Everything Is Scary

Be responsible, contemplate the void.

Unter the Zee: Sunless Sea

When I sat down to write about Sunless Sea, I'll admit I had trouble organizing my thoughts, which, in a way, is somewhat appropriate.  This is definitely the most surprised I've been by a game in a while, and in the best way possible.  It also bears mentioning that Peter played this game a while before I did, and highly recommended it to me (in fact, he's remarked to me that this could be his pick for Game of the Year).  I have to say, I can't thank him enough for doing so.

Sunless Sea is a kickstarted roguelike game with RPG elements from Failbetter Games.  Essentially a spiritual successor/spinoff to their browser-based "choose your own adventure" game Fallen London, Sunless Sea takes place in a Steampunk/Lovecraftian style universe where Victorian-era London, through god-like forces unknown, was somehow sucked beneath the surface of the Earth into the Unterzee, a subterranean body of water loosely populated by tiny factions and city-states.  The Unterzee is a treacherous place of nightmare creatures of huge proportions, where captains such as yourself dare to make their fortune and fame by exploring the depths of the water and the human soul.

What makes Sunless Sea stand out from other roguelikes like FTL or Don't Starve is the truly terrific atmosphere.  Aside from living up to its title by swathing everything in darkness, the game effectively communicates a great sense of dread through its use of little snippets of rich description in your HUD.  Each time you get a new message, a little teletype noise chimes in, much like the old telegraphs on steamer ships like the Titanic.  It's a tiny detail that goes a long way to immersing you in the experience of captaining a lonely, doomed vessel.  Even the ports aren't necessarily a safe haven.  Some of them are outright hostile, and your actions towards the locals and their customs can come back to haunt you in more ways than one.

But beyond the incredibly well-done aesthetic and dialogue, what sets Sunless Sea apart from other roguelikes is its unique take on The Big Objective.  I'd written before about how Don't Starve boils down survival to the most basic of objectives, but in Sunless Sea you are given a nifty mechanic from the get-go that defines your character's backstory and reason(s) for captaining a vessel in this strange and terrifying land.  From that grand objective, you'll quickly find yourself setting a series of little goals to get you to that final end point.  Earn money.  Improve your ship.  Hire crew.  Get to know them (or eat them).  Find new islands.  Open trading routes.

This is a game that, as it says, rewards risk, and is definitely for people who like to strategize and to plan ahead.  Of course, even the best-laid plans of men can be disrupted by an unlikely encounter or disastrous occurrence.  In those situations, the game also has a neat legacy system whereby you can Will certain artifacts and bonuses to future captains.

The difficulty is tough, but not unfair.  Indeed, the game is essentially as tough as you want it to be.  You could easily cower and puff listlessly in and out the nearest and safest ports.  Or you can take a chance, strike off into the unknown, and be rewarded with wondrous tales and a surprising sense of accomplishment.

Sunless Sea is unquestionably one of the most original, unique, and entertaining games I have played in a long while.  Though the volume of text and non-linear storytelling may be unfriendly to some who prefer their games straightforward, to me it is a breath of fresh air in my nightmarish sails.

Darkness follows.