“Sunless Sea” is a very, very strange game (but in a good way). It struck me as a cross between Sid Meier’s Pirates and Elder Sign…it’s like the former in the sense that you can explore/visit ports and engage in activities while it’s like the latter in the sense that it features “terror” and Lovecraft-style monsters. Sound like fun? That’s because it is, though it has a bit of a learning curve. Before I get ahead of myself here, I’d like to quickly thank the folks at Failbetter Games for providing me with a free press copy.
At its very heart, “Sunless Sea” is an exploration game. You’ll be guiding a nautical craft around the Victorian Gothic universe of Fallen London while trying to make echoes (money) and not be eaten by giant crabs (or whatever else make be lurking under the water). The map starts out unexplored and it’ll be up to you to navigate the waters, discover ports, take on quests, trade goods, and deal with bad situations as they occur. Like I said, it plays a lot like “Sid Meier’s Pirates” that way.
What “Sid Meier’s Pirates” doesn’t do is get too deep into the narrative. This is admittedly my favorite thing about “Sunless Sea” for the writing is simply superb. While docked at port, you’ll have the option to embark on a number of “stories” as they present themselves, each of which award or penalize you appropriately depending on whether or not you pass a skill check. Some of these stories can’t be done without the proper item or echoes, so you’ll often have to revisit ports in order to complete them.
The combat in this game is very simple…keep your enemy in your firing cone in order to charge your weapon. You can fire early, though there’s a chance you’ll miss. When fighting pirates and other nautical craft, the game can admittedly be a bit easy as you can simply stay behind them and give them what for. Some of those terrifying creatures, on the other hand, take a bit more work and you’ll often find yourself running away, especially in the boat you start with. Luckily, you can spend echoes to buy a new ship, weapons, fuel, supplies, and other goodies to survive the more tough encounters.
Besides resource management, this game does a number of odd things. For one, there’s a terror meter that fills up rapidly when you’re in the dark. You can illuminate the sea with your ship’s deck light, though this uses more fuel. Let the terror meter fill to high and bad things begin to happen. If this weren’t bad enough, the crew will begin eating each other if you run out of supplies…pretty gruesome. The game also introduces character stats in the form of mirrors, hearts, pages, and other cryptic nonsense. Luckily there are tool-tips available to remind you as to what they actually do. Oh, and you can have a ferret mascot. Mine bit me.
“Sunless Sea” is packed full of content and looks great, making it well worth the $20 price tag (as of 2/10/15). Just be aware that the game does take a little getting used to, especially with the way it presents certain mechanics. Fragments (which are earned by exploring) become secrets which can then be turned in to your officers to increase your stats, just to name one example. This is the kind of game you’d be encouraged to seek help with via a Wiki or the forums. You could opt not to do that, but you may be there a while trying to figure out the best way to go about making echoes and surviving. All in all, this is a fantastic narrative-driven exploration game that will keep you busy (and possibly drive you insane) for a good, long while.
Final Verdict: 9/10