Platforms: PC, Mac, Steam | Developer/Publisher: Failbetter Games | ESRB: Unrated
Sometime around 2008-2009 Failbetter Games created a choose-your-own-adventure style browser game known as Echo Bazaar, which was eventually renamed to Fallen London. The basis of the game relied on a tool-set they created known as the StoryNexus, which allowed for the roll-out of new content within their game from creators and players alike. Fallen London is one of several large cities to have been taken by this Echo Bazaar, a being of Lovecraftian stylings, into a subterranean underworld. The dark depths of this imaginary London are surrounded by an ocean known as the Unterzee, filled with many a mysterious island and monstrous beings which patrol the many channels between them. Here the sub-terrestrial surroundings see various oddities: the undead, golems, demons and humans alike – all just a little bit closer to the mouth of Hell.
In 2013 Failbetter decided to take their idea beyond the scope of the web and create Sunless Sea – a game focused on exploration and survival from the deck of a ship navigating through the Unterzee waters. The developer set a modest goal of £60,000 and raised just over £100,000. They promised a “glorious 2d” world as players “explore a vast underground ocean in your customized steamship”. The title spent time in Early Access for the second half of 2014 and after a slight delay released in early February 2015. It has received mostly positive feedback critically and features a ‘very positive’ rating currently on Steam. This is because the game largely fulfills it’s Kickstarter goals and created a title built on the back of an already thriving virtual world. However this isn’t a game for everyone and there are issues – critical enough that could preclude enjoyment of the game for some. So let’s look at the where it shines… and where it struggles.
“The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” – Joseph Conrad
Sunless Sea is a war of attrition… only you’re not doing the fighting. The Zee is fighting you — slowly ebbing away at your precious resources until you and your crew are hopeless and succumb to the murky depths. We open with the quote seen above, and a call to take risks as we explore. It also informs us that we will probably die, but that “Later captains may succeed”. This is because the game has the Rogue Legacy-esque mechanic of passing on a “legacy” to the next captain. We’ll get to that more in a bit though. We begin by generating a history and a goal for captain — one of three preset “end game” scenarios to aim for. Our journey begins from the harbor of Fallen London; setting out in our tiny and excruciatingly slow ship.
These first 10-15 minutes are where the game really captures your attention. The graphics are simple, but they establish an immediate mood and style, inter-mingled with sparse music and sound effects that fully embrace the gloom of the lighting system and story. There is much text to be read and your log book at the lower left corner of the screen will fill the spaces in-between – giving you clues to surrounding islands, enemies and the mood of your crew. The light from your deck cuts through the foreboding darkness and fog, illuminating your path. However it’s also a beacon for nearby enemies so it can be toggled off – resulting in an alarming increase in your terror rating. Too long exposed to the horrors of the Zee, and a maxed terror rating, will result in grave consequences. This resource is usually the least of your worries — the fuel and supplies bars above it in the upper left of screen are much more important.
As you traverse the cloudy extents of the Unterzee you will receive echoes, the currency of the game, for both discovery of islands as well as goods, along with their transport and sale to other ports. Each island which has a port will often have a story to tell, cargo to transport or deliver, or some sort of event. Events themselves are often treated as items for later usage — for instance a scary story heard at a port tavern could translate into ‘1x Tale of Terror’ gained, which can then in-turn be told or used elsewhere in the game. There are people to meet and carry out quests for and even those who would join your crew, providing specific upgrades to your vessel along the way. However the goal is always the return to Fallen London, and the calming effect it has on your crew (along with the chance to purchase more fuel and supplies).
The trouble here for some will be the pacing. It is a slow, plodding discovery of what really is an interesting and deep world. I worry that many will be turned off long before they start feeling comfortable with how to play the game. The bulk of your echoes will be earned from quests, but there will be many times where you are simply picking up minute amounts of currency for exploration. You will struggle to return to your home docks and you most definitely will run out of fuel and or supplies at some point. My first run at the game saw my hungry crew devour a fellow shipmate — by the time two had been eaten, my captain gave in and joined the feast, only to succumb to the deep, dark waters moments later.
Once you’ve died you begin life as a new heir, picking one of the goals and a short background again. The trouble is, if you only made it 10-20 or even 30 minutes in to the game you probably didn’t have enough in the way of resources to successfully pass anything on. So you are back with slowest ship, the weakest weapons for your vessel and no officers for your crew. Your resources are really stretched here. Fuel and supplies are an absolute necessary if you are to undertake the risk of exploring further from your home port. The more you explore, the more likely you are to need a reinforced or even a bigger ship. Ships provide pseudo FTL-like slot construction: lamps for vision – deck, aft and auxiliary weapons (in the starting ship, it expands further with larger vessels) – engines (movement speed) – along with irons (attack damage), and mirrors (detection and firing speed) which are derived from various pickups, purchases and crew member bonuses.
To be able to pass any of this on, certain achievements must be met in-game, such as creating a “Ironclad Will” for instance. A will will cost you a fair bit of echoes along with a quest item in order to pass along a town-home lodging to your heir (which also cost quite a few echoes to buy). There are a lot of resources to manage here and gaining them comes at a glacial pace in the early goings of the game. When it works though, it’s very rewarding, and risk is the only way to achieve anything. Many times I found myself in a new quadrant of the map, my lamps turned off, as my heavily damaged hull tries to avoid lurking foes, slowly chugging to a new port, hoping to find enough reward to restock a fuel or food supply reaching its end.
I don’t know if there is truly an end to Sunless Sea, but success definitely comes in stages. I currently find myself at a point where I have filled out my officers, I have a will and home, as well as upgraded main weapons and an engine to pair with it. My plan was to soon upgrade to a bigger ship… but I took on 12 undead passengers, whose wish it was to tour the Unterzee. As we approach our third and hopefully final destination on that journey, our supplies are dangerously low, our ship’s damage at 50% from a school of jellyfish-like assailants and our home waters off of Fallen London lie many a nautical mile away. It doesn’t look good, but at least I’ll have a legacy to pass on this time… though my wife and son were both lost to pirates.
I just hope other players have the patience to get to the point where they can appreciate a story like that, and all that the world of Fallen London has to offer. There’s lots to appreciate here, great descriptions, interesting characters and mechanics that can be improved just enough to not hinder the experience – if you can get past the initial grind. The use of StoryNexus system also promises to help the game to continue to expand with more lord and quests over time. Since the *ahem* length of games has been such a overblown topic of late, maybe people can take the time to explore the Sunless Sea.
PC Review copy provided by Failbetter Games.