That’s Sunless Sea‘s tagline, the reason I was pretty much certain I had to play it. I’ve been quite pleased with my decision.
The game puts you in the role of a ship captain in the dark, sewer-y “underzee” of Fallen London, a steampunk dystopia sunken below the earth (also a rather good browser game). If you’ve ever played PC classic Sid Meier’s Pirates, think that only gross, sludgy, wretchedly demented, and spectacularly well-written.
Sunless Sea is a place in which candles glow dimly and lives are snuffed out by the faintest of breaths. Disease and doom lurk around every corner, and also under the putrid green water, in ramshackle cove cities, aboard pirate ships, and — oh, this one’s pretty important — atop floating glass sea mountains that will chase you until you’re dead. Even the bats want to kill you. They’re really terrible at it, but you gotta give ’em credit for determination.
This place is positively drenched in death and the macabre. There are things called “Tomb Colonies,” for crying out loud. It’s not, like, oppressively depressing, though. At the heart of it all, residents of Fallen London and its surrounding isles are still people, human beings with hopes and dreams and really fascinating stories to tell. The point of the game is to collect their stories — which are brief but, again, brilliantly written — and send them back to your home as intel.
These stories are also weird as all get-out, but I can’t stop seeking out new ones. They’re often equal parts weighty and humorous, stories of life persisting in a place sick with the stench of decay. I want to sink my teeth into this world, even if — more often than not — it has every intention of biting back. Hard.
All of that smartly ties in to the way the game plays. Sunless Sea‘s world is full of death, and so are its mechanics. By default Sunless Sea treats every death as a permanent end to a character’s journeys. As you roam the open seas (discovering and doing whatever strikes your fancy), you will almost certainly suffer a number of gruesome fates, whether due to monster, your crew going mad from fear, or simple starvation.
However, each old character can pass a trait onto a new character, whether it’s a map, a crew mate, or a skill. So you don’t entirely start over, per se. There’s progress, creaky and waterlogged though it might be.
And this is neither here nor there, but my character has tentacles for hair. A face not even a Medusa could love. That is another trait I’ve taken to passing from character to character, because of course.
That in mind, let’s dive right into some of the horrible ways I’ve died.
- Failed to fully grasp ship controls and rammed into walls until I sunk (that was embarrassing).
- Giant crab.
- A slow, bobbing white mass — almost tumour-like in appearance — called a “lifeberg” approached me. “Huh, wonder what that thing’s deal is?” I thought to myself as I slowed my steam engines to meet it. I was presented with two options: fight or flee. My chances of escaping were basically zero. And the combat option’s description? “Lifebergs can maybe be defeated… in theory.” Fuck. One brief card-game-ish battle later, I was lifeberg chow.
- Giant-er crab.
- I decided I would voyage to the northernmost point in the world. I would see The End, and I would gaze into its maelstrom and cackle into the gushing eye of madness. In part because Sunless Sea is still an Early Access game and not content complete, I succeeded! However, I hobbled across the figurative finish line with no food, a mutinying crew, and just enough fuel to take me to the foot of a massive glacier… thing. And you know what I found? Nothing. At the end of the world I found nothing. AT WHAT COST, etc.
- On the upside, I’m learning. For instance, I saw something called “Nomad, the glass mountain that eats ships” closing on my tail rapidly, and you’d better believe I ordered my crew to put us full speed ahead in the NOPE direction. Miraculously I survived despite the fact that Nomad is rather sprightly for a goddamn mountain.
- Then I got killed by the biggest fucking crab I’ve ever seen.
There are so many fascinating sights and characters to encounter between deaths, though. I don’t want to spoil them for you, but just know that this is some seriously gripping, oftentimes strange writing. You will feel things, and you will not be entirely sure how to feel about what you’re feeling.
So all of that’s good, but — at least based on the handful of hours I’ve spent with it so far — Sunless Sea still needs serious work in a couple areas. For one, combat is kind of a drag. Once you learn encounters, you can win a lot of them by queuing up attacks and waiting for meters to fill up. That gets tedious pretty quickly.
Sunless Sea also sometimes feels at odds with itself. For instance, it’s rather hard to break even and, you know, survive — let alone turn a profit — and before long you’re kinda forced to make a choice between base survival (i.e. not dying because you ran out of food/fuel) and experiencing this place to its fullest.
Trading items you’ve found in your journeys doesn’t really offset the price of essential supplies very well, and new locations let you take a gamble on getting lots of supplies or hearing a new story (which nets you less in terms of a tangible reward), but rarely both. So when it’s down to the wire, which do you choose? To explore until you inevitably go down with your ship or to cling desperately to your meager life, even if that means not really playing the game in the most enjoyable way possible? These mechanics work against each other instead of together, and that’s a shame.
Sunless Sea is still a great collusion of player stories and a wonderfully realised world, though. It’s a horrifyingly interesting place — an in-progress trainwreck you can’t stop watching, one that stares back the entire time — and I’m still really digging it so far. Meanwhile, updates appear to be coming relatively frequently, and the game has a very active, usually quite helpful community. Check it out for yourself on Steam.