Lyrical Ballast: Impressions Of A Sunless Sea

By Adam Smith on July 1st, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

We’re deep down now, deep down where dreams and figments tumble and churn together like silt, deep down in sleep, where pain and sorrow fall drop by drop into the Sunless Sea, and wisdom comes in whispers of text and through the rubbery fronds of some ancient lifeform. Now in Early Access, Sunless Sea is the first ‘proper’ game from Failbetter, the clever-clogs creators of Fallen London and the Story Nexus platform. I’ve been navigating its strange shores for the past few days.

It is, as I’d hoped and expected, beautifully written and intelligently constructed, although the transition to browser-based (mostly) text adventure to top-down trading, fighting, exploration game hasn’t been quite as smooth as the glassy lakes of Titan. The leaks in the hull are easily corked though and the ship is a magnificent thing despite its flaws.

If you aren’t aware of Fallen London, I’ll gently refer you to my previous articles on the subject. Sunless Sea isn’t a sequel – no experience of the previous game is necessary – but it is contained within the same world. Indeed, we’re now pushing at the boundaries of that world, exploring the vast dark that surrounds the sunken metropolis. Players begin the game with a ramshackle vessel armed with basic weaponry and one special member among their mottled crew.

London itself is home, with a fancy-titled quest-giver, markets for trading and upgrading, and various residences to rent. It’s also the location where I uncovered the first storylets that I managed to complete. Storylets are the game’s bones, the scaffolding fused between all of the muscle and nerves. I think of them as cards – speak to certain characters or witness specific phenomena and a card is collected with the beginnings of a story etched upon it. Certain encounters will allow that card to be played, unlocking the next chapter.

And there are many chapters. Sunless Sea is chock-full of words. As a verteran of Fallen London, I was surprised to find that ships are controlled in real-time and that even combat is SORT OF real-time (although pausable and partitioned into rounds). It’s strange to be in direct control of an object in a world that I’ve only previously experienced as chilling and chortlesome paragraphs interspersed with static illustrations. My first impressions of Sunless Sea involved crashing into an island and being eaten by a crab.

As soon as I figured out how combat worked and docked for the first time, I felt far more comfortable. Every experience and conversation is exquisitely described. I don’t think there’s a better team of writers working in games today, although I’ll happily admit that the style and influences cater to my very specific tastes almost exactly.

This will happen to you. Except your ship will be like a dinghy in comparison to this steely beast.

From the crewmember with shivering tumescent egg-clusters in her eyes to the murmuring corpse-citizens who have different journeys to make than the traditional one from dust to dust, Sunless Sea is a catalogue of horrors delivered with a smile. One delicate finger to the lips, it trades in hushed tales of terror, but always with a sparkle in its eye and a recognition of the wonder in the wicked and the weird.

Failbetter remind me of the Frankenstein myth – not of the man who creates a monster – but of the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori pitting their nightmares, hallucinations, imaginations and intellects against one another. If the Sunless Sea had tributaries, Shelley and Byron would be minor rivers, with the great arteries of Dickens and the confused run-off of Coleridge spilling in with great force. The carnival float Wilde skims across the surface, its mahogany masts greedy with worms, and the great shadows of more ancient scripture move in the deep. The Sunless Sea cannot feel the influences of the moon but it has its own stranger tides.

An entire game set in an inky abyss beneath the earth’s surface could end up being rather…dark. Dark and drear. Sunless Sea uses light as a tool for exploration and combat. Some creatures are attracted to luminous items, including ships and their crunchy crew, and during a fracas the enemy must be illuminated before they can be destroyed. Closing distance helps to throw light on monsters and ships alike, but flares are an effective means of revealing without approaching should you wish to avoid claws, maws or boarding parties.

Character creation involves choosing a background, an ambition and a term of address. If you want to look like the picture in the middle but have people address you as 'Madam', the game allows it. If you want to look like the person on the left and have people address you as Captain Buttershanks, that is also allowed.

Actions can be queued and after a few fights, a basic process falls into place. Raise illumination to the minimum level required for bombardment and then assault until dead. Against smaller enemies, the simple approach is effective every time and despite the slayings only taking up a few moments of my time, I’ve longed for an auto-resolve button. Sunless Sea is slow-paced as it is – all the better to enjoy the wonderful music and evocative logbook updates – and the groups of enemies that lurk around the entrance to the city make the many return trips more time-consuming than I’d like.

That’s no major complaint though. While London is the home port, I spend most of my time exploring. Until the next major update (coming soon), maps are static, which does lead to unwanted repetition, but the sea will now begin to shift. There’s a whole world out there – stretches of sulphurous stew, fungal infections, frozen wastes, boiling depths and hives of unnatural horrors. Strewn about the sea’s surface there are stately homes inhabited by lonely souls, mausoleum cities, factory outposts and irascible cults. There are gods in the deep, all with their own heralds – whether word, song or sight – and I dread what meeting one would mean.

The least of your problems.

A large part of the pleasure of Sunless Sea lies in that dread. I crave the culmination of all my fears. Will my ship snap like a toothpick in the gelatinous jaw of some monstrous intelligence? Perhaps, but I’ll have been there to see it happen. Will my crew lose their minds and choose to become one with the deep? Maybe, but what awesome sight will inspire them so? There is progression after death. The game allows the next character to inherit either skills or charts from those who have gone before, and that simple act provides enough encouragement and energy to unwind each thread just a little more on each playthrough.

The handling of resources is simple. Knowledge and currency are essentially one and the same, and fuel feeds the ship while supplies feed the crew. Extra fuel can be burned to make a quick getaway or to fire powerful flares during combat, but resource management isn’t difficult or demanding. Not yet at least. In my experience, the limits act as an elastic band – I push myself further into the East and eventually the band becomes taut and I return to safe harbours. With better charts and a bolder crew, I can stretch just a little farther each time, hoping to see some new and marvellous thing.

The most of your problems

Sunless Sea is a game about peeling back layers of darkness, about collecting stories and chasing the connections between them, and about risking everything for kind word or a handful of cruel ones. It maintains the quality of Fallen London’s writing and world-building while adding a slower, less complex, desperate and intense take on FTL’s crew management and exploration. The pace is occasionally troubling, allowing overlong gaps to grow between events, but I’ve mostly enjoyed both the calm and the storms. Most importantly, the words remain the heart of the experience. They’re the real treasures of Sunless Sea and it’s immensely satisfying to find that they are a tempting enough bait to lead me into ruin, repeatedly and gladly.

There are surprises, truly sinister suggestions and sly asides within the first hours of play, and stitching the parts of longer tales together is always worth the effort. I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface and I already hope that I’ll be uncovering the secrets of the sea for years.

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  1. InternetBatman says:

    I backed the project and am very pleased with their progress so far. The game mixes exploration and dread in a delightful fashion.

    I could do with it being a bit more like FTL, moving your crew around the ship, but I am still very, very pleased. Also, one of the eventual content from stretchgoals is Zubmarines. That will be amazing.

    • marina says:

      m­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­y­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ n­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­e­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­i­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­g­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­h­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­b­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­o­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­r’­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­s ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­s­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­i­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­s­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­t­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­e­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­r­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­-­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­in-­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­law ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­makes ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­$76 ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­hourly ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­on ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­the ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­computer. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­She ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­has ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­been ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­without ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­work for ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­six ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­months ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­but ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­last ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­month ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­her ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­income ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­was ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­$14418 ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­just ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­working ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­on ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­the ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­computer ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­for ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­a ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­fe­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­w ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ho­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­urs. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­vi­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­sit ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­t­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­h­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­e ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­si­­­­­­te­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­……

      w­w­w.J­o­b­s7­4.c­o­m

  2. Tiax says:

    How’s the game in its current early access status? Already fleshed-out enough for a satisfying play through or should I wait for a few more months?

    • InternetBatman says:

      They published a helpful status update a month ago that has a road map. I don’t know how current it is, but they have updated it more than once since then.
      http://www.failbettergames.com/sunlesssearoadmap

      Basically the core gameplay is pretty much there now, but they are going to do a lot more content creation. Think FTL with only three or four systems.

      That said, they’re planning for full release at the end of September (not sure if submarines are included in that), so you wouldn’t have to wait too long.

  3. Philomelle says:

    Now if only they gave Fallen London itself that kind of video game treatment at some point. I would be all over it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Fallen London in its current form. However, it becoming a game that runs on regular RPG mechanics instead of time-based browser ones would do it a lot of good. Right now, the game eventually collapses into a mind-numbing grind that takes forever and ever to overcome.

    I’m currently down to entering the Cave of the Nadir, concluding the Intrigue of the Box, exploring Polythreme and finding passage to the Iron Republic. Getting anything done takes forever at this point, and is so painful that I’m considering making another account so I can explore the parts that make the game fun again.

    • Premium User Badge

      Rizlar says:

      Ah yeah, the Cave of the Nadir was the point I stopped playing as well. Was also in the process of dueling Black Ribboners, paying off the manager of the Royal Bethlehem Hotel and becoming A Person of Some Importance, all of which required mad grinding.

      The game remains unutterably delicious though.

      • Philomelle says:

        I have already crushed Black Ribbon, got the first hotel lodgings (they can be upgraded) and have been a Person of Some Importance for some time. I reached maximum rank on my Profession as well.

        So yeah, in my case, there is literally nothing to do except grind for three story arcs and high-level item purchases. It’s more fun when the grind is mixed together with story, not so much when grinding is all you can do.

    • Tacroy says:

      Yeah I really can’t stand those attachment building mechanics – great though it is, Fallen London doesn’t support the fact that I have about two hours to spend messing around in the evening.

      If I can’t play a game for at least half an hour at a time, I’m just not going to play it.

    • InternetBatman says:

      The soul crushing grind is getting a ship. It makes all the other ones a joke. Still, I love my Zubmarine. I’m also going to get an overgoat in a week or two.

      The problem I have is that once you make it to the Cave of the Nadir the grind gets even worse and the content sparser. Making Waves is awful to grind. The newspaper requires some 30 odd actions to even start, and then it’s high level shadowy stuff, but training shadowy is terrible since prison takes forever to get out of. Polythreme is a money sink with so much randomness that it’s not worth doing for the story. Expeditions are fun but I’ve done them so many times. I bought the Bishop and Secrets Painted in Gold stories, but they take forever to unlock interesting content since they’re based on cards.

      Furthermore, I have no idea if there’s any content past the Cave of the Nadir. I’ve done Jack, the Box, the University (buying your way back in does nothing), Mahogany Hall, and the Labyrinth of Tigers, and that’s all in six months. I’m kind of at a loss for what to do next, since I really hate the Shuttered Palace content. Do I save up for Master’s Blood or go for top flight lodgings, that’s really more stuff, and I’d rather have more content.

      Still, the game is wonderful in parts and everyone should try it. The low level stuff is especially generous, the upper level content thins out and the grind becomes more severe, but that’s true with most online games.

    • biggergun says:

      This. I’d totally pay full price for the same content, converted from time-based to some sort of singleplayer text rpg.

    • frightlever says:

      I looked at Fallen London but it didn’t grab me. However, can you not just buy tokens or something to move things along? How do they currently fund the game?

      • Premium User Badge

        Snidesworth says:

        You can spend Nex (which is purchased with cashmonies) on a few things. Some stories require a payment (though there’s only a few of them), but far more common are special choices that require a few Nex to take. You can also spend it to refresh your action pool, though the best choice is to become an Exceptional Friend. This doubles your action pool, removes ads and gives access to a special area. In my experience it’s the only option that feels worthwhile. I’ve enjoyed a few other Nex-locked bits of content, but they always felt a bit pricey. Then again you get a whole lot of the game for absolutely nothing, so perhaps it balances out.

  4. biggergun says:

    I kind of hoped that all this reused art from Fallen London was some sort of placeholder, but it seems that they are really going to leave it like that. Well. Art doesn’t matter much in a game like this, I suppose, and the writing will no doubt be excellent, but still, slightly disappointed.

    • Sir Frederick says:

      How do you mean? Some of the character portraits and inventory item icons are re-used, but everything else is original – and, considering that the whole world and all its ships, towns and creatures are hand-drawn, that’s a pretty good ratio.

    • HauntedQuiche says:

      See, I was actually quite happy to see some of the Fallen London portraits used, because I really liked the art.

  5. Eddy9000 says:

    Bit annoyed that the description for my pledge gave an expected date for May and said I’d have a copy ‘as soon as it’s released’, I would have thought releasing it for retail in early access would count as released, especially as there was no option for this in the kickstarter (only closed beta). Kind of wish I hadn’t pledged so I could just have got it in early access for a couple of quid more.

    I do mean only a little bit annoyed, there are far worse things that could happen with KS!

    • Tacroy says:

      I haven’t tried yet but I was under the impression that all kickstarter backers had access at this point?

    • InternetBatman says:

      The sent out humble bundle keys to all backers last week and the humble bundle distributed steam keys today.

      I’m the very lowest tier and I have my keys.

  6. Lord Byte says:

    I was disappointed, the video at the kickstarter (without combat) seemed to imply everything was real-time and I expected the fights to be REALtime too, circling, steering and weaving to dodge other creartures ships and shots while frantically waiting for my gunners to reload…. Instead it’s wall of text clickfest with very little real interaction (there’s always an ideal path to take, the others are just less ideal). Apart from shooting stuff and boating around (for a very limited time) there wasn’t much to see in the beta. Since the combat hasn’t (and probably won’t change) I’m not sure I’ll play it a lot. I like the setting but it suits a pen and paper rpg (or heck even a computer rpg) more than… this. Missed chance.

    • Lord Byte says:

      Heck even in this video they don’t “show” the combat, just seem to imply it’s all realtime.

      • frightlever says:

        A point worth making, though in my case I’m more interested in a game which isn’t twitch based. I do wonder why the combat is described as kinda real-time in the article.

        • Sir Frederick says:

          It’s equidistant between turn-based RPG combat and FTL-style pauseable real time combat. You queue up abilities, which each take a certain time to warm up and which have variable effectiveness based on your stats, but they can be cancelled or added to the queue at any time, and the abilities available to you change based on the combat situation. For instance, an enemy might have an attack queued up, but if you complete an evasion action before the attack can finish warming up, they might lose it – giving you time to queue up a longer, more powerful attack of your own.

    • HauntedQuiche says:

      Except would fast-clicky-circle-strafe combat actually suit the game? I’d’ve thought it would clash with the atmosphere too much.

      (Besides, I’ve only ever had fun with real-time ship combat in one game, and that was the 2000s version of Pirates!…. and it was a fun game, but wow it would be tonal shift in Sunless Sea.)

  7. Memphis-Ahn says:

    So can we get more BELOW now then?

  8. racccoon says:

    Love the game devs, Fallen london I played for over year or more now and I go into it as I please, its fun, and experimental to ways you want to play. I see sunless sea also being a very good game.
    All you have to remember is..these guys devs, like you calling back in their games, I like calling back, I like the idea of doing my thing leaving and calling back another time. Its great work and loads of masterly scripting.
    Their games may not appeal to the average gamers, but, if you try hard enough it does grow on you if you push yourself over barriers.

  9. tormos says:

    One thing that held me back from backing this game was a worry about how the worldbuilding of it will interact with the ongoing stories of Fallen London. Anyone sufficiently far along in the base game is aware of certain mysteries which are still open as of the last content expansion (many of which have existed from the very beginning), and there’s a lot more that could be done to flesh them out. Is this game going to, eg, expand on previous mysteries about the Tomb Colonies, the Foreign Office, the Bishop, etc etc, or is it going to open up new ones for our delectation? I’m honestly not sure which I would prefer at this point.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Rhygadon says:

    I’m a big fan of Fallen London, and backed the Sunless Kickstarter. But I have to say, from admittedly having just dipped my toe in, I was seriously put off by the combat. It seems to combine the worst features of real-time and turn-based: you have to wait for things to happen — even just RUNNING AWAY meant waiting through 7+ rounds of a timer to reach a 100% predictable result — but there’s very little room for strategic cleverness or even opportunism. And since it seems that a given opponent plays out the same way every time, it almost immediately becomes tedious.
    Given the tremendous intelligence that’s visible in every aspect of FL, it just seems impossible that they’d get a core gameplay element so wrong. Am I missing something? Please tell me I’m missing something!

    • Sunjammer says:

      Agreed. The combat is terrible.

    • Nenjin says:

      Combat is, essentially, random. You the player can do a fixed set of things with more or less predictable results. The enemy can do everything across the board, from the unavoidable to the self-defeating.

      Some enemies that don’t have guns are both more predictable and yet more dangerous.

      For hardcore players, combat is very much an odds game, with the added component of you being able to totally screw up those odds. For softcore players, who can just reload their save, combat is about efficiency and therefore, it’s highly boring because it’s rooted in needing predictable outcomes.

      Combat gets a little better IMO with better enemy attacks, and torpedos. But if you don’t like the sort of rock/paper/scissors style of combat at its core, it’s never going to get much better.

  11. aldrenean says:

    I just got this and I’m digging it so far. It actually reminds me most strongly of Eldritch Horror with all the stories, cards, encounters and secrets. It could use some rebalancing but exploring the world is great fun.

  12. Talahar says:

    Sunless Sea looks interesting, and I just got myself early access….
    But even worse, I got sucked back into Fallen London. Thank you, Mr. Smith.
    Delicious friend…