Review: Sunless Sea23 Mar 2017 2
Review: Sunless Sea
Released 23 Mar 2017
"A game of two halves" is a thing you'll sometimes hear people say. Most often they'll be talking about football. But if they're pale, or squint-eyed, or perhaps dead and wrapped in moth-eaten bandages, they might be talking about Sunless Sea. And they'll be right, because it feels like a amalgam of quite different games in more ways than one. Sticking genres together has the potential for interesting results, so long as the artificer has the skill to cover the join lines.
At first, Sunless Sea looks very much like a fancy, well-written digital gamebook. There's lots of text and plenty of options for the player to choose. How they pan out is often dependent on the skills and items you have, just like classic Fighting Fantasy. Beneath this, though, you'll quickly spot some modern contrivances bolted on to the ancient edifice.
Certain options only unlock once you've progressed to other parts of the story and returned. And there's an economic system, too. You start out in a small boat, with a tiny canon and a sluggish engine. At the docks you can buy fuel for your boat, supplies for your crew and a selection of bizarre items to sell at other ports. With any luck, you'll turn a profit which you can put toward bigger boats, canons and engines.
Launching lurches you into the second half of the game: a real-time rogue-like. Here you steer your boat around a gloomy undersea ocean. The map is semi-procedural. Most ports and islands appear in the same vague area each time. But there's easily enough variety to keep each exploration engaging. Especially since running out of food or fuel, which you can only reliably get at port, are the quickest ways to perma-death.
Here, the seams between the genres show. Traversing the ocean is at once fraught and rather boring. The ship chugs along too slowly to be interesting, all the more so when you're sailing waters you already know. Something you'll want to do a lot early on, to build up a coffer to upgrade your ship and ensure essentials don't run out.
Combat isn't that frequent, and isn't that much fun. Enemies are dumb, maneuver is limited and most battles get decided by the health and weaponry of the protagonists. It's worse on this mobile port than on the PC version. The touchscreen controls feel odd, because they change direction depending on where your ship is pointing. It takes some getting used to, and never gets to be entirely comfortable, even with practice.
So it's a good job that the controls aren't the only odd thing about Sunless Sea.
The game is set in the same universe as Failbetter's browser-based game Fallen London. This is where you'll find the second join. The concept is a bizarre combination of occult horror and fairytale whimsy. Cannibalism and necromancy walk hand in hand with dry puns and taking Guinea-pigs. It shouldn't work, yet it does.
What papers over the cracks between the two is some of the best writing I've ever seen in a game of this style. The sense of place it conjures seems effortless, though I doubt it was anything but. Even the place names - Gaiden Mourn, The Iron and Misery Funging Company - sound oddly real and both fascinating and repellent. Between these ports you can weave a grand plot, although the precise details vary with each play. They depend both on random chance and the choices you make.
You might think that a game so dependent on writing and story would get boring after a play or two. Yet the setting is so well drawn that it matters less than you'd imagine. You remember the writing, like the flickering candles and sinister voices of the Chapel of Lights, each time you visit. The random events ensure you'll get enough different options every time to keep you on your toes.
And as the game progresses, you'll find that it's mechanically rather richer than it first appears. There is no easy money in Sunless Sea. Everything that looks like a rich boon at first you'll end up paying for later. Additional scores like terror, nightmares and the officers you recruit need watching just as much as fuel and food. Whenever you think you've hit a groove, peril and permadeath tend to be round the corner. So the more time you pour into the game, the higher the tension ratchets.
Sunless Sea is not a great game, but it's a very good and very unusual one. In truth, it's a better game with a controller or a keyboard than a touchscreen. But if that's the only route you have to taking passage on the Unterzee, learning the clumsy controls is a price worth paying.