Thirty years ago, the city of London was stolen by bats. Now it’s in the Unterzee, that dark ocean below the Earth’s surface, and you’re a zee captain, sailing from port to port.
Sunless Sea is a Steam game that started as a browser game called Fallen London. You can still play Fallen London for free here. The universe is the same, but the characters you play and the storylines you follow are separate. I recommend you check out Fallen London (why not? It’s free!) and make an account, but this review is dealing entirely with Sunless Sea.
You’re a zee captain, but many details of your character are up to you. You choose a name, an icon to represent yourself, a background (street urchin, poet, war vet, excommunicated priest), a goal (find and bury your father’s bones, compose a masterpiece, become wealthy, or found your own kingdom), and a form of address (my lady, my lord, ma’am, sir, citizen, and captain). The background and goal give you bonuses to various skills, which will help you in your quests. Rather than the typical set of skills—strength, perception, stamina, etc—the available skills are veils, mirrors, hearts, iron, and pages. Your background also gives you different starting officers on your ship, each of whom have their own goals.
For the most part, the game is text based. You have an aerial view of your ship, and you can sail it throughout the map. When you come across an enemy such as a sea monster or another ship, you can fight it by waiting for your guns to charge up, then clicking. Music cues tell you when you’re approaching different sections of the map. But other than that, all the plot advancement in the game comes from text and drawings.
The choices you make can give you benefits or drawbacks which can take effect much later in the game. At one point I had a sweetheart back in London. While I was out at zee, one of my zailors was terrified of a white bat that had landed on the ship. I shot the bat in front of my silent crew, and the game informed me that I had incurred the wrath of Salt, one of the three (four?) gods of the Unterzee. Weeks later in game, I returned to London to find that my sweetheart had died mysteriously while I was away, and Salt’s curse disappeared.
One thing that the game reminds you early and often is that you will die, most likely more than once. I’m on my seventh captain now. While zailing around the zee, you need to keep track of your fuel, your supplies, and your terror levels. If you run out of fuel while away from a port, your ship will be dead in the water, and you’ll most likely drown if you don’t have supplies to burn. If you run out of supplies, your crew will have nothing to eat. They’ll start to eat the rats on the ship, and then, eventually, they’ll start to eat each other. I’m not ashamed to say that I ate five of my crew members throughout my most recent play-through. Or…maybe I should be ashamed of that. As your terror approaches 100, your crew members will start to commit suicide, and eventually the remaining ones will mutiny.
Death is not always the end. You can choose how you were related to the previous captain, and what benefits you get out of that. If you amass enough money in the game, you can even write a will and provide for your next character.
The atmosphere of the game is steampunk horror. You are zailing a zee that is in pitch blackness, and the only thing keeping you safe and sane is the lantern on the front of your ship. Sometimes luminous creatures like eyeless dolphins will play in your wake. Other times, you’ll hear a distant scream, far away. Most merchants deal in coins (or echos, as they’re called in the game), but some deal in stories or memories or souls. Sanity is a very precious and tenuous thing. This game is not for the faint of heart (or the squeamish).
It’s a bit frustrating how easily you can die. My most recent captain was around for over a year in-game, and only died because I wasn’t keeping an eye on the terror levels and was in a section of the map that was exceptionally frightening. Fuel and supply prices are extortionate if you’re anywhere but London, and it’s very easy to blow through all your money. The easiest way to get money is to return to London and turn in reports to the Admiralty, but if you’re far across the sea, that’s not much of a help. Many ports don’t offer fuel or supplies at all. You can get along for a little while if you run out of supplies, especially if you can kill a sea creature and butcher it, but that will kill you eventually too. If you stumble across a sea creature or pirate that’s too high level to kill, you can turn off your ship light and hope it doesn’t spot you, but terror starts rising quickly as soon as the ship light turns off. Mostly this means you have to return to London a lot more frequently that you want to, and make sure to conserve fuel and supplies where possible.
It’s an enjoyable game, but not for those who are hoping for fast paced action and fancy graphics, or who would be put off by having to start nearly from scratch with every death. Admittedly you can set it to an easier mode, but the game urges you not to. If you like an interactive story with a unique setting, however, this is the game for you. I believe I bought this for $9.99 on a Steam sale. Right now it’s running at $18.99, but I might consider it worth it at that price, too. Highly recommended.