Like most plans on this site, I was going to put together a “Games I wished I’d Played” list. Then I messed it up by going and, well, playing those games. So here is the first of a few belated 2015 reviews.
Now let’s talk about Sunless Sea.
The world and lore in Sunless Sea comes from Failbetter Games’ original title Fallen London. I stumbled upon Fallen London in 2014 when I was waiting on a shunt surgery and was having trouble with any game with lights and movement, i.e. all of them. Fallen London is a free browser roleplaying game that takes place in a dystopian Lovecraftian London. You create a character, talk to people, and go through stories based on choice, RNG, and skill checks. Sunless Sea takes all of this and adds ship combat, survival skills, and cannibalism.
It’s kind of the best.
I’ll start with character creation. You don’t do much. First name your character and pick an avatar. Then pick your ambition; this dictates if you have won the game. Search for your father’s bones, gain riches, or explore the world. Last pick your past. Whether you choose a poet, veteran, or priest, each provides a different initial stat boost.
Stats, you say? Are there skill trees? Experience? Unimaginable wealth?
But your odds improve with RNG. Let’s be honest. Unless you are out sailing, this game plays like a choose-your-own-adventure novel on plutonium. Pick sides in wars between mice and guinea pigs. Sneak human souls past Fallen London’s customs—if you can. Barter with a gorilla mayor. It’s all up to you.
Sunless Sea breaks modern conventions, reinventing older ones instead. All these events happen through text and RNG. Make choices and use stats such as Hearts, Mirrors, and Veils (I know, nothing in this game is normal) to try and succeed. Think a tabletop RPG with less flexibility.
Then you get to the more modern part of the game. To travel from place to place, you captain your upgradable ship around, manned by officers you recruit and supported by crew you hire in Fallen London. Stock the hold with fuel, supplies, and nefarious wares. Your map starts off looking like the cartographer spill ink all over the page, and you must fill it out through exploration and a lot of patience. The ship has two speeds—molasses and maple syrup—and it takes many real world minutes to sail between ports. Fortunately finding each new area is rewarding for several reasons. By discovering new places, you advance the plot, uncover moneymaking opportunities, and find different stories that you use as currency. The people, animals, and creatures at each port are willing to trade goods and information for tidbits from other lands. Traveling lets you learn secrets, find treasure, and slowly discover the details of the world. The only way to win is to keep finding new places to make progress finishing your current ambition.
Now I’ve been keeping something from you. This game is a roguelike, meaning I died three times in my first two hours of playing. To stay alive you must keep your crew fed and your ship fueled. You must avoid getting wounded and keep your ship from getting destroyed. You must survive random encounters such as mutiny and the wrath of the gods. For a game that at its core is a text adventure, Sunless Sea asks a lot of the player’s survival skills and ability to plan and prioritize. If you get caught too far from home waters with a dwindling crew and no fuel or supplies, you better have eleven different back-up plans.
If none of your hopes and dreams pan out and you end up dying at sea, you have a couple of choices to make from the afterlife. If you got far enough in the game to own real estate and write a will, your property transfers to your next captain. There are also several legacies you can leave for your next character depending on what you did in the game. None of these are mutually exclusive. Unlike the legacies, you can only choose one “Warrants of Redemption”. This decides what stats, supplies, and officers roll over to your next playthrough.
Pro tip: always choose the Correspondent warrant. It lets your map roll over all the areas you explored and without having the map randomized the port’s locations. Exploration is painstaking for your first few captains, so it helps ease the pain of death that you will at least know where you are going when travelling the next time around.
Now after all of this talk about death, let’s talk about winning. I’ll be honest. I have played thirty hours of Sunless Sea, and I have yet to win. I came close once, but then there was a mutiny aboard my ship, killing me and sinking my ship. Completing your ambition takes a long time since they all require many hours of sailing. The only way you can end the game without dying is by retiring in Fallen London. If you find your father’s bones or whatever you set out to do and retire, that’s considered a win. If you feel satisfied with a run or are ready to start over, you can still retire; it’s considered a draw. Even if you succeed and complete your ambition but die at sea before retiring, that’s a loss.
So play carefully, win slowly, and die strategically.
Like I said, nothing about this game is normal. Thank goodness.