With the current COVID-19 pandemic occurring at the time of this writing, it seemed appropriate to take a look at some games that prominently feature the end of the world as we know it, or at least the post-apocalyptic landscape of the time after. In this installment, we will be looking at Sunless Sea by Failbetter Games released for the computer in February 2015. It was later released for the Playstation 4 in 2018 and Nintendo Switch in 2020, but this review was done with the PC version.
In an alternate history, during the Victorian era, the city of London was stolen by demonic bats and transported to the Unterzee, a subterranean realm with a sea (or, Zee in this game world) populated by giant monsters. The apocalypse here may not be worldwide, but at least happened to London, which in many ways was the center of a lot of the world at the time. The game starts thirty years after the city, now referred to as Fallen London, was stolen.
When starting the game, you can either choose to build a character by selecting options for his past, or choose Shadowy Past to jump into the game immediately, and your past will get created during play. Your past impacts your main objective in the game and your starting abilities. After creating your character, you find yourself in Fallen London with a very brief introduction to the world.
Fortunately, you do start with a journal that explains the basics of playing the game. After that you are pretty much on your own to figure out how to survive in this dark and dangerous world. You likely won’t survive too long on your first few attempts at the game, unless you are playing off a guide.
A lot of the game is about exploring and trying to figure out how the world works. The map starts off completely blank, outside of Fallen London, and you have to find various ports and places of interest. The actual mechanics of the game are a combination of a mercantile simulator, where you can buy and sell good to make a profit, and a story where you have a few choices and sometimes must pass rolls against a certain stat.
There are five attributes in the game: Irons, Mirrors, Veils, Pages, and Hearts. Irons increases damage from your ship in combat, and impact combat success in port based story encounters. Mirrors is your skill in perception, which impacts how quickly you can get a firing solution in combat. Veils is your skill in stealth, impacting how well you can avoid sea monsters or pirates’ notice. Pages is your knowledge attribute, which impacts how quickly you gain increases in skill. Hearts helps you deal with the terror of the sea.
The sea is dark and full of terrors. Therefore, while out in the darkness of the Zee, your terror level will slowly increase. You can mitigate this via light buoys that can be found around the map and near most shores. Various events ashore, like drinking in a tavern, often decrease the terror level.
Your abilities can be increased through finding and recruiting officers, by some events, and by purchasing upgrades for your ship. However, some equipment also drops some stats, such as buying big lights for your bridge improves Mirrors while lowering Veils. You can also spend Secrets, which are a stand-in for levels, through speaking with the officers that you have recruited to increase a specific stat related to that officer’s expertise. You earn fragments, which are essentially experience points, that combine into Secrets by completing quests and finding locations.
Combat at sea is the only other real component to the game. Your weapons will slowly lock on to an enemy target that is within your weapons’ range, seen as the red arc in the screenshot below. Most ships have forward-facing guns, so getting behind them is the best place to attack. That being said, fleeing hostile ships is often more sensible than trying to take them on in battle when just getting started.
Sunless Sea is a fairly slow-paced game. Movement is not particularly speedy across the map and there are a lot of unclear quests for you to figure out. The music is well done and with varied tracks, but generally helps build a sense of solitude in a vast dark sea. There are also minimal sound effects, but the little there are fit well with the game.
The game is also fairly dark in tone, and definitely not for younger children. That and it’s also fairly easy for things to go wrong, especially if you are new to the game. You can run out of food or fuel, sea monsters can destroy your ship, or your terror can get too high and you go insane. When starting over, you get to inherit something from your deceased captain, making the next attempt at the game slightly easier.
Overall, I would give Sunless Sea a solid “B” rating, or 7.5/10 stars. If you enjoy gothic horror-themed games and don’t mind a slow pace, then you might like this title. Fans of the Fallen London universe, which consists of a couple of other games, or the old Uncharted Waters trading games may be the target audience. Otherwise, you may want to pass on this game that’s heavily about atmosphere and story.