Indie Wonderland: Sunless Sea

A few hours in

Or maybe my ship’ll get destroyed by pirates, instead. That could also happen.

Theoretically.

Yeah, so Jarenth I didn’t actually live very long. Two, maybe three trips? Ironically, it was because of my experience with earlier builds that I died as quickly as I did: I approached Sunless Sea’s combat in a way I was familiar with, instead of in a way that was actually clever.

Jarenth II, an urchin from the Flit also hunting for his own father’s bones, managed to survive for much longer. As soon as I started trying to learn actual combat intricacies instead of overlaying my own memories over a system that no longer adhered, things went much better for me. For instance, here is my captain destroying a helpless merchant cruiser.

Well, ‘helpless’. They *had* guns.

And here, I take down a pirate frigate.

Fighting zee-beasts was a *little* tougher… but there’s little a strong forward cannon and a lump of blue coral can’t fix.

And here’s a snapshot of the time I destroyed a dreadnought full of devils!

Are you seeing the *pattern* yet?

Jarenth II got close to finding his father’s bones, really very close. Alas, not close enough. The legendary creature I was supposed to fight never showed up. And I had to go North. I HAD TO GO NORTH.

Certain Fallen London players will understand.

Jarenth III had an altogether more quiet run, supplying stone from the Salt Lions to the Bazaar, and apart from one visit to the Surface, didn’t make too many waves… save for the siring of Jarenth IV, currently lying in wait. I haven’t zailed Jarenth IV yet. I might, soon. I might not soon.

Pictured: young Jarenth IV.

In general — if such a qualifier can be said to have any meaning in this case — I had a lot of fun with Sunless Sea. It’s quite the unusual game, an interesting mix of resource-based exploration and immersive storytelling, with cool visuals and amazing aural support and designed to accommodate many different player types. However, I do feel that the kind and the amount of enjoyment you’ll get from Fallen London are somewhat dependent on the kind of player you are.

First and foremost, in assessing how much you’ll like Sunless Sea, I have to ask: did you play Fallen London, to any degree? And if so, did you enjoy it? The writing, the mechanics, the world? Because the two games are very much connected, on several levels.

Narratively speaking — and this was my first understanding of it — there’s this implicit, pervasive assumption that almost everyone here is on some level familiar with Fallen London lore and customs. Sunless Sea is set in and steeped in Failbetter Games’ Victorian underworld, and it’s not about to take time out of its busy schedule of terrorizing you to explain much of anything. Things like: why is London underground? Why are all these devils running around the place? Why are there golems made of clay, and squid-face humanoids, and spiders that eat eyes, and cats that talk, and undying mummy-people? What’s the relevance of mushroom wine, and ‘foxfire candles’, and bottled human souls that you can apparently buy and sell freely? Why are my stats named Iron, and Mirrors, and Veils, and Hearts, and Pages? And just what is this setting’s obsession with eating people?

Sunless Sea won’t tell you. Well, not much of it.

Basically, saying that ‘playing Fallen London is optional’ is a bit of a fib. You can still *play* Sunless Sea that way, but you’ll get much less out of it than you otherwise would.

But the two games are connected by more than just a shared narrative setting. You see, despite strong outward differences — one’s a wait-based browser game about clicking text boxes, the other’s a active top-down game about zailing — I’ve grown more and more convinced that Fallen London and Sunless Sea are mechanically quite similar, too. I’d almost go as far as saying that Sunless Sea is a second iteration of the Fallen London formula, with some movement-based combat action thrown in to balance out the reading.

Both Fallen London and Sunless Sea are, at their core, games about reading stories, raising numbers, and receiving knick-knacks. You, the player, are defined almost entirely by a small number of mutually exclusive stats, the ‘qualities’ that are ascribed to your character which you unlock during gameplay, the items and companions you possess and equip which raise your stats, and the Echoes and trade goods you own. Your principal way of interacting with the world is through reading story snippets, then selecting your reaction to them from a small list of options: some of these options are gated off based on stats levels, qualities unlocked or items possessed. Certain stories are always available, while others are only unlocked through the passage of time. Some stories yield material or stat-based rewards while other harm or diminish you, causing wounds, legal suspicion, or madness.

Example.

In Fallen London, your principal way of unlocking new stories is by doing other stories (or by buying microtransaction currency, occasionally), and stories are time-gated through the Action Candle mechanic. In Sunless Sea, you unlock new stories by zailing across the map, discovering new islands and new ports, and stories are time-gated through the Something Awaits You mechanic, which triggers when you’ve been at zee for long enough and which opens up new options in any port you visit. You get the kind of comparisons I’m going for, yeah?

Sure, Sunless Sea has zailing as a game mechanic. Quite a lot of zailing, as a matter of fact. But the primary purpose of the zailing is to serve as connecting tissue for the ports and the stories. It’s a means to an end, not an end in and by itself: nobody goes onto the Unterzee just to hang out.

It’s not a very happy place, is what I’m saying.

Mechanically, Sunless Sea and Fallen London are incredibly similar games. Stats, stories, surplus items. Consequently, if you’ve played Fallen London, you’ll have a decent handle on whether or not you’ll like most of Sunless Sea. What are your strongest Fallen London memories? Reading amazing lore snippets and achieving great things? Then you’ll be good. Or grinding endless items and waiting for the action timer to refresh? In that case…

Sunless Sea has quite a lot of item- and money-based grinding of its own.

If you haven’t played any Fallen London — seriously, why are you eyeballing this game, then? Go play Fallen London for a week or so, that’ll tell you everything you need to know. But if you haven’t played Fallen London, but still find yourself interested in Sunless Sea, the above comparison can still be useful. Discussion of Fallen London overlap aside, Sunless Sea is still very much a game of two flavours: the narrative flavour of reading and storytelling, and the mechanical flavour of mastering the zee. What kind of gameplay do you like?

And, in fairness, I’m being unduly down on the zailing when I call it ‘the connecting tissue of the stories’. It is that, first and foremost. But zailing can be pretty fun in and by itself, too. Assuming you don’t go mad, or get murdered, or sink, or get eaten.

Early in the game, Sunless Sea’s zailing is mostly a game of exploration. The black map of the Unterzee is large, larger than you can possibly imagine crossing, and filled with all manner of amazing and wondrous places. Up north is an ice castle, where a hidden labyrinth only exists to those brave enough to dissolve themselves in it. To the south, Hell’s Iron Republic has overthrown all laws, even the laws of physics. East you find Polythreme, where everything is alive all the time, and Irem, the future-tense city of pillars, and the Khanate, the steppe city that fell before London did, and the Uttershroom, home of the blemmigans, and, and, and…

And crucially, in all but a few specially selected games, the locations of all these places are semi-randomized. Certain elements, like Venderbight, are set, and every location has a range where-abouts it can be found. But the specific place of each island and region, and their relations to one another, make for interesting new maps every time you play.

There’s also an island manned by intelligent spiders. Fun place.

Zailing in Sunless Sea is a game of resource management. Your ship carries fuel, which allows you to keep going, and supplies, which keep your crew alive. And crew, in and by itself. And zailing the wide open zee increase your Terror meter, because for some reason people get unnerved from spending weeks and months on a black water mirror under a black sky. Early exploration trips, then, have a gamble-like quality to them: do you have enough food and fuel to find another island. The zee-bat says ‘far North’ but how far? Or should I turn around, zail back to the last port, and buy supplies at a premium? But that would mean I’d have to cross the fog bank, which means my Terror is going to spike. And oh, shit, here comes the Wax-wind, I can’t get caught in that!

I’m prepared to give every kudo to Failbetter Games for making the Unterzee seem at once like a living, active place, full of obstacles and environmental effects and monsters and pirates… and a lonely, desolate plain of nothing. Seriously, this game’s fog might be some of my favourite game fog so far. Zailing is never a happy affair, one way or another. And particularly combined with the unique musical cues most ports start up if you get close, finding new land for the first time is always an exhilarating sense of safety.

By its nature, though, the exploration stage of the gameplay doesn’t last. At some point you’ll have seen it all. Consequently, later on in Sunless Sea, zailing can become something of a… well, of a chore, if I can be completely honest. Zailing becomes something you do to get from A to B: no longer about the journey, but about the destination. A game of resource management first and foremost: do I have enough fuel to make it from this port to this port? And then to make it to that port? And even the most majestic zee occurrences lose their luster if you run into them for the tenth time and beyond.

Oh look, another… another giant jellyfish.

The game takes a while to get there, mind. I zailed all across the wide Unterzee with Jarenth II for like two or three times before I caught myself snoozing off at the wheel. But eventually, it will happen: the terrors of the zee subside for you, if not for your captain and crew, and zailing becomes the connecting tissue for stories. And yes, worse, a bit of a chore: because zailing costs money in fuel and supplies, and because the easiest way to earn fuel and money is by submitting Port Reports, later trips tend to take on a very mandatory nature. “I want to get to Aestival… so I guess I’ll go to Venderbight, then Wither, then Codex, then Abbey Rock, then refuel at Mt. Palmerston, then the Chapel of Lights, then Avid Horizon, then Aestival, and on the way back I can hit Port Cecil, and the Empire of Hands, and…”

You don’t have to play this way, of course. You’re free to waste free money and ignore all the ports you zail in easy distance of. I couldn’t make myself do it.

But then again, maybe I’m playing Sunless Sea ‘wrong’. Maybe you’re not supposed to zail the same zee over and over again? Well-known Ninja Blues friend Ranneko played through six captains by the time I was still on my second: his games were much shorter and much more goal-directed than mine, focused primarily on unlocking the stat boosts for later captains I didn’t even fully understand were in the game. And given that Sunless Sea goes to great lengths to impress on you that ‘your first captain will probably die’, it’s entirely possible that my existing experience with the game — which, let’s be fair, did help me out tremendously, even if I underplayed that a little — skewed my current Sunless Sea experience towards unintended longevity. Knowing what I do about these legacies now — and it’s worth noting that I had to learn about this through Ranneko — I can definitely see the appeal of shorter runs, a steady supply of new and interesting zees, and short-term goals to work towards in preparation for the one captain that will end all other captains.

Yes: even though I just spent several paragraphs decrying Sunless Sea’s zailing as growing boring over time, I’m already planning Jarenth IV’s inaugural journey. How’s that for the game having its hooks in me, I guess?

Final thoughts

If I had to summarize Sunless Sea in one sentence, it would be ‘Fallen London in a top-down ship game’. The two games really are remarkably similar, with all the good and the bad that entails. If you like the one, you’ll probably like the other.

If I had to summarize Sunless Sea in a sentence that does not refer Fallen London, I’d go for something like ‘an interesting combination of stat-based storytelling and resource-based zee-faring that starts off strong and peters off after a while, possibly to encourage sequential replays’. Sunless Sea is fun, particularly at first, when the world is your oyster and you’re bursting with so many story hooks to follow and ports to explore that you find yourself planning five trips at a time. Its graphical design is also fairly ace, both in its portrayal of the silently lethal zee and in the different looks of the different ports and beasts, and I absolutely adore its use of region-specific audio. Not because it necessarily makes the game ‘better’, I just quite enjoy it.

And as a final note to those of you who also followed this game in Early Access: I think the current build of Sunless Sea probably represents the best possible implementation of most of the zailing mechanics. The zee combat in particular went through some rough patches, from turn-based weirdery to backpedaling insta-death active fighting… but the current combat system feels as balanced as it’s ever going to get, reaching a good risk-reward balance that makes a skilled captain feel strong, without defanging zee threats too much. Same thing goes for terror, lights, and enemy detection: this version of Sunless Sea is the first time I actively found myself turning off the lights to pass by enemies undetected, and weighing the pros and cons of doing that versus trying to fight them.

Sunless Sea does run out of steam after significant play sessions, partially because of its story-based nature — at some point, you’re going to have read everything — and partially because of the grind-y nature of its economy and the cutthroat balancing of zee voyages, both of which encourage making carefully planned trips past everything over and over. That said, I would still happily recommend it to anyone with an interest in interesting, well-written games: the early experience of Sunless Sea is good enough to make up for the lesser second half, and Failbetter Games is already hard at work implementing new stories and plot hooks. As they do. As they always will.

Though, if I can be fair: the fact that the Carnelian Exile’s story *still* isn’t done is some bullshit. I’ve wanted to learn what goes on behind those shades since my *very first voyage*, all the way back.

Priced at around twenty bucks, Sunless Sea comes in Steam, GoG and Humble Bundle varieties. I have the Steam version, myself: I’m fairly certain neither other version will attempt to eat your eyes or turn your clothes into a cloth golem while you sleep, but I obviously can’t guarantee that. So… proceed with caution, I suppose.

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Jarenth obviously can’t prove he isn’t actually a sentient clothes colony carrying around an unwilling man… save for proving his currently pantsless nature, and nobody wants to see that. If you disagree, follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

5 comments

  1. Is the currency called ‘Echoes’ because, basically, whispers in the air tell the tale of the life long gone?

    I’m disappointed you neither got eaten by a horrible zee monster nor got to eat any kings.

  2. I don’t even consider ever playing this game, because – due to extremely poor spatial sense – I can never comfortably control something with this control scheme and fixed, non-rotating camera.
    Am I alone here, or did some fans of Fallen London also complain about this?

  3. I think the expected way to learn about legacies is to die, and then ask yourself how do I get those things on the left hand side of the screen? They look nice, and then…. go look it up in a wiki, because seriously aside from going North and starting a Family, none of them are particularly obviously, and one of them most characters become unable to get from about 30 seconds into their captaincy.

    1. Also note that, at time of writing, several of the legacies are marked as ‘unable to achieve’, or something similar, when you mouse over then. Despite, as you of all people probably know, this description being an outright lie.

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