A punishing, yet rewarding, story-driven game with a unique setting.
I've always been drawn to dark stories. Perhaps that is why, when I came across a game instructing me to lose my mind and eat my crew, I had to add it to my steam library.
Sunless Sea, a dark, Victorian-inspired game by Failbetter Games, didn't disappoint; within an hour of playing, my first captain was dead. But in Sunless Sea, death is not the end. In fact, the game encourages you to explore as far as possible, and to accept whatever chance throws your way. The death of your first captain only marks the beginning of a legacy; some captains may die quickly due to lack of fuel or food, while others may fulfil their ambitions and retire in a luxurious manor in Fallen London.
The game's story is mostly text-based and often relies on the player travelling between islands in the Unterzee to advance quest lines, though many of these islands have their own internal quest lines that can be completed without leaving port. The setting really makes the game what it is—it's Victorian London, but with a dark twist, and perhaps the most enjoyable aspects of the game is exploring this sunken world and uncovering its mysteries. While the story is almost completely told through text, the game includes stunning visuals that give each island its own unique personality.
Exploration is also a huge aspect of this game, and is highly rewarded; each island or place of interest that you discover grants experience, which accumulates into secrets. These secrets can be sold, traded or used in quests. Furthermore, you can survey islands and sell reports to the Admiralty to earn money and favours.
The expansion, Zubmariner, adds another layer to the already large map, allowing you to travel beneath the Unterzee and explore additional underwater islands. These islands are as unique as those in the base game, each with its own history and stories. Along with new zee-monsters, the expansion also adds a new ambition with new, interesting characters.
There are a few shortcomings in the game; the combat is difficult to get used to and often feels clumsy, especially when you start the game and can't afford to upgrade your ship or weapons. The exploration, while rewarding, can become tedious after a while if you're travelling between the same few islands for quests or trade. However, these issues are relatively minor, as the world and story are what really drive this game.
The game is often punishing, especially when you first start playing; it's easy to accidentally run out of fuel or food if you don't keep a close eye on supplies, and having a decent stockpile of money is important for long journeys, as your hold limit will likely mean that you can't carry enough food and fuel to last the entire journey, and will have to buy them outside of Fallen London, usually at extortionate prices. It is also easy to be killed by pirates or zee-monsters, or to meet your untimely end exploring ruins without the proper provisions. There are many ways to die in Sunless Sea, and finding them is an enjoyable part of the game.
The game's challenges make your successes feel truly rewarding. When you save up enough to buy a house in Fallen London, you feel like you've really earned it. When you work your way up in the Admiralty's ranks, you really have worked for it. Knowing how easy it is to make a mistake and die makes you appreciate everything that you achieve.
In my 50 hours of playing, I feel like I have still experienced so little of the game. I still haven't completed an ambition, though I have eaten my crew, had an affair with one of my officers, and sold my soul to a monkey across the Zee. This game really is a gem, and with a base price of only £13.99 it is definitely worth the money.