Ships Of Steel: Sunless Sea’s Revamped Combat

Before discussing information about the upcoming combat redesign in the splendid Sunless Sea, I’ll share some information that you may already know. Failbetter’s collaboration with Bioware is not related to the recently announced Shadow Realms, which means there’s still something to look forward to even though Gamescom has chugged its last energy drink and collapsed for another year. We should all concentrate our excitement on Sunless Sea for now because it’s shifting and swelling like a lunatic tide. Details in the briny deeps below.

I made some minor complaints about the combat in my write-up of the earliest release of the game so I feel almost entirely responsible for any changes that occur. The original (and still current) system simulates a chase in the dark by pitting opponents against one another in what is essentially a turn-based system of exchanges. To cause damage, visibility must be raised, either by closing in or firing flares and the like, but powerful weapons illuminate the ship they’re fired from, putting it at greater risk of retribution. It’s an interesting system but repeated combat against the same creatures becomes rote and predicting how a confrontation will end before it begins becomes a routine task.

In a striking example of Early Access being a way to adopt feedback and change entire systems, Failbetter are completely redesigning combat. Rather than being a minigame of sorts, it will now take place on the map, in real time. The changes begin, as all things should, in the search for delightfulness.

The core team sat down together and chewed on how to get to delightfulness.

So, okay, we said, let’s go one more time round the reasons we don’t do ship combat in real time on the map, bearing in mind that it is of course impossible and we shouldn’t do it.

Two hours later, we’d decided that it wasn’t impossible, and we should probably do it.

Two days later, we’d run the numbers, done a bit of prototyping, and we’re going to do it!

Combat in SUNLESS SEA will still be gently paced not frantic, still be pausable, still involve light and darkness. But it’s going to occur right on the main map, with the primary game systems plugged into it, not in a turn-based secondary card game.

It’s really hard, as a designer, throwing away a cherished mechanic. It’s like euthanasing a beloved pet that won’t stop eating children. But when it’s right, it’s right. We – and you – are lucky enough to have some extra time to work on this, so we’re going, once again, to do it right. This is a significant, exciting, scary change – we’ll be letting you know more soon!

Of course, the term ‘real time’ fills me with more dread than the subcutaneous inkjections of the sleep-haunting land squid, but the words ‘pausable’ and ‘gently paced’ soothe my worries like the ginjections of fabled tavern/clinic, The Salty Sailor’s Repose.


  1. Curratum says:

    A peculiar game plagued by a marriage of superb writing and next-to-none gameplay, leaving the end product feeling more like a Fallen London with more graphical goodies than a proper, fully-fledged standalone game.

    • sansenoy says:

      My thought as well… Also, I can’t seem to figure out the whole map reshuffling, mine is always the same.

      • Muzman says:

        I thought it wasn’t properly in yet. Plus I thought it stays fixed as you pass down your discoveries from one captain to the next (not sure how it resets)
        Dunno though. Haven’t played it.

    • Oozo says:

      I guess that a good part of backers would consider “Fallen London with more graphical goodies” nothing less than “a proper, fully-fledged standalone game”.

      That was my reason for backing, anyway: a game with the writing and world building of Fallen London, but without the micro-payment structure. It’s what they are good at, after all, and while I would not have minded a somewhat more “dymanic” experience, it’s still very much what I payed for.

  2. Blackcompany says:

    This is…disappointing. One of the primary reasons I love Sunless Sea is that its a relaxing game to play. Come a weekday evening, I often dont feel like loud explosions and twanging, banging melee weapons and screaming foes and exploding objects. What I want is entertaining writing and a slow, relaxing game to help me wind down.

    Sunless Sea had that in spades.

    My worry now is that real time combat – even with pause – will seem frantic and stressful. I hope I am wrong on this, but I liked the relaxing card game combat. It made for a nice change of pace.

  3. DompR says:

    I hope they can pull this off, because combat is the only part of the game as it stands that I couldn’t see becoming anything resembling fun. However I would prefer if -instead of the current map- combat would be played in zoomed-in “instances” that take into account where you encountered the enemy. Otherwise I think the map would start feeling very cramped indeed.

    • Snidesworth says:

      Likewise. It would also be a real shame to loose the flavour text that comes with encountering something hostile, as well as the options for trying to evade it.

    • jingies says:

      If you ever played the rather old game Sid Meier’s Pirates, which I think of as an inspiration to Sunless Sea, that had real time combat, on a miniature battleground sea separate from the main world map. I kind of expected this in Sunless Sea, and will admit to being a little bit disappointed with the combat when I first played the first Early Access iteration.

      • Shadow says:

        Indeed. Pirates! had a quite entertaining realtime combat system, and if something similar is implemented properly in Sunless Sea, it’ll do the game a lot of good. It’s certainly bound to be more dynamic than a separate card game in which you generally queued the same actions over and over regardless of what you were fighting.

        I for one welcome the change. And they’ll be working on balancing progression as well, the other generally acknowledged major problem, so this is all great news.

  4. Muzman says:

    It’ll be interesting to see how they do it.

    I thought they should do instanced combat where an encounter takes you off to a little combat arena where you real-time fight, maneuver etc. The scale of the actual map doesn’t seem big enough. But who knows.

    ed. hey the people above me said the exact same thing.

    • Nenjin says:

      Yeah, that’s how I was envisioning the combat as well. Not sure how well it’s going to work taking place on the full game map…..but just about anything will be better than the current combat setup, which is challenging for about an hour until you learn rote methods for trivializing it.

  5. JiminyJickers says:

    This is great news! I didn’t do enough research before the game got released on Early Access and assumed the game would already be as what they are now considering. I was very disappointed at the previous combat mechanics, so much so that I stopped playing the game.

    Having it in a slow and pauseable realtime on the main map is perfect. Other people wanted it to be an encounter where you go to a combat map, but I don’t like that. It makes the enemies just seam like some JRPG enemy encounter.

    I’m very happy with this new direction. I can’t wait for the update.

  6. jonahcutter says:

    The game has great atmosphere, but the combat was almost instantly a turn-off. A neat idea with the light mechanic, but flat and not very compelling in implementation.

    It seemed like it was modeled off the Faster Than Light approach. But whereas FTL led to encounters filled with tension yet allowing precise tactical choices, Sunless Sea was boring and too abstract. They didn’t manage to capture the lightning in the bottle that FTL did.

    This is good news and makes me re-interested in the game.