There are games that look like other games, either on purpose or accident. These games are easy to describe. “It’s like Contra.” “It’s like Civilization.” “It’s like Tetris, but on acid.” And then there are games that straddle so many genres in weird ways that they create something hard to describe. Sunless Sea is a real-time sailing and trading game. It’s also a dialogue-driven steampunk game. It’s also a Cthulu-esque horror game. And then it gets odd.
The game has an interesting vision; it takes place in the “Unterzee,” an ocean beneath the surface of the earth where London and several other civilizations (both human and… not) have adapted to a sunless world. You play the captain of a boat who travels the Zee, seeking his fortune by accumulating wealth, completing quests, or dying. And you will die. A lot.
The Zeefairing life is unforgiving; not only do you have to worry about fuel, pirates, food, and sea monsters, but the pervading sense of terror that will creep up on you and your crew, causing them to mutiny or you to give up in despair. Also, the game is Roguelike—things change down there, either because of your actions, or just because you weren’t watching closely. When you die, you can pass a few possessions on to your next character, but only a few. A ship, some money, maybe a crew member. If you gain enough money to pay for a will, you can pass on more to an heir, provided you can sire or adopt one.
The next thing you’ll need is a crew. There are the faceless minions who work below decks (and can be killed in attacks), but there’s also the titled crew members, like the navigator, gunner, doctor, cook, and first mate. All these characters will enhance your ship’s abilities, but also have their own quests you can chase either to gain unique treasures, or simply in pursuit of a story. And stories—along with mysteries, sunlight, and terrible nightmares—are just some of the tradable commodities on the Zee.
Above all, Sunless Sea is a game that requires patience. There are so many overlapping quests, so many goods and treasure to acquire, that it will be almost impossible to keep track of unless you keep an old-school journal next to your computer (your captain’s log is almost maddeningly vague) or break down and use the extensive wiki. But the game takes a lot of time. Parts of the sea are wide and empty and your tiny ship will just take a lot of time to traverse them. You can upgrade your engines (either mechanically or through…other means), but that means consuming more fuel.
Interface-wise, it’s simple enough; you can steer your ship starboard and port, increase and decrease speed (though running your engine too hard will cause damage) and fire whatever weapons you have equipped when enemies are in your firing arc. Quests are dialogue-tree-driven, and you have to keep track of inventory in your ship’s hold. You can upgrade to bigger ships (which takes a lot of funds) but those, of course, use more fuel and require more crew.
If you want to untangle the tale, if embracing a mystery slowly appeals to you, check this one out. It’s a truly offbeat game.
Genre: Real time adventure/trading
Developer: Failbetter Games
Minimum Requirements: OS X v10.6 or later, 2Ghz or better processor, 1 GB RAM, 1280 x 768 minimum resolution, DirectX 9.0c compatible graphics card, 700 MB available space
Availability: Now on Steam and GOG