Loading up the vast, gothic, narrative heavy, rogue-like-(like-like?) adventure Sunless Sea for the first time is like walking into a room full of people laughing about a joke you didn’t hear and no one can stop chuckling long enough to fill you in. It’s confusing and a tad frustrating at first. The thing about laughter and Sunless Sea, as this painful analogy will soon point out, is that it’s infectious and you don’t need to have heard the punch line to end up laughing along too.
London has fallen. “The bats have taken it” and the British capital has sunk below the surface of the world and rested on the shores of the “Unterzee”, a subterranean body of water. In Sunless Sea you play the role of a steamship captain who sets sail to find adventure/a fortune/the fate of your father/immortality and more. The first unique aspect of this game is that you set your own success criteria. The player decides on what their aim for the game will be when creating a character and this choice has deep rooted effects on your experience with the game. So too does the choices you’ve made about what kind of captain you are. Your background – choosing between a hand full of options ranging from Street Urchin or poet to combat veteran and disgraced priest – determines your starting stats, wealth and first crew member. It’s a mind boggling experience the first time you craft your captain but after a few failed ventures onto the Unterzee, everything starts to make sense and the numbers start to have meaning.
And there will be more than one “Create-a-captain” during your time with Sunless Sea because the dark, nautical gothic, cavernous world in which you’re about to explore is fraught with danger. Pirates, sea-monsters, hostile islands and more are waiting to sink you to the inky depths below – if hunger doesn’t get to you first. Sunless Sea has rogue-like elements too it; with each death begins a new adventure with a new captain who carries forth a share of what you earned in your previous play through. What you carry forward is down to you, the player. You can take a weapon, if you’d managed to acquire an especially expensive and useful one, a crew member, your map of discoveries, 50% of a chosen stat and more – but you can’t take them all through to the next attempt. Each death feels like a loss, but they can make each subsequent attempt that little bit easier if the right decisions are made.
Sunless Sea often feels like 2 different games seamlessly spliced together. Out on open zee, you move your ship through the top down environments exploring uncharted territory, un-fogging a map while trying to stay alive by having enough food (which is consumed over time) to feed your crew and enough fuel (consumed as you move) to keep you going. You’ll fight sea beasties and other ships in tense but simplistic combat that involves keeping your target within an indicated area and firing once your weapons are ready to unload while avoiding damage where possible. It’s nothing new but it’s almost always a little fraught with at least one decreasing gauge causing you a concern at a time, at least until you upgrade your ship and crew by grinding out some repetitive trade routes.
It’s when you reach a port does the other part of the game – a choose-your-own-adventure novel crossed with a table top game – come to the fore. On land, you’re presented by reams of text and a myriad of choices to make which affect your stats, fortune, resources and Terror (a measure of the sh!t you’ve seen on your journey without counteracting the physiological effects this has on you and your crew) and allow you to progress quests. Heading down to a beach to take a walk can result in you sharing horror stories with a homeless man who then robs you of food or fuel. Stopping off at a port can get you dragged into a war between 2 rodent civilisations and your decisions can help shape a developing nation. Or not. You can dine with mysterious sisters who might bring you to the attention of the gods of the Underzee (which may or may not exist depending on how much faith you, the player, has) and alter your fate. What you can and can’t achieve at these destinations are decided by your stats and possessions, riches and resources, luck and, much like a table top game, an unseen role of the dice. Some actions might be risky if you’ve not got great stats in a certain area. Others will be a sure thing. Every conversation in Sunless Sea might have consequences or might be just to add flavour but you’re never quite sure which is true until you’ve made your choices. Either way, it truly feels like you’re forging your own path through a choose-you-own adventure book with your own choice of ending.
It’s the writing and tone of Sunless Sea that’s most impressive. There’s this grim oppressive feeling and noire humour that permeates every line of text, every item you pick up, every quest you receive and every person you meet. Nothing is safe, even the most seemingly harmless of conversations, and there’s often a dark twist in the tail for those few positive quest lines that thread through the game. The descriptive language used paints vivid imagery despite only being accompanied by the occasional ink coloured image and the quiet moments of travel give you time to digest and stew on these. It’s a game packed full of character that’s bought to life in little more than fantastically crafted pasages. It’s no surprise that Sunless Sea has won a number of awards for its writing, including a nomination for Best Writing in a Video Game from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.
Sunless Sea originally released on the PC back in 2015 and it’s a game that requires quite of different inputs. In that regard, I’d always considered the game to be best suited to a keyboard but BlitWorks, partnered with Failbetter Games, have done a very competent job of translating the game to the PS4 control pad. The default control scheme isn’t naturally intuitive and take a little getting used too but before long, you’ll be altering speeds and taking shots like a grizzled sailing veteran.
The Zubmariner edition of Sunless Sea released on the PS4 comes complete with the Zubmariner expansion which is more of a late game add on than immediately accessible content. Once you’ve managed to access your “Zub” you can then submerge yourself into the depths of the “Neath” and explore the “Zeebed”. Your trusty bat scout (which, in the traditional game, scouts out locations to visit) is replaced by a sonar blast and there’s new beasties to blast but other than that, it’s more of the same – but when “the same” is as high a quality as the base game, it’s an excellent addition.
Sunless Sea released on the PS4 on 28th of August 2018 and it has taken till now, more than 2 weeks later, for me to “finish” the game. And despite the fact that I’ve “finished” it, I hardly feel like I’ve done any such thing. Sunless Sea is the kind of vast game that I don’t think I’d ever feel “finished” with, despite the clunky combat and periods of repetition. Each new venture forth onto the Unterzee threw up new barriers, challenges, test and quests right up until your chosen end point. Fresh dialogue, cutthroat and darkly funny, popped up from new successes and old failures with each new captain taking the mantle from the previous who had sunk to the depths below. Sunless Sea is an almost impenetrable experience at first. Explanations of the lore, the world, and your place in it are in short supply but over time, you live, die and learn, rewarding those that stick with it with some of the slickest, well implemented writing in gaming.
Sunless Sea is available now on PC, iOS and PS4 (Review version)
Developer: Failbetter Games / BlitWorks
Publisher: Failbetter Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a review copy of the game. Please see our review policy for more information.