Adventure stories were more potent in the days before the internet. The mystery of simply not knowing what lived in the world’s most remote islands, deepest forests, and vast oceans provided fodder for active imaginations. Now, with a wealth of knowledge constantly available at our fingertips, creating a suitably awe-inspiring adventure requires a bit more creativity. Failbetter Games has managed to rise to this challenge with Sunless Sea, a game intent on subverting our knowledge of history and biology to recreate a sense of mystery and wonder.
In the world of Sunless Sea, cities have vanished underneath the waves of a vast ocean and the sky has been blotted out by what I can only theorize is a giant overhanging rock formation. National landmasses are now islands within an enormous cave, haunted by swarms of vicious bats and lurking sea creatures. The player takes the role of a captain who sets out with a crew of “zailors” across the wide, dark “zee,” hoping, depending on personal choice, to find great wealth or knowledge. If this premise sounds silly, it’s only because Sunless Sea is so intent of disorienting its audience—forcing them to re-learn how the world works—that it’s happy to introduce strange jargon. Fortunately, Failbetter Games’ writers are talented enough that the prose used to describe the bizarre setting in Sunless Sea’s many text adventure-style sequences comes off exceptionally well. The paragraphs that greet players upon arriving at new islands or while speaking to the game’s cast of weird characters are carefully written and evocative. The text pairs well with Sunless Sea’s minimalist visuals to conjure up a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere seemingly plucked from a Gothic novel.
While navigating written menus makes up a large part of the game’s mechanics, players are also asked to fight battles and control their ship during their attempt to explore—and survive—the ocean. Fuel, food, and crew terror are the three main ship attributes to manage. While the first two are fairly straightforward, Sunless Sea’s terror system is more inventive. Remaining in the darkness of the sea for too long, running away from attacking enemies, and encountering events too frightening for the crew to handle will eventually raise the terror level, causing crew members to abandon ship or begin acting erratically. A weakened crew causes the ship to lose speed, making it easier for giant crabs, living icebergs, pirates, and clouds of bloodthirsty bats to descend on the player.
Once this occurs Sunless Sea transitions to a real-time RPG battle system where both the ship and the enemy enter commands into an action queue. The goal of every combat instance is to ignite flares, illuminate foes, and attack them once they’re visible enough to be fired upon. These battle mechanics encourage a welcome level of strategic thinking, but are influenced a bit too heavily on the ship upgrades the player has been able to accumulate. A crab monster can be vanquished in seconds (despite taking a minute or two to actually defeat) while an overly powerful enemy can sink the player with one well-placed shot. Since currency—“echoes”—are so scarce in the early game, it often feels impossible to upgrade sufficiently and contend with the powerful monsters and rival ships patrolling in unexpected places.
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This level of difficulty can lead to a bit of frustration, but learning to live with a handful of short-lived captain careers makes committing to the game’s many moment-to-moment decisions (should you fight that monster or run? Is it worth it to walk down the dark road of cannibalism in order to avoid starving your crew?) fraught with the kind of tension they would otherwise lack. The easier manual save system made available in the main menu strays too far from what makes Sunless Sea so interesting to play, but also helps to make the game a bit more accessible to those without the patience to replay introductory quests again and again. A happier balance between the unforgiving challenge of the normal mode and the less exciting “easy” mode would better allow Sunless Sea’s design choices to shine without overly annoying players.
This is one of the only aspects of the game that make its status as part of Steam’s Early Access program noticeable, though. Certain story paths may be locked, but, given the size of the world and the number of quests and ship-building customization options already available, the current version of the game already feels remarkably complete. Players with a taste for adventure and fantastic storytelling will find a lot to love in Sunless Sea. The high level of difficulty may make exploring the game’s extraordinary world more frustrating than it ought to be, but, just the same, Failbetter’s unique vision of a grand, mysterious world is compelling enough to compensate.