Sunless Sea: A cursory review

David Stark / Zarkonnen
2 Aug 2014, 5:32 p.m.

Some years ago, London suffered a bit of a cataclysm and fell into massive underground caverns filled with weird stuff. Sunless Sea is a roguelikelike where you play as a captain on the underground sea - or "zea", as the game insists on spelling it.

The game's in early access currently, and I'd been aware of it for a little while but put off by the price tag. Ultimately, a preview video by Stuff+ convinced me to give it a try.


Nom nom nom

In the game, you steer your ship between islands in the sunless sea. You are trying to become wealthy, or gather stories and artefacts to improve your abilities and advance the game's plot. Resources are scarce: you need fuel for your ship and supplies for your crew. And every second out on the open ocean increases the terror meter as you and your crew slowly go mad from fear.

This means you die quite a lot: eaten by monsters, cast adrift by a lack of fuel, killed by mutineers. When that happens, you can retain some things for your next game - more if you got around to making a will.

On the islands, you can pursue various stories, which have frequent checks against your (somewhat esoterically named) skills. There's a lot of writing here, which is unsurprising given that this game is an offshoot from the storytelling game Fallen London. Apart from the stories, there is trade, exploration and some (fairly simple) combat:

Combat is soft-realtime use of various abilities.


So is it any good? It's quite fun, it's beautiful, the setting is good, the mechanics are solid. My main gripe is that your ship moves very slowly, combat is repetitive, and opportunities for earning cash are thin on the ground, so you spend a lot of time just steering your ships and doing trivial fights on autopilot. One can hope that this can be ameliorated somewhat by the final version, but I worry that this kind of grindy gameplay is intentional.

The master has developed a taste for bat sandwiches.

Hold on, this seems kind of familiar...

Yeah, this game is pretty much Space Exploration: Serpens Sector not in space. And I have to admit, it does a lot of things better than my game. The will mechanic is a nice way to soften the blow of losing, the game's atmosphere is a lot more coherent, and the resource model of fuel/supplies/lack of terror works really well. I admit I took a whole lot of notes after playing it for the first time. This isn't to say that I'm going to turn SE:SS into a Sunless Sea clone when I restart work on it, but I think some influence will make itself felt...