In 1861, London was abducted by a colossal swarm of bats and brought below the surface of the world. Now, it lies on the shore of a vast and dark sea full of monsters, demons, pirates and ancient mysteries. That’s where you come in. For whatever reason, you’ve become a captain and are determined to sail the “Underzee” in spite of its dangers. You are not the first person to make this decision and you certainly won’t be the last, but there’s a very good chance your story won’t be long, if even told at all.
Sunless Sea is a roguelike game by Failbetter Games in which you play as the captain of a ship sailing the Underzee, the immense body of water a mile below the surface of the world. On your journey, you will meet strange people, fight pirates and towering monsters, make questionable choices, haul frightening cargo, and die without resolution or comfort. That’s life in Sunless Sea. Your characters will die, one after another, in a variety of ways. Your ship could be torn apart by the colossal wildlife or shot to pieces by pirates. You could run out of fuel far from shore and starve. You could even run afoul of the nameless gods of the Underzee and suffer their brutal wrath. But Sunless Sea is a roguelike after all, and numerous deaths comes with the territory.
Where Sunless Sea deviates from the norms of the roguelike genre is its choices and story. At the beginning of each playthrough, it’s up to you to decide your character’s past and ambition. Your past gives you an officer and attribute bonuses specific to background, and your ambition determines your win condition, which very much changes how you play the game. Where one ambition has you searching all over the Underzee for the resting place of your father’s remains, another has you striking deals and moving cargo to attain enough riches to retire to an extravagant mansion. Beyond that, the world itself will shape how you play. Each new game of Sunless Sea presents you with a new arrangement of areas to explore, with only a handful of islands and ports in the same place, so you have to rediscover the world all over again. And it is not a small world.
Unfortunately, Sunless Sea is almost too big for its own good. In many ways, the fun of a roguelike game is the quick action, getting you into the game content as quickly as possible so you can die and start up again and again. But emptiness of the great Underzee is part of Sunless Sea‘s content, so while the long periods of paranoid isolation are part of the game, it doesn’t take long for you to get tired of it and start to think of it as a barrier to the rest of the game. The wait that comes with sailing between ports does a very good job of setting the tone of the game, it helps drive home the hopelessness and desperation of most people in the world. But I sometimes get frustrated that I can’t move onto the next part of my quest because my destination is five minutes of lonely sailing away. Occasionally the silence is broken by a pirate or wandering creature, but confrontations are brutal in Sunless Sea and you’re never very far from sinking beneath the waves.
The thing that makes the waiting so frustrating is that Sunless Sea has some amazing stories to tell. There are fascinating places to visit, like an island founded on colossal mushroom caps inhabited by people who insist they’ve died at sea, and an island where talking, industrialist rats fight with armor-clad sentient guinea pigs over a glowing meteor fragment. There is even a volcanic island ruled by devils from Hell, yes THE Hell. Every time I play Sunless Sea, I want to sink my teeth deeper into the amazing world that Failbetter Games has crafted, but there is so much waiting in the way that I can’t help but be annoyed. I feel like a caged dog with a pound of bacon just beyond my reach.
The stories of the world are truly magnificent and the characters doubly so. When you begin, you have two compatriot officers aboard your boat: one determined by your background choice and one Comatose Ferret. The ferret doesn’t do much other than complain, but your other officer always has their own story, as do others you can hire on later. My personal favorite is a navigator who was branded with a symbol from an ancient alphabet that teaches him mysteries of the world, at the expense of his own memories. Each crewman has an objective they want to complete, usually visiting a specific location that you can find during your adventure. The characters on the various islands of the Underzee are all enthralling and their stories are told through well-written dialogue and prose.
All in all, Sunless Sea is an enjoyable game with an unfortunate penchant for putting time and distance between you and the amazing world around you. I absolutely recommend you pick it up on their website, Steam, or GOG. But if you’re the sort of person who gets impatient easily, maybe bring along a book or a pair of knitting needles.