Sunless Sea is, fundamentally and at its core, a Fallen London roguelike. If you’ve played Fallen London (formally known as Echo Bazaar), then that might be all the information you need. Sunless Sea occupies the same frayed Victorian unreality, and it has the same grim erudition, the same vivid wordsmithing, the same penchant for putting the player in precarious, surreal situations.
But whereas Fallen London is essentially an elaborate delivery system for vividly described settings and branching storylines—some stats and RPG elements, some free-to-play-style cooldowns, but really, mostly, just the words and the choices—Sunless Sea aspires to hang all that on a frame of realtime nautical exploration.
Sunless Sea arrived in Steam Early Access in an uncommonly complete state. It was already full treacherous movement and enjoyably unforgiving management, all enlivened by Failbetter Games’ eerie and inimitable writing. As of today, the game leaves Early Access, and I’m happy—giddy, actually—to report that the systems for zailing and fighting and trading now hum and cohere with greater resonance. Sunless Sea has grown into exactly what I wanted out of a Fallen London roguelike, which is to say that I’m a bit overwhelmed by how inventive and evocative the whole thing is, and also by how truly terrible I am at it.
Well, I’ll get better.
Then again, maybe I won’t.
As I’ve said in reference to Arcen’s oeuvre, there’s joy in mastering a system, but there’s also a thrill in loving a game that you’ll probably never see all of. Hell, I just recently referred to some bosses in The Binding of Isaac as the “final” ones, not realizing that—without spoiling anything specific here—they very much were not. More than a hundred hours in, that game has significant possibilities that I’ve yet to exhaust—key paths that I’ve managed not to wiki-spoil for myself.
Sunless Sea promises similarly well-hidden rewards. It’s designed to be played across numerous player-character lifetimes, with some resources and unlocks (and of course, some knowledge) passed along with each new attempt. The game has 30 Steam Achievements, and all 30 are of them secret achievements, meaning that you don’t know the conditions for unlocking them until you’ve already gone ahead and unlocked them. Sunless Sea is that kind of game.
When I spoke to Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett about A Wizard’s Lizard, I offered lunch break roguelike as one possible way of describing the roguelike-alikes we love so well, and that not everyone is comfortable simply calling roguelikes. The lunch break-based terminology both does and doesn’t apply well to Sunless Sea.
I’ve definitely begun and ended in-game lifetimes in the space of an hour or less, but that’s more a testament to my own sloppy captaining than to the game’s intended pace. When I’m playing Sunless Sea well, I’m far more likely to start the game up, make a few key decisions, log out, and then go about my day with images of fungal swamps and beguiling devilesses floating around in my head.
I tend to play it kind of like Fallen London, in other words. That game’s free-to-play structures (entirely fair and ethical ones, it must be said) tended to limit me to quick bursts of play. Sunless Sea is friendly to that mode of engagement, but it’s equally well-suited to long sessions of arduous cartography (pushing ever further into the unknown) and wanton narrative gluttony (more story, more!)
Story and setting will probably always be the meat and potatoes of any Failbetter game. But the developer has now demonstrated great facility with accompanying flavors and aromas. Sunless Sea exemplifies games-as-imagination-food—and as long as I’m already straining this metaphor: it’s an uncommonly delicious meal, delicious friends.