Sunless Sea – first impressions

Since back in the days when Fallen London was known as Echo Bazaar, I’ve been wishing (really, more of a portmanteau verb made of a wish and a grumble) for a version not built around the free-now,-gouge-later business model. Fallen London has, hands-down, some of the best prose and worldbuilding in both games and SF/F, not to mention that it has a strong approach to diversity, but the free-to-play model makes the actual gameplay experience maddening. (To be fair, Fallen London and StoryNexus in general are relatively well-behaved as free-to-play goes, and I’m confident that nobody at Failbetter would want that model if there was a viable alternative.) It’s in early access right now, but it’s a substantial, professional-looking early access (and, as befits a well-handled Kickstarter project, has a roadmap that inspires both confidence and anticipation). If you’d rather wait for the finished version, it’s planned for late SeptemberOctober. (This review is based on the Corsair’s Gold and Emerald releases.)

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For those not already familiar, the premise of Fallen London is that Victorian London was stolen by bats and transferred to a vast underground cavern. Life goes on, very differently but very much the same; demons, weird nonhumans and the sinister Masters of the Bazaar have wangled their way into the life of the city, undeath and insanity are commonplace, and diets contain a lot more fungus; yet the worlds of crime, commerce, politics and art shamble on. Fallen London is more Gothic gaslight fantasy than steampunk; it’s heavily informed by the Lovecraft mythos but generally avoids its trappings, and has very strong sympathies with the New Weird of China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer. While the original game is set principally within London itself, Sunless Sea is about the Unterzee, which fills most of the cavern.

Sunless Sea‘s basic gameplay is nothing shockingly new: you have a ship, equip it with gear, officers and crew, and sail around from port to port, exploring the edges of the map, running errands, shipping cargo and fighting pirates and sea beasties. So, it’s essentially Pirates!, which is a sound model but not an overly-common one.

The sea is full of pirates and sea monsters, but you can generally either outrun or outfight them, with a little trial and error. The real threat comes from inefficient travel: spending time in remote, unlit waters (most of the Sea) increases Terror, and fuel and supplies decline continuously. Lighthouses, safe coastal waters and light-buoys protect against Terror, but hopping from one to the next is often not a very direct route, and there are big stretches of open water. So navigation involves a little more thought than just knowing where the destination is and plugging towards it.

Exploration is inherently inefficient, but provides the great majority of your experience-point gain, and opens up ports that allow lucrative missions and new content. It becomes substantially less hazardous on subsequent plays, when you know pretty much where the islands are and can steam straight for them – except that in the most recent update the map shuffles around somewhat in every game, which keeps things scary and perilous. The feeling of a wild cast into the unknown, going out into a lonely land far from help, is critical to the game; you need the audacity/madness/pig-headedness/inhumanity of a Columbus. As in Fallen London, your hero is a person who may not be a monster, necessarily, but certainly inhabits the borders of monstrosity. Make a bad guess and you’ll find yourself on a ghost-ship limping back into harbour, ravaged by nightmares, mutiny and suicide, the drowned dead swimming in your wake.

Sunless Sea removes the limited-actions feature of the candle. So how does it pace content? Most obviously, there’s travel: a lot of missions are fetch-quests of the ‘go there and come back’ variety, and your ship travels at a fairly slow pace. Many storylets can only be accessed when you’re new in port, so you use up the currently-available options in any given port – even London – rather quickly. Other options require rare or expensive items.

At the smaller scale, there is virtually no grinding for experience. Unlike Fallen London, you don’t boost stats through stat-based challenges: you level them up by spending Secrets, which are patched together from Fragments. You can loiter around in suitable waters to fight monsters for Fragments, but doing so gives you very little XP compared to exploration and story content, which is a strong motivation to keep exploring. You could grind for money by tackling pirates, to some extent, but it would not be a highly fruitful process.

That said, at this point of development the directed plot cuts off fairly early on, and you find yourself in a pattern of doing the same kind of mission over and over: which is a larger-scale kind of grind, true, but one with more potential for interesting variation. The space in between the easiest-to-access storylets and the longest-term ones is not very filled out.

The other pacing element is that, by default, it uses roguelike death: one save, restart (mostly) from scratch. (You can turn this option off and have normal saves, but I haven’t played that way yet.) I’m mixed about this. It’s in line with the dark and unforgiving world of the Unterzee, true, but one of the big draws of roguelike death is that it generally exposes you to new experiences – different character classes, different generated content, that kind of thing. At present, there isn’t very much in Sunless Sea to make new playthroughs distinctive: the world is the same, somewhat-reshuffled world every time, and different officers or refocused stats don’t, at least at this stage of development, have a very large effect on how you play. Having high Veils gives you different advantages compared to, say, high Pages, but these advantages don’t (yet) translate into distinctive play strategies or grant access to a substantial amount of different content, so there’s less range for replay. This is, of course, the kind of thing that’s very likely to emerge as more is added to the game.

The trademark Failbetter prose remains consistently powerful and evocative. I found myself particularly impressed with the logbook entries, which suggest a great deal within a very tight space. Some of them convey information – telling you when you’re passing into a new region of the Zee, for instance – but many are purely atmospheric. Out of context many might seem overwrought, but Sea sustains an an air of solemnity and menace that makes them hit home like dagger-thrusts. The enduring image I have from this game is not drawn from any of its graphic art, and has little to do with pirate ports or sea-battles: it’s the image of looking out on a still, dark sea from a ship’s dark deck, between an unseen sea-floor and cavern roof, with water lapping against the hull and the crew softly going about their business in the background. Watching and waiting for something unknown.

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That said, the map art is polished and impressive. Light, darkness and varying degrees of obscurity, through mist or murky waters, are big elements of the Fallen London world, so it’s very cool that the art has a strong sense for this. The text demands a highly atmospheric world – the somewhat-unreal quality of things deep under water, the scariness of being far from land in dark, unexplored waters, the cold yet comforting gleam of harbour lights, the fearfulness of vast things half-seen – and the art is all sickly glows, formless mists and feeble lamps. Where it’s less than perfectly harmonious with the atmosphere, it’s mostly for gameplay purposes. The world of Fallen London is centrally about mystery and the lure and horror of the unknown; many things are hidden and most are half-seen. This should be a world where corsairs ambush from the shadow of a sea-stack, where drowned cities are half-glimpsed through waters murky with silt, where you don’t see the giant fucking shark until it’s too late to run. But even in darkened areas and beneath deep seas, you can generally see everything within the bounds of the screen. (This isn’t a huge failing – I so often need a word for the situation when there is an obvious opportunity to do something difficult but astoundingly great, but it isn’t quite taken. Indeed, given how heavily Fallen London draws on the superior ability of text to suggest without revealing, it’s impressive how much this sense is sustained in a more graphical format.)

(This touches on one of the stock challenges of game authorship: often gameplay requires clarity while the narrative would be better-served by being less explicit. A lot of games end up with ponderous and repetitive exposition and artificial diction because they can’t trust the players to pay close attention. And it would suck to get ambushed out of nowhere by an enemy that you couldn’t defeat, or to miss seeing something cool because the water was too hazy. But still.)

In other respects, too, the gameplay already seems balanced to fit the game’s tone and themes. Combat is sometimes easy but rarely safe – some things can hand you your ass even if you have high stats and an upgraded ship, and even the crap opponents that hang out in the starting areas always have the potential to cause you non-trivial harm if you don’t pay attention. This is, I suspect, never going to be the sort of game where it’s sound strategy to take on every enemy you see (though apparently combat is due for a radical overhaul in the next update). This isn’t to say that there aren’t enemies who can be reliably useful to attack, but you can’t get complacent. The other thing is: while you spend a fair amount of time and money on kitting out your ship for battle, I’ve never found myself going to sea for the express purpose of looking for a fight. Fighting is not at the core of things. Similarly, trade is very rudimentary right now: I suspect that at some point it’ll become a way to make a little extra money on the right voyages, but it seems unlikely to become a major focus.

It’s a big shiny package, but the thing it’s enclosing – the tasty prose and unfolding plot – is not ready yet: right now, there are a lot of vignettes, a relatively small handful of short-arc plots and a much larger set of things that will become story at one point. I wait, in darkness, hungry.

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5 Responses to Sunless Sea – first impressions

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful review, Sam.

    I’ve found myself frustrated with the difficulty of progression in Sunless Sea. It seems like most of my excursions out end up as net losses: by the time I’ve restocked fuel and food, worked off the effects of terror, repaired my ship, etc., the paltry rewards I get for dock reports and loot tend to put me right back where I started, so I’m never able to upgrade my ship or do much of anything else. Fights all seem to either instantly kill me or be so easy as to offer very little reward. I think maybe playing more boldly would help, but the penalty for death is so high I’m scared off of that. I agree capturing more of the “fun” part of the roguelike cycle would help, specifically more rewards that carry over to your next character so dying doesn’t feel like starting over from scratch. Hoping to keep following its progress through release, since there’s definitely a lot to love, too.

    • Yeah, right now the only way I can see to make a consistent profit is to focus on the smuggler and Admiralty strategic-information missions, which together with port reports and Researcher goodies have been enough to get me fairly well-upgraded, if I’m careful. The curve isn’t ridiculous, once you work out which fights to avoid (most of them) and where the mission locations are. But a couple of mistakes or runs of bad luck in succession can still wipe you out.

      The thing is, I can’t see any way to focus on something other than that – you can’t really decide to focus on the Antiquarian, or on the Neathbow, or decide to play as a specialised pirate or merchant or whatnot. It’s in danger of degenerating into ‘do these routine milk-runs, maybe get in a little exploration or pick up a new storylet on the side.’ So I hope that the game develops more ways to succeed, rather than making the existing ones easier (though those probably overlap to a certain extent.)

      (You can now leave inheritances to your successors – but the bar for doing this is the 1000-Echo upgraded house plus an also-expensive will, and I haven’t been willing or able to fork out for that yet.)

      I’m kind of wary of complaining about the game being tough, because this is meant to be a legitimately threatening world, and players always ask for more rewards regardless of whether this is a Good Thing; but I agree that making failure a less dispiriting experience would go a long way.

    • Also, delivering Clay Men from Polythreme and sphinxstone from the Salt Lions can be crazy profitable, if they’re positioned close enough. (If not enormously interesting. Both are newish additions, and I suspect they’re in there to make life easier until the balance gets sorted out.)

  2. Hanon Ondricek says:

    Thank you for the review. I’m curious if releasing Fallen London as an app for $4.99 that ran snappily and didn’t have the time-pacing limits (and perhaps some attractive flourishes and atmospheric music and sound like 80 DAYS) would be enjoyable or not. It seems like it has enough options that it would be the perfect casual phone adventure for multiple plays.

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