Exploration of magnificent proportions.
It’s always a pleasure to see something fresh and unique in the video game industry. I’ve spoken before about the trending of video games and how it may lead to a decline. That doesn’t stop various developers, indie and mainstream, from attempting to create something different, something memorable. Sunless Sea is one such attempt from indie developer Failbetter Games, and it lives and dies by its strengths and weaknesses. The question is: which is the stronger half?
Sunless Sea and its Zubmariner DLC features a top down display, leaving you at the helm of a vessel. Your job is to explore the uncharted waters away from your home of Fallen London. On your voyages, you’ll meet myriad strange characters, ship mascots, friends, foes, and monsters alike. The game has a very Lovecraftian vibe to it, and the dark scenery and visuals really enhance the eeriness of the game. You create your character to your own liking, choosing his/her characteristics; the game warns you outright that your first captain most likely won’t survive the sea.
From there, you’re off. You can choose to lollygag around London, but there isn’t much to be done in your first moments of the game – except set sail. The entirety of the narrative and dialogue is presented through your log book, which is evident from the beginning of the game. I reveled in this set up, as it provided a novel-esque experience that I’ve found to be lacking in recent years. And when I say novel, I truly mean it. The written content of Sunless Sea is as expansive as its enormous map. Seriously, I played the game for hours and only carved out a tiny chunk of the map. But with each conversation or quest or visit, you’re given oodles of dialogue, exposition, and more to learn from. Unfortunately, if you’re not much of a reader, this game will probably bloat and sink before it sets sail.
Still, if you do enjoy the thrill of the read, Sunless Sea offers up some addicting gameplay that feeds off the player’s curiosity. I, myself, particularly enjoyed sailing the dark waters, eager to visit a newly discovered landmass or battle a giant crab monster. Gameplay is quite simple, too, so it doesn’t take much to become immersed in the game. You control your vessel with the A and D keys, while the W and S keys control your engine output, or speed. Utilizing the F button sends your engines into an overdrive, which vastly enhances your speed (allowing me to escape from a few terrifying monsters), but it has the chance of causing an explosion. The L key runs as an option to turn your vessel’s lights on and off, which will help you navigate your enemies, assuming you don’t want to do battle.
If you’re aggressive or unfortunately seen, you can commence battle by pressing the E button (which is also the dock button when near a dock). To begin the game, your vessel has one cannon attack that requires a brief cooldown to fire. Clicking the icon – much like an MMO or a RTS – will fire the weapon and re-start the cooldown. For something so simple, the game spaces out combat enough to keep it fresh and entertaining. Not only this, but the game offers up a variety of enemies, including (but not limited to) enemy vessels, small sea creatures, and Cthulu-esque beasts.
For me, however, exploring the massive world of Sunless Sea was my favorite aspect of the game. Stumbling into new ports and having a beer with the local (while, subsequently, learning from them) or exploring the terrain brought such life to Sunless Sea that I haven’t seen in most games of the past decade. And the game does it all with a few images and mostly text. This world, too, is enhanced by the Lovecraftian creatures and the fear they spawn. Your crew has a fear meter, which rises or falls based on any number of actions (sailing with your light off or running into a particularly creepy scene on a newly charted territory, for example) and can cause havoc on board your vessel. Certain scenarios unlock or lock based on your fear level, and the large number of narrative routes you can explore feels as endless as the sea. With my particularly first officer, I couldn’t really persuade or battle many people on land (I ended up offering advice to rat people in their little civil war), but my ability to piece together mysteries or do research was nearly immaculate.
For the sake of this review, I ran through with a few officers. The way the game builds on itself is a wonderful feat, but the whole experience is so massive that it’s difficult to contain it all within this review. Yet every return home to Fallen London brought forth new requests or shady business deals, and those, in turn, sent me back to the endless sea. For $18.99, the base game appears expensive, but if this is a style of game you enjoy, the possibility for gameplay feels endless, and it certainly will gobble up an enormous number of hours. There aren’t many negative aspects of Sunless Sea.
The weakest of said aspects really only include the drawn visuals. Gameplay aesthetics in Sunless Sea are neat and fit the atmosphere of the game perfectly. For any fans of Lovecraft, the dark and eerie setting is necessary. My biggest complaint in Sunless Sea was its almost childish visuals; in particular, the character drawings felt dropped out of a Saturday morning cartoon from my childhood. For a game that revolves around the dark and mysterious sea and its vicious creatures, the characters looked something out, say, Ben 10.
On the whole, however, Sunless Sea far surpassed any expectations I had laid out prior. The rich lore and exposition of its game play and narrative intertwine with its massive map to create a powerful web of content. To add to that, the method in which the game is structured allows the player to experience hours of content; and this isn’t your random claim of ‘at least thirty hours of gameplay!’ No–this is actual hours of exploration, battle, tragedy, and new beginnings. Sunless Sea may be one of the best indie games I’ve played all year, if not ever. I highly recommend trying this one if you feel brave enough to pony up $20 and face the frightening entities that lurk beneath the sea.