Review: Sunless Sea
If you’re looking at this and thinking oh my God it’s H.P. Lovecraft’s Pirates!, don’t. Turn right around and go play Pirates! or Sea Dogs or something free-form and piratey. Would-be buccaneers are going to be eaten alive by giant crabs and living mountains, and aspiring privateers are going to be trading in arcane secrets and still-warm lifeblood. This one is nothing like those liberating high-seas adventures, no matter how interesting what I just typed sounds. If instead of swashbuckling you want a mysterious, story-rich world to explore and never fully master, keep reading. Much like the people and creatures you’ll meet in this game, Sunless Sea is not at all what it seems.
The game sets you up as a zee captain in the unique and storied Fallen London setting, a Victorian-era underground sea full of cosmic horrors. In creating your character you choose a background and a goal, and then prepare for your first journey. Every port is presented as a series of journal pages, with you choosing actions based on the resources and stats available to you. Everything is abstracted as cards, from cargo to terror to snippets of news, which makes it clear to see what you need to access or complete a story but hard to tell what is actually valuable before you find a use for it. It’s a strange system held up by the quality of the writing, which never becomes tiresome in its quirky melancholy and ominous reveals.
Between ports you sail the sunless seas in real time from a bird-eye view. Your ship has three major resources to manage during voyages. Fuel powers your engines and your deck lights, supplies feed your crew, and terror measures how stable your crew actually is. There’s a lot of interplay between these resources that will affect how you sail, helping to liven up otherwise dull (and occasionally tense) trips. Running your deck lights burns almost three times more fuel, but sailing in the dark ramps up your terror faster. You can sail past natural lights and coastlines instead, but your crew will be consuming supplies at a constant rate, making long trips costly.
Odds are that mismanaging one of these resources is going to be what kills you, because you burn through fuel at an alarming rate and terror mounts quickly without clear methods to alleviate it. It’ll be that or one of the sea’s monstrous inhabitants, which are almost all more than a match for your sad little starter ship. And when you die, you lose pretty much all of your progress. There’s an heir system where you can pass on one item or a bit of money, and once you start an estate you can create a will to pass on more resources. As far as stories and quests go, however, it’s back to the beginning and this is where the game starts to really come apart.
At some point playing Sunless Sea, you’re going to realize you’re not really making any progress. You’re learning the systems and uncovering stories and accumulating… things, but every time you die, and you WILL die, most of that gets wiped out. You can do things faster on the next captain, but the goals in the game are so long-term and require so much work that they come to appear almost impossible. It might be that you need seven of something from the opposite side of the world that you can only get once per trip, or you need one of something that you had and then lost and have no idea how to get again. And the sailing is so slow and the resources so strained, that soon the oppressive and mysterious atmosphere will turn to tedium.
You’re not going to beat Sunless Sea, I’d wager, and frustration or boredom will claim you far before that’s even a possibility. So why do I recommend it? Because despite all that, I keep coming back to it. Part of me still wants to puzzle out the stories, find new ports, and maybe someday mark down a victory, even if it’s with permadeath turned off and the wiki open the whole way. The stories don’t get old, and a dozen hours in there are still more to discover. As long as you understand that you’re getting a nigh-endless choose your own adventure book where you sail (and very possibly die) instead of turning pages, there’s a good chance you’ll become as enraptured as I am.