Sunless Sea – “For The Night Is Dark And Full Of Terrors”
I’m not a big PC gamer. I don’t have the patience for tweaking my PC to run many games; any games I do have aren’t the most recent releases. Since my new laptop arrived, I’ve put only a few games onto my ‘to play’ list . Then along came Steam Family Sharing. My brother has nigh on 300 games on his Steam list and I wanted to play some of them. With a bit of persuading I got him to give me access to his library.
One of the first games I downloaded was Sunless Sea. I had seen a few bits here and there about it, and it looked quite an intriguing game, mixing themes seen in Dishonored and elements from roguelikes. So I booted it up. From the get go, it’s a very melancholy game, bursting at the seams with atmosphere and mystery. I’ve been hooked since the first loading screen. You play as a Captain (or one of a few select titles and silhouettes you can choose from), forged in the bowels of Fallen London and ready to start taking on the gods of the sea. The brief snippets of lore and backstory you receive are largely down to you – have you crawled up from the gutters and are trying to retrieve your father’s long lost bones for a proper burial, or are you a former priest hell bent on writing his final masterpiece before he gets too old? Or do you not know where you came from, and remain anonymous in the busy ports and harbours that offer what little sanctuary there is?
Once you decide from where you came and what your future should hold, you are let loose on the Unterzee, a large ocean based under the ground of Earth, cavernous and full of terrors. And so you set off, with a small crew, a small ship and very limited supplies (feeds your crew) and fuel (feeds your ship). Your first tentative nautical miles will be slow and apprehensive, only going so far as the local lighthouse or haunted house. You return to Fallen London, which acts as your home port in every playthrough, restocking on fuel and supplies, chatting to the locals and preparing for another foray into the unknown. Slowly but surely you become braver and braver, venturing further afield and keeping a very close eye on your fuel levels. One misjudgment in how far from home you are, one unfortunate event, or one shout of “FULL POWER” too many and you are likely to find yourself stranded in the dark, a long way from safety and slowly starving to death. Returning to port however, allows you to recover, shop and importantly file ‘port reports’, bits of information about the ports and settlements you visit on your travels. Sometimes you’ll also come across more important information which will provide a greater reward, or goods and people to be moved around, or perhaps even a few smuggled curiosities.These reports and goods will keep you in gold (echoes), which allows you to grow your crew, refuel and improve your vessel.
So, how does the game actually play? Well, I hope you have a fair grasp of the English language (assuming you are playing the English version), as much of the game is played out in text boxes, presenting a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ game. You click on the decisions you want to make, flipping through your journal and maps to remind yourself of missions and where in the world you are. Looking down on the world, your ship is controlled with the trusty WASD keys (or the arrow ones), whilst weapons and extras can be controlled with either mouse clicks or their assigned buttons. Firing your main weapon is initially mapped to 1, whilst flinging your pet homing bat overboard (it will search the area for nearby points of interest) is set to Z, for Zeebat. Combat is fairly simple – you can’t fire until the weapon is ready and you can see the enemy. If you launch too early, you risk missing the opponent entirely. Damage to you is in the form of damage to your hull, and once you hit zero your ship sinks, taking you to the briny bottom with it.
Any death, whether from enemy attack, madness or starvation (or wrath of the gods), allows you to leave something to your offspring. This takes the form of a percentage of the stats (pages, hearts, iron, echoes or mirrors) and usually one other extra; an officer who previously served your ancestor and survived whatever killed them off, or perhaps the map made during your previous adventures. Whichever you choose to inherit, the journey begins afresh with a new captain, and new discoveries.
There is no real ‘endgame’; the win state is essentially set by you. You choose when to retire, assuming you find those bones or write that book of stories you wanted to do so long ago. You can set up a house in Fallen London, find a sweetheart and leave more than just an officer for your future captains. Or you can set sail and never return, praying to the gods that you find safe harbour when the fuel runs low. And if you find the challenge of facing death too much, you can set it to Merciful mode. This loses you captain points, and changes how the game treats you (like a wuss basically), but if you just want to see the world without dying all the time, this is perhaps the way to go.
As for the atmosphere, graphics and soundtrack, all are pretty good. Running the risks of death and madness every time you leave port makes for a very on-edge experience. One eye is kept constantly on the left of the screen where the fuel gauge, supplies and captains log are kept. The other is scanning the seas for monsters that lurk in the dark depths or in the rolling fog banks that limit your view. The constant threat of death keeps you chugging to safety, yet you know in the back of your mind that an untimely end may just be an island away. I’m not altogether sure how best to describe the art style. It reminds me of picture books and the Game of Thrones maps, with steampunk bits thrown in for good measure. A hint of the Fable (Lionhead) games and interactive/point-and-click andyou’re pretty close. It’s nothing super duper amazing but it suits the tone of the game and the drab coloration fits the futility of it all well.
On the other hand, I love the soundtrack. Hearing the haunting tunes as you steam around the Unterzee instills both terror and relief. Without the music, all you hear is the clanking and puffing of your trusty
steed ship, and nothing more. When you’re pushing the few supplies and fuel reserves to make it across the map to safe harbour, the silence of the zee multiplies the feelings of dread and doom. When the music makes an appearance, some of that fear is lifted slightly as you drift into reach of a bed for the night and a chance of survival. Many of the larger settlements have their own theme, my favourite of which so far is the theme for Fallen London. 2 parts merry and welcoming, yet with an undertone of despair, it matches the joys of surviving another day at sea but knowing you’ll be back again soon. It’s just a shame that the tracks have been blocked on youtube – the soundtrack isn’t out yet (it’s supposedly coming).
Sunless Sea is perhaps one of my favourite games in my entire collection now. The mix of horror, Lovecraftian themes and the unknown satisfies the thrill seeker part of me, whilst the rest of me is happy to explore and push my own boundaries in the world. I haven’t explored the whole map yet, but in time will have a ship capable of doing so. The slight changes to the map with each new captain leaves enough mystery and makes the difficulty of each game different, giving more of a reason to return to the caverns of the Unterzee. The only thing stopping me is my own desire to survive and perhaps the fact I can’t play when my brother is on Steam. To all those who liked Dishonored, who like roguelikes and who want to sail the seven seas I heartily recommend this. If you aren’t convinced, do seek out a video or two before you start a life on the ocean waves.
The images used in this review are in order: Sunless Sea title taken from Sunless Sea’s Steam Page, Screenshot taken by Khinjarsi, Screenshot taken by Khinjarsi and a screenshot taken by Khinjarsi. Any images other than screenshots were found using Google Search and do not belong to her.