Since time immemorial, the sea has been a mystery. Lauded for the endless supply of food, untold riches, and endless stories of sailors and the deep blue, the ocean has been oft recited as one of our last great mysteries on this planet. During the age of exploration, countless captains, and their ships, were lost to the unfathomable depths between continents, with stories aplenty to define and shape their fates into tales passed across pints, in hushed whispers, or as grand productions to ward off the foolhardy.
Mysterious even more so are the tales that return with crewmen. Unimaginable beasts, far-flung lands of beauty and intrigue, and exotic loves, the stories weave into a tapestry unforgettable, and furthermore irresistible to the curious and crazy brave.
Sunless Sea tells a story of such intrepid sailors and their fates. Set in an unsettling Victorian London, having been swallowed by the Earth and nestled next to a vast underground ocean, you are one of the countless skippers, following a story of your own design, into the distant black recesses of this vast Lovecraftian setting. Starting with a meager crew, little in the way of funds, food, or fuel, you must carve out a living on this abyssal plain, taking jobs from the Admiralty, smuggling goods for the unsavories of the docks, or hunting down epic creatures in the darkness, where your crew starves for what little light they can find, hoping for another morsel of nutrient, lest they be forced to turn upon each other for sustenance.
Most games regarding piracy and the sea do so under the premise of pre-existing lore, with the Golden Age of antiheroes such as Blackbeard and Henry Morgan. The tales of dashing rogues, scurvy pirates, and fair maidens on yonder shores. They do not explore the depths of human depravity, and what a man might endure, or resort to, in order to find his way home. Sunless Sea shirks these stereotypical methods of storytelling, asking what lengths one might NOT go to in order to prevent catastrophe.
The mechanics of Sunless Sea are simple, straightforward, and scary as hell, to be quite frank. You must constantly ensure your crew is stocked with both fuel to keep the ship moving, and food to keep their bellies full under the weight of the darkness. Furthermore, you must manage their fear. The stories of the Unterzee, as it is called in this world, are many, horrific and paranormal, and leave your crew with an ever-growing, and often overwhelming, sense of dread for the shadows which dance around your ships rails. Spend some time in ports, give your crew the chance to blow off some steam, drink a bit, and find their humanity, and they might hold off betraying you for a few more ports.
Every port is a living, breathing entity, with stories to chase, crewmen and residents to meet, favors to be gained, and battles to be won, or lost. Luck plays heavily into Sunless Sea, and often times a simple misstep can be crippling, leaving you crewless, shipless, or simply dead in a ditch. Risking strong comparison, Sunless Sea is, in many ways, akin to Dark Souls. It is unforgiving, inhospitable, and hostile to even the slightest of mistakes.
That being said, it’s touted, even in the trailers, that death is a part of the game. You aren’t expected to complete your story, or any other, in a single lifespan. Case in point, my character is looking for the remains of his father somewhere out on the motionless, placid waterscape of the Unterzee. Where he will end up? Who knows. Probably dead somewhere, but his drive, ambition, and motivations will carry him to that fate, successful or not.
Your supplies seem plentiful when each foray into the dark begins. Full holds of supplies and fuel, good morale, and no fear of the shadows. However, like any other journey into the unknown, the supplies dwindle, the fuel burns, and morale slowly fades, giving way to terror, devastating your crew, depleting your numbers, and often times leaving you limping home, sometimes having to sacrifice crew members in order to appeal to the gods of the sea just to bring you home. I remember at one point putting two of my crew members to the sword just for a boost home to port. The decision making goes far beyond simply stocking a ship and setting sail. Every trip could be your last, every decision fatal, and therefore no choice is ever made lightly.
So what happens if you die? Furthermore is death even your end? Do you retire instead to a nice townhome on Hollow Street? Sure, you can restart, or your legacy can pass to another captain, providing insights, possibly crew members, and a heritage of terror in the inky black of the Unterzee. Carry out your father’s wishes, find his father’s remains, or carve your own destiny. It is entirely up to you. It provides solid enough reason to continue your work, with just enough fear to attempt the most cautious of self-preservation, risking little and coming up empty-handed, or risking it all and coming home a legend.
Sunless Sea really dials it up with the countless thousands of words of dialogue. There is so much lore, so much storytelling in this game, that despite the quiet times of simply sailing in the dark, the legends uncovered, the stories dug from the lungs of those you meet in port, there is always something more to learn, something else to take home to report to the Admiralty, or secrets to be shared among the socially dangerous. Information is as much a currency as Echoes, the money of the Unterzee, and both can be used in tandem to advance your story, or some other task you wish to undertake.
I intend to invest many more hours into Sunless Sea. The horrors are not limited only to those one might find in a trailer, but they can pile up through a series of unfortunate events, as triggered by simple bad luck, or the rampant folly of an inattentive captain. Either way, you’re going to need light and luck to find your way home.