Wot I Think: Sunless Sea

Sunless Sea [official site] is a sort of naval roleplaying game, set in dark fantasy world where London has been whisked away to an underground ocean peopled by assorted monstrosities and governed by strange and delicate politics. The master of your own fragile ship, you must make a living, battle horrors and seek a destiny of sorts. It’s been in Early Access since last year, but graduates to a full, finished release today.

I sigh every time Low Barnet appears on the horizon. Low Barnet! A clump of rocks just barely below water, nowhere to dock, nothing to do, but seeing it is like seeing a friend standing on the dock after years at sea. The sigh is part relief, part frustration. If I am at Low Barnet, I am almost home: relief. But if I am at Low Barnet it means this trip is at an end now. I have returned with so little, and must spend what few coins I have on replenishing fuel and food in order to do all this again: frustration.

That clump of rock and that name on a map means so much, because I am a weary traveller who has come to know these waterways intimately, and the sad, sinister settlements scattered about them are both waypoints and friends.

Low Barnet says home from a trip to the far North is minutes away, and so panic may cease. Van Horn Harbour means cheap fuel and large, murderous patrol ships. Hunter’s Keep means tea and dark gossip with the sisters. Venderbright means a little money, but most of all the point where the Northern seas begin to turn truly treacherous.

Every place has a meaning, both in the sunless sea and in my mental map. Increasingly, I do not look at the map proper, but recognise rock shapes and beacons, knowing which destination they mean I will reach next. With each trip I voyage a little further out, adding new places to that chart in my mind’s eye, each with its own meaning, its own risks and its own rewards.

Sunless Sea makes a cartographer of me. We are in an era where the map is perhaps the central aspect of so many games – strewn with icons, which some neat-freak demon at the base of our skull demands we methodically clean up until we’re fully unfettered of its emblems, and yet these are never really about maps. They are about following directions. Sunless is about the gradual creation and then memorisation of a map which, though it may have much in common with other players’ maps, is just for you. An atlas of an imaginary place: sketch it out, have those grim ports and sunken towns become destinations with meaning.

Sombre art, strange faces, implied menace in sound and in words, and an imaginary map: Sunless Sea does all it can to make me feel as though I am eking out life in its Fallen London, a city collapsed into the sea and into darkness. Grim, lonely, dangerous, perhaps even futile. A game with this much focus on aesthetics and on the import of names often does so at the expense of what some feel is ‘game’. I have no interest in exploring the is/isn’t debate, other than to say that, in Sunless Sea’s case, there is no shortage of what even the least accommodating mindset would call ‘game.’

It has statistics to raise, it has supplies to manage, it has conversations which unlock bonuses, it has monsters to fight, it has upgrades to purchase, it has quests to fulfil and characters to romance or rescue. My in-game journal is a delicately-presented collection of specific objectives, some directly-stated, some hinted-at. It is, for all its unusual and careful style and sometimes glacially slow pace, a roleplaying game, in which a small iron boat is the protagonist.

There is more than enough there that I could simply follow instructions if I so wished. I find, though, that they work in tandem with my own personal, slowly shifting objectives – to reach further East, past the Salt Lions at last; to earn enough to buy the weapons which will enable survival against the living icebergs in the frozen lands around Brite and beyond; to one day accrue enough fuel to brave the ascent through the Cumaean Canal and into the unfallen land above this black, cruel, subterranean sea. I absolutely do not have to follow any objectives, in other words. I go where I want (or where I can) at my own pace. I do not necessarily even have to fight anything if I do not want to, although I will need to employ great caution at sea in order to ensure this.

FTL lurks somewhere near Sunless Sea’s core, but this is danger-strewn travel as a long, drawn out sigh of mingled terror and contentment. It never pushes you, never brings up danger right behind you or has it materialise right in front of you – you direct every action, every voyage, so when trouble arises it’s always your fault. When things go horribly wrong it’s invariably because you’ve overreached yourself, tried to travel too far with not enough fuel, tried to battle something you weren’t prepared for, spent all your money on an upgrade you were hungry for, and not because unseen dice did not roll in your favour. (Though there are narrative events at port which carry a chance of success or failure, but this is clearly dictated by your various skills, and you can simply choose to not do one for which you are unqualified). The greatest danger in Sunless Sea is not having enough fuel or food, and running out is only ever a result of your own miscalculation, complacency or impatience.

I am glad to have a game where, even if its world is deadly, I get to set the rules and speed of engagement. I do have one major reservation, though that is not a certain reservation as it will change from game-to-game and with time. Initials forays out to nearby ports are easy enough, while far-flung trips mean greater rewards, but the middleground is a problem.

There is a sort of black belt around to the sea’s loose centre, within which relatively few ports of import can be found. That this means scant opportunity to resupply is one thing (and, really, you should only be buying supplies from places where they are known to be cheap anyway), but that there is nowhere to check in and grab a port report which you can submit back in Fallen London for reasonable rewards is a greater one. I have hit the wall in Sunless Sea a few times because I simply cannot earn money to fund a trip further out, let alone buy upgrades.

Very slow attrition, hitting the same few ports over and over will gradually bring in enough money and chance rewards to buy enough fuel to reach further flung territories, but at times I have found this too onerous. With a starting ship, the speed of travel can be so slow, the waiting maddening. An accurate representation of the life Sunless Sea means to evoke, but it does mean some players may bounce right off it a couple of hours in.

There is an ‘easy’ mode which allows manual saving and reloading, but Sunless Sea is designed to be played with permadeath on. This means that when you perish, while you can choose to pass some of your money, crew or (most precious of all) your map to the next character, you must repeat all the work of the ever-widening circle required to explore the further reaches.

In time, clearer strategies to cope with the middle-sea spread will emerge and become commonplace, or perhaps one or two more ports (‘stories’, as the game’s updater calls it) will be added to ease players over this hump. It is by no means a critical issue, but it is one that will cause frustration in those who do not have great reserves of patience.

Perhaps they wouldn’t have taken to Sunless Sea anyway, for it’s also a game which asks a great amount of reading from its player. You will never see a human beyond a still icon of their face, and you will never hear a spoken voice, so to get a sense of their characters or of the finer details of the places they inhabit you will have to read. There are some quarter of a million words in Sunless Sea already, with more due to be added over time. In tone and theme they borrow liberally from Lovecraft, Gaiman and Meiville, and any number of other inspirations from across the spectrum of both low and high culture, and while I don’t believe that Sunless Sea is pretending it’s invented a language of its own, I do think its writers are enormously skilled and the result is enormously characterful.

From lascivious descriptions of freakish faces or desolate places, down to brief lines such as how the crew appear anxiously on deck once they sight home waters, the text and dialogue works and works and works to make Sunless Sea’s intricate but often static environments so much more than the sum of their sunken parts. This is a game, and a world, to lose yourself in and revel in the little, playful details of. That’s why I stay, even when it’s giving me a hard time. That’s why my heart always skips a beat whenever I see Low Barnet. Nearly home. And home means something.

To some degree, Sunless Sea’s wonderful worldbuilding and shaggy dog’s tale-weaving is in spite of itself. Its interface is a touch plain and overly clicky, it suffers for the lack of any zoom function (oh, to simply scroll out to see the main-screen-as-map, or to zoom in to make a skirmish with a giant crab that little more exciting), and sometimes the item requirements to fulfil a quest or even engage a character in conversation seem so many, so involved and so time-consuming that there’s almost a touch of Farmville to proceedings. While its map is refreshingly icon-free, its journal and some of its conversations are effectively long lists of icons. Sometimes this shatters the illusion, reveals a certainly utilitarianism at the game’s heart, and I can almost see the parts Sunless Sea was made out of.

Then I see Low Barnet, I know that home is close, a nautical-gothic tune strikes up, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. Except, perhaps, for out there, in the fog far, far way, on dark waters I’m yet to explore.

Look, Sunless Sea isn’t for everyone. It requires patience, and it requires no small amount of imagination. For those who have those qualities, or are prepared to try and acquire them, I would say that Sunless Sea is an uncommonly rewarding roleplaying game, and an essential one.

Sunless Sea left Early Access and became a full release today. It’s on Steam, Humble, and GOG.

97 Comments

  1. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    *sigh* Okay, fine.
    *eats own eyes*

    • sinister agent says:

      I hear a spin-off forming….

      • Fnord73 says:

        I was able to give my coming captain in Sunless Sea crates today in Fallen London. Thats pretty cool. I want my Fallen Londonchar to be able to board my ship and serve as first mate.

        • Bugamn says:

          Do you really want to lose your Fallen Lodon Char? Mine has already taken months of playing.

  2. Bishop149 says:

    Almost worth a buy for the pun of “Low Barnet” alone . . any more?
    Capsize park?
    Harrow-in-the-deep?
    Lowminster?

    Ok I’m out.
    Colour me intrigued though, duely added to Steam wishlist.

    • Premium User Badge

      Godwhacker says:

      Goldfish Green
      Streatham Hulls
      Mile Under
      The Isle of Dogs

      Sounds like an inverted Neverwhere, which can only be a good thing

  3. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Looks very intriguing indeed. The kind of game that it’s important what music you listen to while playing it. I wonder.

    • Eery Petrol says:

      It looks like the kind of game that would want to bathe itself in the Blade Runner soundtrack.

    • Craxel says:

      Xela’s The Dead Sea.

      • fawstoar says:

        Holy shit this is gorgeous. Is there more? I need more music like this.

      • Bassem says:

        I’m very happily surprised to find another Xela lover! And yes, it would apply very well to this game.

    • David Bliff says:

      The game’s own music is very good at setting the mood! One track that’s stuck in my mind sounds a lot like the theme from “The Fountain” – eerie and mysterious, but forceful enough to give a sense of the need to push onward rather than just be scared.

      • klops says:

        It is. I also very much like that the devs have understood not to play music in repeat. The songs start in specific places and play for a while, then silence again. Very nice!

        • JamesPatton says:

          Totally agree – I especially love the music for London and the Tomb Colonies, that music now really contributes to those places and gives me an incredible sense of those locations.

          I do wish, though, that there were a few more tracks. Some tracks (London, Palmerston, Verderbight, Frostfound) are perfect for their location, but some tracks are used for several different places. When that happens, those fantastic tracks are kind of demoted in my mind from “This is the music of the Shepherd Isles!” to “Hm, generic seafaring music.”

          Still, this is my one complaint. The music itself is gorgeous, I just wish there were a bit more.

        • Cross says:

          WITH the notable and utterly infuriating exception of the music that plays when your terror goes over 90. Not only is the music bad, but it’s short and loops awkwardly, leaving me to turn the music off whenever madness takes the ship.

  4. Borodin says:

    Lovely words Alec. Thank you.

  5. Jac says:

    I dread to think what monstrosities await in a sunless Croydon.

  6. sansenoy says:

    The only kickstarter project I funded, glad it turned out great…

  7. zog 081 says:

    Finally, after years, I registered to comment.

    I just picked this up yesterday, have followed it for awhile.
    -Edit-
    I’ve also just noticed its 10% off on steam, I purchased yesterday and I am happy to have paid full price.-

    Game Playing Advice From A Guy Who Has Had it for A Day Below
    minor spoilish things below.

    I’m finding early game I’ve learned a few things. Lifebergs will sit still and get shot if you are willing to sit still and shoot them. Find the Salt Lions, its currently my economic lifeline, the hardest part was scrounging up the 200 echos I needed to put the deposit on the first load of basalt to take back to london, this is the best trade I have found early game. The admiralty will pay for port reports, 1 fuel and some echos per report, they will pay the same amount for repeat reports, so, if there is a port close to where you steam, its generally worth it to stop just to get the report to take back. Finally, the biggest advice, keep your light off, it burns a LOT of fuel to use, terror increases faster, but the fuel conservation is enormous.

    • Premium User Badge

      alexiskennedy says:

      >I am happy to have paid full price

      I’m happy you’re happy! and I’m pleased to tell you that purchasing in EA has got you lifetime DLC (we’ve committed to at least one expansion pack).

  8. Diziet Sma says:

    Also available on GOG if your boat floats that particular way:

    link to gog.com

    and a smite cheaper too.

    • karnak says:

      Why do the good folks of RPS almost always solely announce the sales at Steam, hen some games also launch in GOG?
      Because everything is Steam and Steam is everything?

      Or is Valve giving them “gift cards” or something?

      • Premium User Badge

        X_kot says:

        Maybe…but then again, you might a PCGamer sock puppet, conducting psyops to poison the well. And then maybe I’m an astroturfing account meant to discredit you.

      • Crimsoneer says:

        SOUND THE CORRUPTION ALARM BATMAN

      • quietone says:

        Holy Priory of Sion! We have been caught!

        I told you that Steam’s plan for world domination via fluoridation of games would not work! Quickly! To the escape pods!

        • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

          Too late! The escape pods are filled with ill-gotten gold!

          • All is Well says:

            See, if we’d done what I wanted to do and took our bribes in Doritos, we wouldn’t be having this problem. Not so “bordering on the moronic” now, is it?

      • SuicideKing says:

        I swear, it’s like there’s no ethics in…YOU GUESSED IT, POLITICS!

    • Diziet Sma says:

      Blooming ‘eck… all the above in reply to a pun!

  9. Deepo says:

    Should I play the Fallen London browser game before I dive into this?

    • Premium User Badge

      Arnvidr says:

      It’s not necessary.

    • malkav11 says:

      Alongside, perhaps. It’s a wonderful thing, Fallen London, but it does have its own pace and there’s no need to wait for the months it will take to unfold its deeper mysteries to you just to enjoy Sunless Sea.

      • JamesPatton says:

        Totally agree. My Sunless Sea experience is much richer thanks to my time in Fallen London, but neither one requires the other at all.

        They are both utterly lovely, though.

    • grrrz says:

      I hear this one is more immersive.
      It will be even more with the submarine DLC (it’s actually gonna happend)

  10. Shadow says:

    (…)you direct every action, every voyage, so when trouble arises it’s always your fault. When things go horribly wrong it’s invariably because you’ve overreached yourself, tried to travel too far with not enough fuel, tried to battle something you weren’t prepared for, spent all your money on an upgrade you were hungry for, and not because unseen dice did not roll in your favour.

    Now that is a proper roguelike. A good specimen of the (sub)genre emphasizes player skill and knowledge, and minimizes random uncontrollable “oops, you died” situations.

    I’m really looking forward to giving the release version a shot once I return home from work.

    • JamesPatton says:

      This quote is really spot on. My closest shave came today when I upgraded my ship, boldly decided to go on a long, long voyage and – stupidly! – forgot to hire more crew. So when I lost 3 crewmembers to a fit of madness, I suddenly found myself understaffed and able to move only at a crawl.

      The rest of the voyage went from bad to worse. I hired more crew (at a pretty stiff price) and continued on my way, still thinking I could ambitiously complete the voyage. And of course I couldn’t resist picking a risky action in a port, lost another crewmember and was back to the snail’s pace.

      By the time I admitted to myself that this whole voyage was a terrible failure I was down to zero fuel and had to cannibalise my supplies for more (very VERY bad), I was crawling along at half-speed, my terror was at 90% and I was being routinely battered by three Jillyfleurs (nasty things) which all seemed to have it in for me. This was brilliant in two ways: 1) It was all my own stupid fault and 2) somewhere in the delirium of terror my character started to hallucinate. I now, amazingly, have a new crew member who is, as far as I can tell, a figment of my imagination. Even when it punishes you this game does it in style.

  11. McCrank says:

    So I can’t tell, is the game worth buying?

    • Shadow says:

      Judge from this:

      Look, Sunless Sea isn’t for everyone. It requires patience, and it requires no small amount of imagination. For those who have those qualities, or are prepared to try and acquire them, I would say that Sunless Sea is an uncommonly rewarding roleplaying game, and an essential one.

    • Jimbo says:

      You get to battle Horace.

    • uncleezno says:

      How much time/patience do you have? I enjoy reading loads of books, and the text in this game isn’t an issue – the grind is. Back and forth, back and forth making supply runs to hopefully get a few sentences of interesting text.

      I haven’t played Fallen London, but I got this game on Early Access at RPS’s recommendation. Maybe if I were younger and had hours to give to this game, I’d enjoy it more, but as it is, it’s too slow for me.

      • klops says:

        My thoughts exactly. Having patience and disliking grinding do not rule each other out.

        You don’t grind in the roguelikes I’ve played (mostly ADOM). You proceed. Permadeath is not same as roguelike. In Sunless Sea you grind. Big time. That’s why the roguelike comparisons don’t work well. Like Meer said: “FTL lurks somewhere in the SS’s core”. Somewhere, sure, but pretty far and deep.

        A demo would be good. People fascinated with the stories and the word play could fall in love with the game and buy it while anti-grinders could skip it.

        • klops says:

          I should add that despite my and other people’s critique I do enjoy the game. Very much at times.

      • Timbrelaine says:

        Very much this. I like fallen london, and I really wanted to like this game. But the sunless sea is made of syrup. I put the game down rather than continue playing with the larger ships, which are even slower than the starter.

        • grrrz says:

          that’s why they made a smaller faster stealth ship, at the expense of hull, cargo and crew. with this one and a good veil score you can pretty much entirely avoid combat. with a better engine it gets really faster.

          • klops says:

            The syrupiness is not because of the combat – you can pretty much avoid fighting. I’ve fought only when I chose to. If you have the fastest (shop bought) engine, you still may have to wait in the port for “something awaits you” to happen after zailed half the map. Many times it’s like the game is waving its finger at me for being too eager to play it.

      • FluffyHyena says:

        The exploration part is ace, it really feels like I’m discovering an unknown world. It’s a pleasure to read and watch.

        But the game part becomes jarring a few hours in, once you’ve completed all the easy bits (in my case the left third of the map). The annoying part is fuel. While you can get food by hunting creatures of the zee, and don’t have to worry about ammo (unlimited), fuel can only be found in some harbours. Which means you’re off enjoying the exploration part, and ooops better go back to London to exchange stuff for fuel.
        Those rides back to London really are the albatross of this otherwise excellent game.

        I wish Failbetter Games and Amplitude Studios would make a game together. FG creating a world, and AS making the gaming bits.

      • JamesPatton says:

        These are all interesting thoughts. I will say one thing: I also got this on EA, and I also thought it was a bit of a slog. I’d buy fuel and stores, take on some tomb colonist passengers, and head up to Venderbight. Then I’d come back down and repeat, with a small 50 echo profit. Sometimes I would go further but the Venderbight run was the core of my experience: grindy, but reliable.

        But they’ve changed a number of things since it was in EA. Firstly, no more Venderbight run. It’s gone now. They’re forcing you to get cash in some other way, so you have to stretch your wings and go further afield. My experience of this is that I’m much less likely to get stuck in a grind-rut now – but on the other hand it is a bit scary not having that trade route to fall back on.

        Secondly, you now get 1 fuel for every port report you hand in to the admiralty. Port reports are your financial lifeblood – you stop at a port to look for stories, sure, but make sure you also file a report because the admiral will pay for that. The report system is great because it means that your travel is always compensated, as long as you try to stop in at any ports along the way. By also giving you 1 fuel after you hand in your report, they’re also giving you a helping hand with future endeavours: “You went to lots of ports? Great! Here’s some fuel so you can go to lots more ports.” This change really is great because you can come home, hand in your reports and instantly recoup all (or at least some) of your fuel costs.

        These two changes have pushed me towards exploration more than in the EA builds, and it’s worked really well. In EA, I’d start strong, make a few hundred echoes and then plateau – and then I’d be stuck grinding. But now I find it’s much easier to push further out, and that’s how you escape the grind.

        • grrrz says:

          I also like how the more complex stories in port that takes much more time are not only rewarding in themselves but give you an itemised story like the “extraordinary implication” that you can give to the scholar for money. I like the fact that in general all these different types of story items can become a currency when in the reality of this world they’re just words.
          these and the port reports can actually get you founded without much trouble, and I don’t think you can run out of them.
          but it takes so much time. not only to move your little ship, but to get acquinted a little better with the world, to have a little grasp on some of his rules, to the point of having moments of frustrating confusion with some of the enigmas.

    • HopperUK says:

      Does the game described in the words above sound worth buying to you? If so, then yes. If not, then no.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      It reads like a 7, but out of how many?

  12. quietone says:

    I love this game, even if I can’t play it for long. This is a proper roguelike in its soul. Slow, cerebral, numbers and upgrades…but most of all, you get to make your own story.

  13. Chirez says:

    *Venderbight

    (sorry)

  14. Muzman says:

    That ‘Lights of home’ tune really does nail that moment of finally making it back again.

    link to youtu.be

    I was thinking that, structurally, in terms of an exploration game what they’ve done is pretty unusual and risky. There aren’t really any second ‘hubs’, if you like, that you can rely on as second and third bases of operations like most games of this sort. You are utterly dependent on getting back to London most of the time. Which on one level seems like a mistake. But it really ramps up the feeling of caution, risk and alienation. Do you press on just that little bit further to find riches or find nothing and are claimed by the ‘zee’ on the way back? And of course this also gives that massive sense of relief in making it home.

    (well there are other places where you can buy stuff you need but they’re often spread out, not open to you at first or you don’t know they’re there. I have ended up making little cheat sheets of mysteries discovered and manifests of port markets and things just to keep up with it all. I haven’t done that in a decade and a half. maybe two).

    • JamesPatton says:

      Yes, exactly. And making London top dog is interesting in other ways, too: I’ve found 2 places, for example, where fuel is cheaper than in London. So… should I pack enough fuel for a trip out, and then buy more there? What if my plans change? They also become interesting emergency markets if I’m stranded and low on supplies: “Oh, I can stop off at ________ and refuel there. Phew!” But if that wasn’t on my itinerary then that will take me even further out of my way, and perhaps skew the shape of my whole voyage.

      And London feels like home, now. That scene and that piece of music.

  15. Guvornator says:

    I’m stunned Richard Cobbett reviewed this, seeing as he wrote for it. I know Gamergate are kind of reactionary, but this is exactly the kind of thing they’re talking about.
    link to richardcobbett.com

    • Muzman says:

      Doubly disgusting is that, after all the back-channel talk about injecting as much commentary as possible on how the game handles female characters and lesbian relationships he doesn’t even put it in!
      I’m starting to think corrupting games journalism might not have been the way to kick off the glorious New Internationale.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Actually if you play a female character, you get +200 to all stats as an apology for history, while if you play a male one you get a lecture on the patriarchy. It’s in small text though, so might have gone unnoticed.

    • David Bliff says:

      This is delightful.

  16. David Bliff says:

    I bought this earlier today when it was still in Early Access after reading the Eurogamer review. I was a little worried as I’m terrible at FTL and often don’t have the patience for text-heavy games, but it’s really interesting and I’ll be thinking about the game and coming back to it for quite a while I suspect, even if I never plumb the depths of the game which are transparently there for people who are much better at these sorts of games than I am.

    My first two playthroughs ended very, very quickly, and I wasn’t sure I really *got* the game. My latest run (and first on the release code, which does seem to have fixed a few things which were confusing to me in the last EA build) went much better, because I had learned to focus on exploration for its own sake, backed up financially by admiralty missions which really are the safest way to start. As a result of this I survived much longer and got pretty far to the east before being suddenly killed by some sort of eldritch mountain.

    Obviously the Lovecraft influence on the game is self-apparent, and others have brought up other authors whose work I haven’t read like Gaiman, but my historian’s brain is honestly seeing a lot of Conrad and other contemporary Victorian literature/history in this. It’s a remarkably well-executed setting, with a fantastic balance of humor and dark grounding. The writers have done an absolutely incredible job of capturing the behavioral particularities and concerns of the age, and I’m glad I paid full price for the game.

    • JamesPatton says:

      Absolutely. To me it has as much Conrad and Herman Melville as it does Lovecraft – perhaps more so, actually. The Eurogamer review put it quite nicely:

      “Sunless Sea is a game about transport in another way too: it takes us to another, currently vanished period in human history. It’s fictional and yet it’s also representative of a time when this kind of travel was at once essential, burdensome and perilous.”

      I love the idea that it took a game with living icebergs where the dead can’t die to teach us about the strange mystery of the sea only 150 years ago.

  17. horsemedic says:

    Nothing on the combat?

    • klops says:

      You should avoid combat.

      1. It’s not fun (rhimes!). It’s tedious.
      2. The rewards are useless. Fight an easy enemy and get a cache of wine. Fight one-of-a-kind-monster with 500 hp and get a barrel of diamonds or 50-100 fragments. You can get those much easier by buying them with the money earned with port reports/delivery missions.
      3. You get damaged (costly at the early game, dangerous at all times). Also circling the enemy takes time which means that you burn fuel and/or gain terror.

      Fortunately you can pretty much avoid combat with the starting ship, some veils (street urchin background) and circling enemies with the lights off. I’ve fought only when I chose to do so.

      • JamesPatton says:

        Yes, fight when you have a massive advantage or when you have no other choice. Anything else is a baaaad idea. I fight easy monsters quite often (1 hit kill, so very low risk) and I sometimes fight easy ships (2 hits to kill – a bit risky). Anything above that I will NEVER fight unless my guns can blow them out of the water in a few hits, or if they’re a unique monster which unlocks a quest (eg. finding something inside a sea monster).

  18. Rizlar says:

    We are in an era where the map is perhaps the central aspect of so many games – strewn with icons, which some neat-freak demon at the base of our skull demands we methodically clean up until we’re fully unfettered of its emblems, and yet these are never really about maps. They are about following directions. Sunless is about the gradual creation and then memorisation of a map which, though it may have much in common with other players’ maps, is just for you. An atlas of an imaginary place: sketch it out, have those grim ports and sunken towns become destinations with meaning.

    Oof. Maps are so fucking interesting. We can map anything – mind maps, symbolic maps, flow charts, infomatics. We understand the world as maps and express ourselves as maps. Pretty much any form of expression is a map of something else. Maps mean much more than what they appear to represent. And they are incredibly personal.

    While its map is refreshingly icon-free, its journal and some of its conversations are effectively long lists of icons. Sometimes this shatters the illusion, reveals a certainly utilitarianism at the game’s heart, and I can almost see the parts Sunless Sea was made out of.

    This sounds very much like Fallen London. And still Fallen London is amazing. I intensely look forward to playing Sunless Sea tomorrow, when I’m not quite so drunk.

  19. tehfish says:

    Looks like my kind of thing, will have to pick it up at some point.

    I just wish they’d also release a version of fallen london without the very tedious ‘wait x minutes or pay money to refresh your actions’ nonsense. The writing is wondrous, the rationing by time is not.

    • Cross says:

      Yes, but i bet the devs would also like to eat. Secondarily, i think rationing how much of the story you can see in one go stops it getting tedious and meaningless, and also means it’ll take a LONG time to see everything fallen London offers you.

  20. alms says:

    $89 an hour … no, I mean: this sounds like a game I’d like to hand over to a younger clone of myself, the one who still has patience to read tons of text and in the game.

    Burn Richard at the stake! the weather is awful and cold, and I’d greatly welcome some human warmth. Wait, that came out all wrong.

  21. onodera says:

    How well does it support touch controls? I do more and more gaming on my Surface Pro 3 while guarding my baby’s sleep, and there’s no place for a mouse on my lap.

    • Carl says:

      I play it on my Surface with the stylus and keyboard and it works fine

  22. Fnord73 says:

    Its so very cool, you can give your captain in Sunless bonuses from your player in Fallen London :-D

  23. monstermagnet says:

    I’m getting one.

  24. Loam says:

    Actually, if you’ve been passing on the chart every time, that probably explains your middleground slump. Randomly generated map on each playthrough by default, remember? The western and southern coasts stay the same, but most of the map gets shuffled around.

  25. mortal_vombat says:

    Very high on my wishlist, at this point i’m doing my best looking for a job mostly so i can catch up a little with the interesting games coming out lately xD

  26. bfwebster says:

    Alec’s review is spot on, both for the game’s strengths and for its weaknesses.

    Bought this yesterday (via Steam), have 12 hours in so far (I was up until 0130 playing last night, which says much for the game). I took a break after playing a few hours this morning. Why? I was in the fourth of a string of captains; had finally saved up enough to buy lodgings; did not spend the extra 200 to get a will; and died on my next trip out. Sigh.

    Not many games have captured me so quickly with its combination of mechanics and atmosphere; Dishonored comes to mind as the last that did. The atmosphere is lovely, and I find myself drawn into the game. (I have a bit of game crush on the Wistful Deviless on Mount Palmerston; she was, in fact, the last character I interacted with before I died at sea sailing east from there, and even as I drowned, I wondered if I should have given her my soul.)

    Alec is also right that the middle game is what’s tough. I’m presented with a choice of ship hulls, yet I find it hard (so far) to see how I’m ever going to accumulate the capital to buy one that will actually be an improvement over my starting one (with weapons to match). I have no plans to abandon the game, but at this point, I worry about a lot of tedium and starting-from-scratch again and again.

    I wonder if the middle-game issue has to do with it being an indy Kickstarter game. When I did game design and development 30+ years ago, I found myself falling into the trap of not recognizing that what was easy and obvious for me — since I developed and tested the game constantly — would not be easy and obvious to someone picking it up for the first time. In games, there is always a fine line between letting the gamer have the joy of figuring things out and making the game appear so tedious or frustrating that the gamer quits (and, worse yet, writes a negative review).

    Anyway, it’s an outstanding game. I had a bit of a financial windfall this last captain, which gave me some encouragement. But I’m back to (mostly) square one again. We’ll see what happens this time.

    UPDATE: I did just make a catastrophic error caused, in part, by the chain-of-captains (though one could claim it’s inherent in any rogue-like game). I was trying to scrounge up enough cash to do something and sold what I thought was my old engine, having bought a new one. Oops. That new one I bought was with my _previous_ captain, just before he got killed. So I sold the only working engine for my boat and did not have the funds to buy a new one. Crap. I don’t think there’s an easy way to commit suicide in London, so I just started a new chain of captains.

    • Loam says:

      I was actually really intrigued by that comment in the review, and as you can see, I hypothesized that the reviewer’s experience was affected by keeping an unaccommodating map. However, a second person saying the same is reason to at least reconsider that hypothesis.

      The thing is, I had a LOT of trouble starting out, and couldn’t get very far before dying. However, once a friendly player gave me one piece of beginner’s advice and I stopped trying to keep previous maps, I was able to make it much further, and only died that time because I made a clear and avoidable error. After that, it was pretty smooth zailing — not that there wasn’t a lot of tension and a lot of “oh shit” moments (and one particularly memorable “NO! HOW COULD YOU!?”), but I didn’t feel trapped in absolute hopelessness or forced into tedious paths. And that was still in EA, when there were far fewer stories and opportunities than there are now.

      So I’m really curious as to whether the discrepancy in experiences is more attributable to the whim of the Random Number Gods (i.e., did I just get a good map?) or to the different ways in which different people approach fictional/entertainment (e.g., length and frequency of play sessions, natural pacing preferences, etc.).

      edit: or, of course, more likely some mixture of both, but there’s often a more predominant factor — you know what I mean!

      • Muzman says:

        I’d say it’s definitely part of it, all that. It’s the weird tension between the regular game and the randomly generated. My theory is people respond better to random games if the death/rebirth is fairly quick and there is little investment. A slower pace and something more involved and there’s an expectation to be eased in a bit, plus you’re enjoying the investment and if the mechanics don’t facilitate adding to that experience people can get frustrated, because ‘getting to the next bit’ to get more story or whatever is why we play games like that at all (as distinct from accumulating score under constant threat of death as a sort of skill/endurance test).

        I don’t know if I’ve expressed that very well, but these things are sometimes at odds I find.

        Anyway, yes, I think it’s better to let the map reshuffling work for you. Or try to. I’d say, as you do, that it’s only really worth passing down a map if you have uncovered a pretty decent amount of it. Maybe half. Or think you were doing really well and knew of a great trade or two and merely died by misadventure. My first four captains didn’t last long. My fifth discovered a really nice lil’ earner relatively near London that I’m pretty sure wasn’t there before (I’d forgotten about map reshuffles) and I’ve been on my way ever since. And this was when the game was a lot harder.

    • grrrz says:

      there was probably a way to get out of this:
      “buying” the cheapest boat (the one with 1 hull), which would have brought you 500 echoes, which is enough to buy an engine, then suicide yourself with your dining table.

    • JamesPatton says:

      I’m very interested in this mid-game tedium. I found it was ok, but it’s worth noting that every time I made a significant upgrade (new gun; new engine; new hull) it was due less to any investments or good planning, and was much more down to lucky windfalls. But perhaps those lucky windfalls are the very things that are meant to get you out of that rut?

      • Loam says:

        Well, yes, exploration is meant to reward you with lucky windfalls, something that no amount of careful planning can duplicate (although careful planning can certainly *facilitate*).

  27. archwaykitten says:

    A clump of rocks just barely below water? Those are buildings, sir! When London fell, poor Barnet fell just a little bit farther.

  28. Frostbeard says:

    I am just leaving this here

    link to reddit.com

    in case you ever wanted to go swimming again

    [edit]
    Several of the redditors there have already discovered this game, and collectively decided not to play ;)

  29. dashent says:

    Yeah, I can agree with the comments made by most of you here. The storytelling is great, and the foreboding feeling of exploring a dark but enticing world, never quite sure of return when leaving port, is absolutely spot-on. BUT the game REALLY grinds, the movement is way too slow, the rewards for obtaining new equipment really too slim for the effort involved. You get a bigger ship, it ends up much slower AND your larger crew now get through food twice as fast. Buy a faster engine? Your 10% speed increase means you burn double the fuel. At the same time, your income sources do not scale at all with your running costs. I get that the game is being miserly with upgrades so you can never quite feel safe on the zee, but it goes too far the other way – it makes the effort feel futile and does not have a good feeling of progression.

    My solution? After I played for a few hours – drank in the mood and legitimately worked out how to travel safely and make money reliably, I edited my save to “gift” myself some money and make travel speed significantly faster. In my head I pretend I spent 100 hours going back and forth and ferrying the same goods over and over again, the end results is the same and I get to enjoy some cool writing and atmosphere. Does it take some of the excitement out of the game? Yes. Do I have time for this grindy bullshit? No.

  30. dajt says:

    I think the reviews for this game are a bit over the top. I know it’s right up RPS’s alley, but still. It is choose your own adventure mechanics wrapped in a lousy interface. The story and journal parts of the gazette are not very good at all

    I really like the setting, the lore, and the art. I think Failbetter have a great world in which to create games and I hope they can make some more. And the game is only $20, so I’d say worth buying if you’re remotely interested.

    But is certainly isn’t everything the reviews say it is.

    There is quite a lot about this version of the world which doesn’t make sense. The combat is silly, and given how small the rewards, and great the risk, I cannot see why anyone would risk being a pirate – ie why are there pirates in the zea?

    The trade goods are pretty useless at present, and I have not yet seen or read anything to make me want to upgrade my ship or it’s equipment. That whole part of the game could have been dropped. Perhaps more focus on the attributes and making the game play differently according to them, and just have one ship type.

    I also don’t like the way you see lots of stuff in the story you can’t do yet. I think it spoils the discovery. I suppose people would complain they didn’t know the way ‘forward’ if that stuff wasn’t shown.

    I don’t think the random map is going to have a long shelf life either. It won’t take long to learn all the things which can appear, then it will just be an early game chore to find the ones you want.

    The reviews really smell of ‘we love this game, it’s ART and we’re sophistcated enough to apprecitate it’. It’s not. It is choose your own adventure with lots of cutesy words, often used badly.

    But if we want designers to give us variety we still need to support this sort of thing, so I am glad Failbetter were able to make it, and I don’t regret buying it. However the gem here is the setting, not the game itself.

    • Muzman says:

      It’s an unusual and quirky world that you either go with or you don’t. There’s plenty of moments like “Oh, talking militarised Guinea Pigs…Ok” or “Devils now. Sure, whatever!”.
      It’s not just choose your own adventure though, in writing or in options. The many little choices and plotlines often become deliriously intertwined and the game still hangs together.
      And it’s not a trading game or a combat game really. Information and stories are the most important… media of exchange.

      It’s not for everyone. But Alec’s review covers the things for and against very nicely.

      I was also worried that I’d run out of content as well and then the game would hold nothing new for me. Well my current captain has been at ‘zee’ for several hundred days now in game time and not run out of things to do. And this is pre release and I didn’t use the daily updates. So now there’s many new islands and stories, new events and plots around all the different officers and others. I wouldn’t be surprised if the content effectively doubled. And there’s more to come.

      • dajt says:

        Remember Failbetter are a commercial entity and cannot just keep writing new material for this game ad infinitum. At some point they’ll have to work on other things to stay alive.

        I don’t expect too much new stuff after a month or two, unless the overhead of doing so is incredibly low.

        I do think it’s a good game with an excellent setting and atmosphere. I just don’t think it’s a great game, and I think the reviews are overselling it.

        I also hope Failbetter can keep making new games in this setting. Someone else wished Failbetter would team up with another dev team, and I’m thinking that could work too. Not just license the setting out as they’d not have enough control, but team up with someone to take care of the implementation and help with mechanics.

        • Muzman says:

          Sure, but if I’ve been playing it for three months and not run out of things to do/read and on release the content just increased quite substantially, and there’s still more to come…that’s a lot of content. They know randomly dispensing stories at people could get repetitive very easily if there aren’t enough of them, so they act accordingly. Whether you like what they do or not, they have fairly clear ideas about what their game is and follow through for better or worse.
          There’s one expansion owed to the kickstarter and I think they were talking about others. So if you like their content there’s plenty of it. That’s really the thing.