth now’ and progressing to the weirder elements of the setting from there. But listen: I’m not here to be your tour guide. I’m sorry.
Also, in case you’re in the latter group: yes, it’s called the Unterzee. Yes, zee. With a zee. Yes, the people crossing that zee are called ‘zailors’. Yes, they zail. No, they don’t zail on ‘zhips’. That would just be weird. Zailors zail on ships across the zee. And they sing shanties, not zhanties. Try to keep up.
The book currently in my face is kind of adamant I decide on who I am in this strange, dark, underground world. As familiar London tunes play — familiar to me, and possibly future-familiar to you — I click through the button-based stories that are the bread and butter of both Sunless Sea and its older sibling.
Do I want to choose a past? Yes, I think that I do want to choose a past, thank you very much! Let’s see… urchin, poet, soldier, priest, or scientist?
Each of the five backgrounds provides you with a narrative hook, a bonus to one of your stats, and a specific shipmate. As a Soldier, I get a +25 bonus to Iron, the skill of dealing direct damage, putting it at 50 in total. There’s also Veils (for hiding), Hearts (for health and morale), Mirrors (for finding enemies) and Pages (for getting smarter). No Cups or Apples skills so far, but I can only hope for later expansions. My shipmate is the Shady Cook, a shipboard cook — surprisingly — who boosts my Hearts value by 1 if I assign him as an officer. I also have a ship mascot, a Comatose Ferret, who provides a similar bonus.
Next up, my Ambition. Why am I setting out to zee in the first place? It can’t be for fun — the Unterzee is dark, and full of terrors. No, rather, I’m driven: driven by either material greed, the quest for knowledge, or…
Ooh, ‘finding my father’s bones’? That one sounds interesting. It’s also the only one I haven’t played in Early Access yet, so let’s do that. My father was lost at zee, and I’m to find his remains and bring them to London. For a ‘proper funeral’.
Finally, and most importantly, pronouns. Failbetter’s all-inclusive approach to genders and pronouns is as visible in Sunless Sea as it is in Fallen London, with options as ‘citizen’ and ‘captain’ side by side with the sirs, ma’ams, and lords and ladies of common expectance.
And finally, I pick a face and a name.
A brief quest-related popup informs me of the first steps I should take to track down my father’s bones…
…before I’m thrown into London proper.
Alright, that’s not entirely true. One of the elements promised in the actual-access release of Sunless Sea was a more in-depth tutorial. And after accepting the trail for my father’s bones, Sunless Sea unfolds before me a book: ‘Advice For Captains’, by M. Demeaux. It’s an interesting book, containing helpful explanations of things I learned through trial and error long ago: tips on exploration, an explanation of how zee-bats work, talk of death and legacies, and a primer on how fighting works. I read it all, every chapter, confident that I’ll need the refresher after all this time. And then, at the end, I sell the book for money! ‘Echoes’, if you want to be precise. Again: if you haven’t played Fallen London at all, you’re going to want to ask why money in this setting is called Echoes. But just roll with it.
And then, it’s on to London proper.
Now, the advice book was nice and helpful at all, but it’s only because of my earlier experience in the Neath that I can quickly feel my way around everything here. This part of the game, at least, hasn’t changed one bit.
The basic visual metaphor for interacting with anything in Sunless Sea is by way of the book you see in the lower right of the screen. The tabs indicate different areas of interest: Story for current events, Hold to see what your ship is carrying, Journal to keep track of achievements, Officers for your shipmates, and Shops and Shipyard whenever you’re docked in a port that has these. To the right of the book, little rectangular boxes act as bookmarks for stories of particular interest. Here’s the story for London, where you can carouse, hire on crew, and fall in love. Here’s the story for your lodgings, where you can rest, read the newspaper, and retire. Here’s the story for… a gift, I guess, that I got from linking up with Fallen London. Does this represent my Fallen London character giving free advice to my Sunless Sea character? Because in that case, Jarenth I: don’t eat anything this guy gives you. And try not to bring up the scars. Or the tiger.
I click through the London options with an old familiarity, remembering and recognizing most elements from my previous times here. Here is the Admiralty’s Office, where I can submit Port Reports and gain quests for Strategic Information. Here’s the Alarming Scholar, who eats secrets for money. Here, in the shops, I can buy fuel, supplies, and equipment.
*bing* A tutorial pops up, informing me that I can buy fuel, supplies and equipment in the shops.
Wouldn’t do to leave London without enough fuel and supplies, obviously. Fuel makes my ship go ’round, and being caught out at zee without fuel is a death sentence. And supplies — food, in particular — make my crew go round… and while one of Sunless Sea’s treasured tag-lines has always been ‘lose your mind, eat your crew’, I’m relatively certain this isn’t actually a good thing to have happen. I fill my hold to capacity with the good stuff, and I hire one additional tasty-looking crewman as well. Just in case.
I quickly find not everything is as I left it. I click on the option to transport Tomb-Colonists to northern Venderbight, for instance, fully expecting to find three identical coffins in my hold, ready for the transport I’ve done a thousand times already. But it’s only one person, this time. Interesting. But by and large, London holds little secrets for me. And because of that, after only a few minutes of carousing, I’m ready to set zail and explore the larger Unterzee.
Sunless Sea’s ships respond to relatively simple WASD controls. A and D turn, while W and S set the ship’s engines to full forward, half forward, half reserve, or full reserve. Or still, if that’s the way you want to do things. I kick the ship into full forward, and under the most delightful chugging steam engine noise, it zails off! I leave a plume of black smoke in my wake as the world opens up before me.
Okay. Where to?
Ah, see, but that’s where the zee-bat comes in. By pressing Z, I send a trained bat to scout for islands around me. It only takes a few seconds for it to complete its lap, and it reports back to me: ‘Hunter’s Keep is some distance to the NorthEast’. As I knew it would, but thanks regardless, bat. North-east we go!
And indeed, after only a few seconds of zailing…
Docking at Hunter’s Keep, my interface book opens up on the Story tab again. Clicking through a handful of well-worn story choices — which I won’t reproduce here, because visit the damn place yourself — I make my acquaintance with the enigmatic sisters of Hunter’s Keep. I also spy on them on beforehand: passing a randomized test at a level determined by my Veils stat gains me a handful of Secret Fragments. Yes, this kind of gameplay is one area in which Sunless Sea unashamedly copies Fallen London, almost directly.
I also compile a Port Report of Hunter’s Keep. I’ll be able to sell the information in this report in London, later, earning me a steady bit of income from exploring. Then, afterwards, I can go back to Hunter’s Keep again, compile a report again, and sell it to the Admiralty again. And again, and again, and again… Because hey, who knows? Maybe this report will say something other than ‘everything is still the same’.
I set sail again. North, to the Tomb-colony of Venderbight. If it’s still where I left it.
But wait, what’s this? I suddenly run across a a dastardly Steam-Pirate Pinnacle!
I click on the ship, and red firing arcs jump into view as my Officers slide off-screen. I aim the front part of my firing arc at the enemy ship, just as it does to me. Keeping the enemy in this firing arc charges up my firing solution: I can fire from 50% onward, for a chance to hit, or I can wait until it’s fully charged, for a sure hit.
I fire! The shot hits the pirate ship, causing 15/30 damage. Not enough! The pirate fires back! The shot hits me, dealing a devastating…
Alright, pirates. If that’s how you want to play it? I fire again, destroying the pirate ship. As I do, a handy tutorial pops up, explaining to me how combat works. Timely, tutorial. Luckily, the tutorial also actually-timely explains that I can loot the enemy wreck by zailing over it. Already knew that, but hey. From the enemy wreckage, I pick up a ‘cache of curiosities’… which turns out to be some free fuel. Neat!
In the same vein, a swarm of zee-bats — much less well-trained than mine — rams my ship several times, before being cannoned into mush and turned into edible supplies. My ship’s taken some damage, sure, but you can’t make an omelet without taking some scratches on the hull.
And then, onto Venderbight!
In Venderbight, I drop off the Tomb-colonist — after a brawl — and sell the mushroom wine I’d stocked up on before. Hey, I happened to remember they dig wine over here, sue me. I explore the town, take on an extra zailor, and then set off north again. I still have fuel and supplies a-plenty, what could go wrong?
Meeting a living iceberg in a snowstorm, that could go wrong.
I manage to defeat the Lifeberg through copious backtracking, then press on to the northern port of Whither. I have to push through a snowstorm to do this, which is a) a neat new graphical effect, and b) incredibly annoying, as it reduces my engine output to half power. Blasted snow. No wonder nobody here likes you.
I finally make it to Whither, though! Here, I compile another Port Report. Then I look around town, meet a terrible zee-monster, and manage to lose over half my crew to it.
Yeah, Sunless Sea is just an endless cavalcade of excitement.
Being under half crew restricts me to half speed until I can take on more zailors. And because the best place to do so is London, and because I’m running low on supplies anyway, I might as well go back. To the warmth and gaslight of Wolfstack Docks!
Back in London, I get busy. I hire more crew, I sell Port Reports to the Admiralty, I turn down a friendly offer from a legitimate businessman, and I hire an Navigator with a giant tattoo on his face. Productive day, all in all!
Crucially, the Admiralty — friendly chaps as they are — also provide me with the crucial information I need to track down my father’s bones! Which is what I was doing, remember. Apparently, I should start looking for him in a place called… ‘Kingeater’s Castle’. Wow, doesn’t that sound like a cheerful place.
Well, doom-and-gloom or no, if Kingeater’s Castle is where my dad’s bones are, then that’s where I’m going. I’ve already completed one successful voyage, fighting pirates and crabs and bats and a living iceberg, and I returned home with nary a scratch. I’m pretty sure that, if I really set my mind to it, I should have those bones back before you turn to read the next page.