Sunless Sea - Impression

Sunless Sea

Platforms: Windows Mac
Developer: Failbetter Games
Publisher: Failbetter Games
Release Date:September 2014

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Dark and Sinister Zee, Have at Thee

Supplies are low. My crew is close to mutiny. They are fueled by terror and rage--rage that their captain strayed from the shallows and brought them North, North to where predatory mountains stalk their berth and bats haunt their dreams. They will die bloody-mawed and alone, but not before they wreak vengeance upon he who brought them to these dreadful climes. Let them! They were not there when the Queen's Dragoons led London's retreat from Hell; they were not shackled to the devil's triremes by shrieking brass. The cowardly milksops will fall, for I am a wolf among lambs! After the mutiny has run its course, when I have recovered my knife, I will be alone. At last. The trip back to London will be slow and dark, but the glimmer of Wolfstack Docks is an unbroken promise. There I will find a new crew, hired with the proceeds from the last ill-fated mission. Once more, I will return to the zee: my inveterate lover, my balm, my opal-eyed warden.

Failbetter Games' Sunless Sea is incomplete, but already provides a rollicking good time--assuming you're the sort who buys into the failure-as-a-form-of-success ethos boasted by roguelikes and indie murder sims. Sunless Sea isn't wholly either; its influences are more inspiring in their breadth. The elevator pitch for the early access release of the game (available from Steam) is something like this: start with open-world trading, exploration, and naval tomfoolery reminiscent of Sid Meier's Pirates and stick it underground in an alternate history where Victorian London was stolen by bats. Next, add the risk, customization, and danger of FTL. Furnish depth through sidequests in the vein of a contemporary RPG, and tie it all together with terminology and literary aplomb from Failbetter's Fallen London browser game. It's a rich, thoughtful stew that's well on its way to becoming a late-night mainstay.

Sunless Sea's story, and by extension, its connection to the world of Fallen London, is one of its strongest assets. The browser game, formerly known as Echo Bazaar, currently spans more than a million words. Sunless Sea's wordy umbilicus to the giving mother suggests every cove and minor NPC is supported by the accumulated work of a literary Leviathan. Better yet, the story doesn't just travel from old game to new. Fallen London narratives that are obscured in mystery in their home game receive further development here. For example, the three Brontean fate-sisters of Hunter's Keep, the New Khanate, and predatory Mt. Nomad all bear the mark of Discovery's flashing light. Newcomers to the Failbetter world shouldn't be inconvenienced by all of this, but the intertextual links may not pay such sweet, storied dividends. Longtime fans, on the other hand, will be up to their ears in gravy.

Each game of Sunless Sea begins with the creation of a zee captain from a list of backgrounds: poet, priest, natural philosopher, soldier, and urchin. Each background provides a bonus in one of the five main stats as well as an officer, who provides bonuses along the way. Next, it's time to pick an ambition. There are few good reasons to sail into the darkness with a guttering lamp and a crew of madmen, but your ambition will do. It's a way of selecting the game's end condition ahead of time, as well as the relative difficulty. Throw on a silhouette, name, and preferred term of address, and it's off to accept quests, trade goods, and be eaten by giant crabs. With luck, your effects will be passed on to your next of kin in the following game.

"Travel through the darkened zee is lonely and contemplative for long stretches, punctuated by knots of danger."

Even in its unfinished state, that atmosphere of the Unterzee is an evocative, nasty, living thing. Darkness is a tangible force that clusters just outside the too-thin nimbi from lighthouses and beacons. Traveling in darkness causes the crew's terror to rise quickly, which leads to madness and mutiny; travel outside of darkness attracts sea monsters and pirates. Traveling too fast eats up valuable fuel, while a steadier pace ensures something else will soon be eaten. Pretty much everyone, including your own crew, is interested in chewing you up and spitting you out. With the price of fuel being what it is in this version, they're more likely to get their wish than not. Even in these times of disaster, the descriptive text continues its siren song of mystery and riches.

Comparisons to roguelike games are easy to make, but only part of the picture. There's an optional permadeath mode. There are lots of ways to die, some of which you'll only learn to avoid from atop a pile of dead zee captains. In an upcoming build, many of the islands will shift between games to mimic exploring uncharted lands. However, combat is a different beast. Running into a traveler on the Unterzee provokes choices--usually to fight or flee. Combat is a semi-real-time affair consisting of loading timer-based actions into a queue. Thankfully, the action is kept sane with an easy-access pause button. Victory comes from balancing illumination actions to keep the enemy visible, evasion abilities to stay hidden, and combat actions to bring the pain. Miscellaneous actions include emergency repairs and scholarly contemplation. Each action in the battle queue counts down to completion based on its complexity. When the timer runs out, the action takes effect. Sometimes it's better to rush with simple actions to overwhelm an opponent, while other times victory requires a careful dance of illumination and slinking off into the shadows. Combat is more functional than inspirational at this point, especially after discovering the ideal process for defeating a specific enemy type. My battles have fallen into three primary categories: 1) riskless victory, 2) outmatched losses, and 3) exploratory scrapes that soon resolve into one of the former categories. It's a solid system, but could benefit from more varied options to promote strategic experimentation.

Travel through the darkened zee is lonely and contemplative for long stretches, punctuated by knots of danger. In some areas, the clouds of bats fly thick enough that they rain down on the deck like miniature hams. Pirates and zee monsters often travel in packs, which can lead to several encounters in a row. Stacked encounters may be less of an issue after upgrading to a newer ship, but the starter model is slow and cumbersome enough to be trouble. Furthermore, the engine code is currently bugged so any attempt to go faster by adding a shovelful of bats to the boiler will result in explosions and death. The music is suitably minimal during these long stretches away from civilization, and its return as shanties and calls to arms are always welcome. While the leisurely pace gives dread time to get in its hooks, it also means travel can be a bit of a slog.

The game is in late beta and much work remains before reaching the promises of the Kickstarter campaign, but this is a game to watch. The project road map promises adventure, intrigue, and all of the less-exciting, but still important tweaks that turn a beta into a complete work. Among these tweaks, I'd especially like to see fewer explosive engines and more profitable trade triangles. The above links offer a few more clues about what's to come, but not enough to spoil the future's surprises before they're crawling over the deck and devouring your crew. Even if combat stays much as it is now, the stories and atmosphere are dark, marvelous fun. Once more into the abyss, delicious friends!

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