In the Victorian age, London has fallen underground. While it still remains in some level of contact with the outside world, it is surrounded by a massive underground ocean known as the Unterzee.
What adventures await in this vast, dark expanse? That’s up to players to discover in “Sunless Sea.”
The game is a spin-off of the browser game “Fallen London,” previously known as “Echo Bazaar.” In that game, players explored the world of Fallen London largely through text. It was a fascinating world with lots to do, but much of it relied on walls and walls of expository text to get stories and messages across.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and “Sunless Sea” adopts a lot of that narrative-driven game play. But it has just a twinge of extra interactivity that makes it even more imaginative and interesting than its source material.
Fans of games like “FTL: Faster Than Light” should feel right at home with “Sunless Sea.” In terms of game play, they’re largely the same: manage crew and systems, carefully plot your next course and occasionally interact with a strange new character or life form. However, there are two main differences between “FTL” and this.
First is the narrative. Players will be reading a lot more of “Sunless Sea” than they have of “FTL.” This is a huge improvement, actually. As addictive as “FTL” was, it repeated a lot of its randomly generated stories over and over again. Because of that, players didn’t come to “FTL” for its storytelling chops. “Sunless Sea,” on the other hand, nearly drowns itself in new and interesting reading material at every turn, and all of it is fabulously written with the distinct style of the “Fallen London” browser game.
The payoff, though, is “Sunless Sea’s” combat — and while it’s not bad, it does feel pretty clunky. Maneuvering the player’s ship seems easy enough at first, but running into a dangerous enemy, like, say, a shark, will spell all but certain doom if the player hasn’t mastered the game’s combat. And it is very hard to learn and master.
However, the game was built around this, so that helps mitigate the problem a bit. The game flat-out tells players early on that their first few captains will die. It encourages more risk than safety, and when you make a mistake, it punishes that risk. But the game restarts quickly enough to let players jump right back into the world. It’s a fascinating, risk-reward style of design that is far more intriguing than other games that play it safe.
Players who can jump through that hurdle are in for a fascinating tale on the high seas, a world with excellently written characters and scenarios that are randomized just enough to make exploration a worthy endeavor. The price to pay for all of that is a clunky combat system, but that’s a deal I’d easily make.