Want To Be a Captain of a Steamship And Explore The Dark Corners Of The Unterzee? - Check Out Sunless Sea, a Survival/Exploration RPG Based On British Poetry
“A zailor raises her hand, sniffs sharply. Blood on the wind.”
- Unknown zailor, Unterzee Chronicles, 1887
All seafaring lovers out there can agree that besides the recently released Sea of Thieves, there haven’t been enough games in last few years that would put us in the shoes of ship captains and allow us to wrestle for the control of the sea, explore the unknown corners of the murky oceans and fight nightmarish sea monsters. And while the excellent Assassin’s Creed Black Flag features large vessels and seaborne combat, the plot was rather standard as any other AC game and exploration of faraway islands rarely contributed to the deepening of the game’s lore. Unbeknown to many gamers, in the same year that AC: Black Flag was released, London-based Failbetter games started developing a story-rich sailing/exploration game which became known as the Sunless Sea. Following a successful Kickstarted campaign which raised more than 100 000 Pounds, the game development lasted for two years before the final release in February of 2015.
Sunless Sea follows the setting of the critically praised web-browser game Fallen London which came out in 2009 and was developed by the same studio. Both games are set during the late 1800’s, in an alternate history timeline where a swarm of bats took the City of London off the face of Earth and transported it to an underground ocean known as the Unterzee. As such, London became the fifth city to be taken underground over the course of hundreds of years with the previous one being Karakorum, the Capital of the Mongol Empire. Over time, the two cities became bitter rivals often waging war with one another, as well facing monsters that dwell on the surrounding islands and underneath the Unterzee’s surface. Besides the Mongol sailors and the subterranean creatures, the Londoners also need to worry about the devil with whom they’ve been in a war before and who so frequently visits the city, that he has opened his own embassy in it.
Fallen London and Sunless Sea are set in the same universe, but are completely different gameplay wise, with first being a browser game and latter a top-down RPG.
Besides the devil’s embassy, the Unterzee is riddled with islands which are home to mind-bending anomalies. For example, the Irem island archipelago serves as a gateway to the Parabola, a dreamlike realm which features unexplainable geography and is inhabited by domesticated cats and serpents. On the other hand, Polythrem is the home of humanoid creatures known as Claymen. As their name suggest, these begins are made of clay and are often used in London as cheap labor, and the player will have an option of transporting them aboard their ship for some good income. The Avid Horizon is also a disturbingly weird place to visit as it is encased in ice, and attempts to pass through its port will result in zailors losing their bodies and be forced to forge new ones while inside.
In terms of gameplay, Sunless Sea is played from a top-down perspective, similarly to the old GTAs. At the very start, players are given a task of creating their captain by choosing his/her past as well as the ambition for which the captain is striving.
The Captain’s past affects the starting stats and go from the Captain being a Street Urchin which gives a bonus to the skills of subtlety and evasion, a Poet for which bonus is awarded to skills of trickery and knowledge, Veteran which grants buffs to damage, Priest which gives bonus to healing and morale, and Natural Philosopher which ups skills of detection and perception.
Conversely, The Captain’s ambition decides his future and as such, sets the conditions for winning the game. Offered ambitions include: Fulfillment for which the Captain needs to write a book of his tales and stories; Wealth for which the Captain needs to get rich and buy the most expensive house; Father’s bones for which the Captain needs to find his father’s remains and return them to London; and The Uttermost East for which the Captain needs to explore and map the entire Unterzee.
Some of the locations that can be visited across the Unterzee.
Following the creation of the captain, the player is awarded a basic ship which will be used for exploration. Each ship requires crew, fuel and supplies in order to run and all of these can be bought in either in London or on the islands across the Unterzee, however the prices of each will vary severely depending on the location and the kind of relations the players has with the locals. Ships can also be upgraded with various equipment such as back and forward weapons, searchlights, engines and other auxiliary equipment. The available upgrades will depend on the type of ship the player possess, so for example, frigates can be upgraded with two weapons while merchant ship can only have forward one, but will have larger cargo space.
From the very start of the story, the players are free to roam the entire Unterzee at their leisure and visit any island at any time, however it is strongly suggested that every trip in pre-planned. This is due to the fact, that the rate at which supplies and fuel is spent depends on the size of the ship and the number of the crew. Running out of fuel means becoming stranded in the dark waters of the Unterzee and losing your ship and maybe your life, while depletion of supplies would cause the crew to start rebelling and even becoming cannibalistic. On top of that, every journey also increases crews’ terror which needs to be maintained in order to avoid mutiny. If any of these bad events happen, player’s Captain has a chance of dying or losing his/her ship.
Shops sell both legal and illegal goods which can be used aboard the ship or sold for big profit, but be careful as customs might randomly decide to search your ship.
If optional permadeath is turned on, the death of a Captain usually means starting from scratch with a complete rearrangement of the Unterzee’s islands unless a will has been made in the previous run. In that case, the new Captain will inherit either a part of the late Captain’s fortune or his ship and upgrades, or the map of the explored areas. Losing your ship on the other hand is a double-edged sword, because although your Captain gets to live and the story progression is saved, you lose your cargo and most of your money and are given a ship “the size of a dining room table” which is not very suited for long voyages.
Overall, Sunless Sea is an incredibly unique game. The narrative is exceptional with many of the important plot elements being taken directly from the British literature, such as the poem Kublah Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge which came as a result of an opium-induced dream (no wonder the devil has an embassy in London). The exploration is quite rewarding, as every new location deepens the game’s lore and potentially starts a new quest. The graphic and the music are immersive and add to the feeling of loneliness which comes with exploring the vast and dark Unterzee. Along with open choices and multiple endings, Sunless Sea is a very engaging game that will offer dozens of hours of playtime and is definitely worth checking out for all seafaring-RPG-loving-sailor-wannabees out there.
Edited by EchelonBrk