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Sunless Sea review

Katharine Byrne
17 Mar 2015
Sunless Sea screenshot01
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
15
inc VAT

Sunless Sea keeps its treasure under tight lock and key, but this slow-burning rogue-like text adventure is still strangely compelling

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Specifications

Available formats: PC 

Every journey is a risk in Sunless Sea. As you venture out into the dank, dripping darkness of Failbetter Games' subterranean ocean, you desperately hope that the discoveries you make will be worth it; that your fuel will last the round trip, your supplies will stay the course, and the eerie green glow of your fog lights won't scare your crew witless.

Tales and stories drive the world of Fallen London, and the reports you bring back from the black corners of the 'Unterzee' are your only means of working your way up the steampunk-esque social ladder and obtaining your own personal end-game, such as finding out what happened to your long-lost father, writing your masterpiece or obtaining the world's earthly riches.

It's unlikely you'll meet those goals on your first playthrough, though, as you'll be making several trips to Davy Jones' locker. The game even tells you as much before you get to the main menu screen, but the manner of your demise is (usually) very much your own doing - whether it's death by cannibalism, insanity, starvation or getting your throat cut by a black market felon back home for accidentally selling that shady box of souls you promised to smuggle somewhere.

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^ You'll find a whole manner of interesting-looking islands on your travels, but you'll need to watch your supplies like a hawk to make sure you've got enough fuel for the return journey

All is not lost when you do find yourself face to face with the grim reaper, though, as future captains can inherit certain items depending on how far you progressed in the main plot. Have a child with an onshore sweetheart, for instance, and they could stand to inherit two legacy items instead of one, leaving your next captain in slightly better stead than the last.

However, to help keep new landlubbers on their toes, each playthrough sees the majority of islands shift and shuffle across the map, so you'll rarely see the same island twice in the same location. Fallen London is one of the few exceptions to this rule, though, as the misty shores of your Victorian homeworld are always found on the far left hand side of the world's surprisingly large map. As a result, most of your initial play hours will be spent making shorter, more cautious journeys out to the east in order to gain enough fuel, funds and supplies to start venturing further afield.

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^ When each captain meets their end, certain officers and weaponry can be carried over to your next character

The map's rogue-like quality does the game many favours, not least by mixing up the order in which you visit those first initial islands. However, when most of the story unfolds in rather small text boxes with the same words and the same story choices on each visit (most of which are locked because you lack the necessary items or funds), the game's writing soon becomes a tiresome obstacle rather than an engaging piece of story-telling.

Compared to Inkle Studio's excellent 80 Days and Sorcery! text titles on iOS, for example, Sunless Sea's textual presentation feels decidedly old-fashioned, and it's a shame Failbetter Games doesn't make better use of its well-written script. For instance, the journal could easily fill the entire screen rather than take up such a small proportion in the right-hand corner, and a few more accessible story options outside your initial report gathering would at least allow players to probe each island a little further in those first couple of hours before they set sail again. Admittedly, new content is being added all the time, but as it stands now, each island can quickly be boiled down to a handful of clicks before you're out of options.

A lack of diversity in the islands themselves is partly to blame for this, as it's a rare occasion when any of them even have a single shop to purchase extra supplies or a shipyard to upgrade your chugging little steamboat. Not that you're ever flush with much cash, as most of your reports are barely worth a couple of crates of food when you eventually do make it back to Fallen London. However, even bigger islands often disappoint on this front, leaving the ocean feeling like a rather empty, impersonal sort of place compared to your thriving metropolis back home.

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^ Fallen London acts as your main hub, but it's a shame it's all the way over on one side of the map

As a result, it can often take a while to feel like you're really making any headway with Sunless Sea, as the aggressive economy and lack of opportunity to trade on your experiences elsewhere means you spend far too much time traipsing back and forth over old territory than you do exploring the more distant reaches of the ocean. We're all for a sense of scale and progression, but with five deaths in almost as many hours, it begins to feel like a fully charted map is nigh on impossible.

There are occasional threats to keep you on your toes as you traverse your more familiar runways, such as angry crabs, pirate ships and armoured sharks, but for the most part you're better off avoiding them, as your initial ship will almost certainly fall to pieces if you try tackling anything with more than 100 hit points, ending in yet another watery grave.

Yet, for all Sunless Sea's flaws, there's still something undeniably compelling about seeing how far you can go on your meagre set of supplies. If anything, throwing caution to the wind and embracing the game's survival elements is where the game really comes into its own, as it's only when you're up against it that you become fully engaged with every single mechanic at play.

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^ You'll need to watch out for enemy pirate ships as you travel between different islands, but turning your lights off can sometimes let you slip by unnoticed

For instance, when we accidentally bit off more than we could chew and ran out of fuel half way across the map on our way back home, we were given three options. Sadly, the first one was locked, as we had no extra supplies to try and turn into extra fuel, and the second was to make like the Titanic and jump ship. Reluctant to admit defeat, we chose the third option of praying to the fickle sea gods.

We weren't expecting much to be honest, especially when our first two invocations resulted in useless gift items, but our prayers were finally answered on our last and final attempt when we were whisked away on a tornado to a brand new location with a new batch of fuel and supplies to boot. The only problem was that we'd been transported into, quite literally, the farthest corner of the map away from home, putting us in even more peril than before.

Sunless Sea screenshot

^ Sometimes story prompts will appear automatically, forcing you to make tough decisions with your very limited resources

We thought it was hopeless, but little by little we gradually clawed our way back across the sea. By sending out our Zeebat and scouting for nearby islands, we did everything we could to snatch odd canisters of fuel, whether it was playing games of chance with the locals, or selling our one piece of valuable cargo when we finally reached the notorious black market town of Gaider's Mourn for a bit of extra cash. We went a little insane, our crew eat more than a few rats, and we ended up imagining a ghostly officer into existence that caused more than one of our crew to hurl themselves overboard, but against all the odds we finally made it back to Fallen London – only to meet our end courtesy of that aforementioned dodgy soul dealer for breaking our trading contract.

It may have been all for naught, but that thirty minute struggle against the clock is by far one of our abiding memories of Sunless Sea and it's easily one of the most engaging stretches we've come across so far. Sunless Sea may be a bit of a slow burner, but hang in there until the candle's burning at both ends and there's some truly wonderful treasure to be found here. It's just a shame the rest of the game feels forever out of reach on the dark, ever-changing horizon. 

SPECIFICATIONS
Available formatsPC
OS SupportWindows XP or later
Minimum CPU2GHz or better
Minimum GPU1280x768 minimum resolution; DirectX 9.0c compatible graphics card
Minimum RAM1GB
Hard disk space700MB
Details
Product codeN/A

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