This is a companion game to Fallen London, a browser game that was pretty popular for a while on QT3 and Broken Forum. I’d tried it for a while but I couldn’t really get into it due to how these games always gate your progress by limiting you to a fixed number of actions per day. Sunless Sea is a standalone game that is set in the same world and uses many similar user interface elements but since it’s a real game that runs on your device, you’re free to spend as much time as you want on it and boy did it end up eating up a lot of time.
Here you’re the captain of a small vessel sailing the Unterzee where Fallen London is now located. The Zee is a forbidding, terrifying place especially as you sail away from the comforting lights of London. Monsters and pirates lurk in the darkness and the darkness itself constantly eats on your sanity and that of your sailors. Naturally your ship requires fuel for the engines and your crew requires food. So you end up running from port to port trying to make your fortune or just make ends meet by running errands, delivering passengers, discovering valuable treasures or trading goods. As you voyage, you also learn the stories of the places you visit and the officers who sign up with you and perhaps get involved in the intrigues between the powers who contend with one another in the Unterzee.
I found the beginning of the game very tough. It seems almost impossible to make any real money as fuel and food costs are a constant drain on your resources. It’s tempting to save fuel by running without lights and allowing your terror level to rise but I quickly discovered that reducing terror is even more expensive. I was intrigued by the snippets of story everywhere but there are so many thing going on that it’s hard to keep track of them in my head, especially since you advance the story of each port your ship calls in bit by bit over multiple visits. Eventually I gave in and started regularly referring to the game’s wiki to get a better picture of what I should be doing. I found that having more concrete objectives to work towards made me enjoy the game far more.
The key to this game is the fantastic worldbuilding and incredibly good writing. It’s great at using just a short sentence or two to tease you and spark your imagination. A cool mechanic to goad the player into trying new things is the way that places and events evolve over time, usually in a way that prevents the player from continually using a convenient resource. An example of this is the Hunter’s Keep location near to London. The descriptions make it sound suspicious and you learn that three sisters live there. Yet when you take dinner with them and see how eager they are to receive news of London, it’s easy to lose your suspicions and use them as a convenient source of food. Eventually however you learn that your constant visits impose a cost on the sisters and the keep goes up in flames. Every story in the game is perfectly calibrated for just the right amount of horror and intrigue and I love it for that.
There are multiple possible endings for the game. You get to choose one at the beginning of the game to define your character if you want but there are also hidden endings. These usually involve very long and intricate quest chains that will lead you to all over the Unterzee. One problem I’ve found is that as the map is static for each playthrough, you quickly realize what the most efficient path between the ports is and repeat it again and again. This is because handing in port reports to the admiralty in London for cash and fuel will always be your bread and butter but it results in a repetitive grind as you work towards your objectives across many trips. Your fear of the zee and your sense of horror can’t help but abate as you become overly familiar with the ports and develop a routine despite the game’s mechanics.
In fact, it takes so long to achieve anything in this game that I’m skeptical of the designers’ intention to have players play this as if it were a rogue-like. I’d say it’s best to just bite the bullet and use manual saves. The amount of content in this game is staggering and the map is larger than you might expect. Even after 50 hours of playing I haven’t been everywhere yet and I have only completed a tiny fraction of the quests that are possible. The combat system isn’t too impressive and I understand that it’s been drastically revised since the initial release. Still it works well enough and isn’t too difficult once you understand what it is you have to do and realize that your ship can go in reverse. The main draws of this game are its world and the writing and for me they are good enough reasons to fall in love with it.