In a world where the city of London has fallen, it’s up to brave steamship captains to explore the depths of your new world. You navigate the Sunless Sea, known as the Unterzee, to try and map the new world you find yourself in. It’s full of friendship and horrors. How much of each you discover depends entirely on you.
Sunless Sea is terrifying in all the best ways. If you’re already familiar with Fallen London you have a sneak peek at how this world operates. It’s a horror game involving the fall of Victorian era London beneath the crust of the earth. It exists now beside the Unterzee, a dark and unforgiving ocean beneath the world as we know it.
You captain your own steamship, and who you are is up to you. A brief sequence of dialogue choices allows you to choose from a variety of backgrounds and motivations that make you who you are. Some of those are locked, and we’ll talk about how you can unlock those in just a bit.
The game plays like an open sandbox-style RPG in that there is a definitive story, but it changes depending on the choices you make and areas you explore. You can play as a stalwart captain who fights brave battles and commits only the most heroic of deeds. One day while battling a deadly Lifeberg, your ship and crew sink sadly to the bottom of the sea.
But that’s not the end of your game. Your character doesn’t resurrect; there is no “Game Over” sequence. You simply create another captain and explore again. Depending on how your captain did, some of your equipment and knowledge rolls over into your new one. But all that exploring you did? Look forward to starting over again because all the maps are randomized. The horror begins fresh again.
The Horror, The Horror
Speaking of horror, this game is fantastic at setting the mood to make you truly afraid of something you know can’t possibly be real. Your ship moves slowly across waters that are pitch black, lit only by a single light at the front of your ship. Ambient music plays in the background, and each blank stretch of sea fills you with dread. As the tension builds you know it can’t be long until you encounter something truly horrific.
And sometimes the horror comes from you. One of the possible scenarios involves you and your crew caught out in the black nothingness, no food stores left on the ship. You turn to cannibalism and devour your crew, going mad in the process. You can also attack a roaming cluster of bats and harvest their meat for your stores, though this earns you the distrust of a crew that fears your descent into darkness.
Sunless Sea obviously succeeds when it comes to setting ambiance, but it also excels at storytelling. One of the key factors in the value of the game is replay ability. How many times do you want to play this game? Do your choices mean anything? How many stories are nestled in this one source? The answers in the Sunless Sea seem endless. If you’re lucky, you make it to a winning end and retire safely, a lifetime of stories and wealth to keep you company. You’re much more likely to die, but if you die after finding a legacy item, the story delves even deeper.
A legacy item is unlocked via a completion challenge. You can successfully send an important person out of Fallen London and back to the surface, for example. After completing this task you get a +25 bonus to your hearts, a skill that measures your ability to heal and keep morale high, the next time you start a play-through.
The stories written make the possibilities for various lives here truly endless. Build a colony and create your own envoys, become a wealthy merchant or sail out on a quest to recover your father’s bones from the depths of the sea.
Despite the terror you feel every time you set sail in Sunless Sea, the rewards and sheer curiosity of what could possibly be out there keep you going. In a world of RPGs that hold your hand and guide you through a story, being tossed into a world where you create your own can seem overwhelming. You have so many choices and there’s no real tutorial or guide. You’re tossed in the deep end, so to speak, hoping you don’t drown.
Though obviously, that’s one of the many likely endings for your poor captain.
With the recent release of its sequel, Sunless Sea is a popular and often discounted grab from the Steam store. Pick it up and take your own steam ship for a spin on these haunted waters. What’s the worst that could happen?