Welcome to Fallen London, an alternate depiction of Victorian London sunk into the murky depths of the Unterzee, a sprawling ocean labyrinth teeming with monsters and bandits ready to break your sea legs. Sunless Sea is brimming with ambition and originality. As soon as you hoist the anchor and set sail, you’ll be lost at sea.
Developer: Failbetter Games
Release: February 7th 2015
Story and atmosphere are inextricably instrumental to the game’s appeal factor. Drawing from the very top drawer of Lovecraftian horror, Sunless Sea is a relentlessly eerie game. Fallen London is a dangerous place, with every square yard stuffed bountifully with crooks and creeps. The Unterzee is even more unsettling. A dark ceaseless trail of uncertainty where one legitimately cannot predict what lies ahead. It’s not the kind of lagoon you want to be caught skinny dipping in. The narrative is quite reminiscent of games from the visual novel genre in some respects, titles like Professor Layton or Virtues Last Reward. And while some may groan at the notion of endlessly scrolling through throngs of textboxes, the quality of the writing is so strong that you’ll forgive and forget in a matter of minutes.
Story and setting setting aside, Sunless Sea plays like a roguelike RPG in some respects, as you precariously navigate the treacherous Unterzee from a bird’s eye perspective, on the prowl for pirates and demons who may try to sink your vessel on round trips. You are the captain of your ship and as such you are responsible for it. A great of emphasis is planted on crewing and maintaining your ship, ensuring it has enough resources at its disposal to safely sail the unknown waters beyond your port. Unfortunately the gameplay never quite manages to escape the shadow cast by its narrative. Combat is particular, tires before long and you’ll soon find yourself simply trying to sneak around your enemies, rather to adhere to dull protocol of landing a sneak attack or angling yourself to keep your assault on target. The menu is also problematic. Overcomplicated in its design, it often gets in the way and confuses more often than it helps.
Of course, combat is but a morsel in this smorgasbord of delights. The game’s wealth of customization, from upgrading your ship to explore new waters, to the choices make to progress the experience, are far more rewarding. It almost makes you wonder if combat was such a necessity to begin with. The moral choice system is an especially compelling component. How does one protect their crew from a deranged cult stranded on an island? Or when food supplies are low, do you eat your men (cannibalism is in, didn’t you hear?) or starve to death. The choices you make extend far beyond the typical black and white, good and evil. This game wades into the grey areas that make so many feel uncomfortable. Each encounter is personalized, right down to your love life.
Despite some niggling design issues here and there, Sunless Sea remains an absolute treat of a game through and through. It’s beautifully bleak world will suck you in for hours to come, until every inch of black gelatinous ocean has been sailed over and back. Just remember to pack some oranges.