Review of Sunless Sea, a game by Failbetter Games.
Sunless Sea is a roleplaying narration-based game of exploration, survival, and a thousand stories. And when I say narration-based, I mean narration-based. The game is mostly all text.
Half your playtime is spent steering a ship across the zee, glancing at the map every now and then, and the rest of it with reading, and more reading.
At its base it takes the form of an interactive book, but it never feels like one. In fact, it feels like the most game-like game I’ve played in a long time. While story-based games nowadays focus on giving you a singular experience, hiding under prescripted events and clearly-made objectives, a lot of the things that happen in Sunless Sea feels organic. Which is ironic, since because the game is mostly text based, you can’t really make your character do things the game don’t expect.
The atmosphere helps. The zee is wide and dark and it can be terrifying to sail past familiar islands. The world and lore is huge and open and mostly you’re doing things because you’re curious. The game never holds your hand or tell you where you need to go. Everything is a player choice, a player investment, giving every a choice kind of an emotional trigger.
There are a dozen ways to die, and all of them would be entirely your fault. There are a thousand little victories, and whether or not they are victories would be to your discretion. Discovering new islands, unearthing some artefacts, finishing a quest, or maybe just the simple act of reaching home port with just barely enough supply could be cause for celebration.
My only gripe is that it can be unforgiving. A wrong choice don’t usually lock you out of a storyline, but it might. Some things you can only figure out after a first couple of playthroughs. Progress is slow like the steady wave of the zee. Upgrades are expensive and sometimes looks only like a distant dot in an impossible horizon. Learning curve is high, but to finally get over it is reward on its own.
But it’s a great game. Something you can get deeply invested in. It has the same feelings as FTL, in its survival and make-your-story every-gameplay-is-unique thing, and Skyrim, in its exploration and freedom.
I’d say if it seems like your cup of tea – reading, lovecraftian horrors, exploration and discoveries – and you have patience, it can be one of the best games there is. It’s a slow game, at times chill and at times thrilling in the way that watching a radioactive decay is thrilling. Have patience, take risks, invest, and you could end up richer than when you start playing.
Or maybe it’ll just be five hours down the drain when your character dies. Death is heartbreaking.