Sunless Sea: Captain a Ship and Explore the Dark Expanse of the Unterzee

A buoy with a light at the top, floating on an evening sea. Words read
Image: Failbetter Games via Steam

Genre: Steampunk roguelike/choose-your-own-adventure?

Synopsis: You are a captain who sails through an underground sea, always returning to your home port of Fallen London. In pursuing your chosen ambition–such as wealth, immortality, or finding your father’s bones–you will encounter a variety of unconventional characters and bizarre situations. And you will have to choose how to deal with them. Do you agree to take the undead Tomb Colonist passengers on a tour of adventure to distract them from their final death? Protect them while they’re in your charge? Or sell them to a colony of giant spiders for profit?

Do you help your officers–like The Carnelian Exile, The Presbyterate Adventuress, The Bandaged Poissonnier–achieve their assorted goals? Does your first captain even survive his/her/their first voyage without being eaten by a zee monster or running out of fuel? (Probably not.) Does terror overtake your crew over the expanse of the wide, dark sea? (Probably yes.) Your captain will have to brave wild adventures to retire in peace, but even in the event of a tragic death at sea, he/she/they can take steps to pass some of their inheritance to a successor.

Series: Stands alone. Set in the same world as Fallen London.

Verdict: Fun exploration, characters, and story. Travel gets tediously long, though.

Failbetter Games has a pretty unique style of gameplay–each location has written story that you can play through, choosing to attempt challenges with your chance of success calculated based on your stats. You collect an assortment of interesting items, many of which are used in the plot. Sunless Sea adds in some unique game elements, like traveling between ports and ship combat.

But the main storytelling vehicle is Failbetter’s usual style, which means there’s an easy and free way to experience their kind of game to determine whether or not you like it–by playing Fallen London.

The only thing Fallen London doesn’t prepare you for in Sunless Sea is the seafaring–physically trudging your boat across the underground sea for trading and exploration.

Sunless Sea takes place in the same world as Fallen London, but on the zee. You play as a captain, choosing an ambition for winning the game. You choose a backstory, boosting one of your skills. And then you set sail and try not to die. Unless you enable manual saving, you will die–but that’s normal, and your heir will carry on your legacy.

A journal is open, over a backdrop that looks down upon the sea and a city. The journal shows the lower half of a mustached person's face holding up a finger to their lips in a hushing gesture. There is a small smear of blood on the finger. The journal reads
Image: Failbetter Games

The game’s greatest strengths is its atmospheric setting, rich worldbuilding, and genuinely good writing that helps bring it to life. Fallen London is your home base, a city that sunk beneath the surface, ruled by the immortal Masters of the Bazaar. The Iron Republic is a client-state of Hell. Adam’s Way is the closest foreigners like you can get to the Elder Continent, and even then, you are only permitted entry for a day–for the price of a story.

One of the animals you can recruit on board is The Wretched Mog, a fearsome cat who can win some of your battles on shore for you–but you’re pretty sure it takes down some of your own crew, too… Then there’s the Cladery Heir, one of your officers, a surgeon who removes unwanted emotions from people. And so much more. There’s a lot of writing in this story, populated with colorful locations and characters.

On the other hand, the game’s greatest weakness is the travel. Mostly because of how slow and monotonous it is. For a good few minutes between destinations, there’s nothing to do except be on the lookout for rocks you might crash into or enemies that might attack. This contributes a lot to fatigue. I can play the game for a few days or so, before having to take a prolonged hiatus from it.

Nonetheless, eventually returning to it is still enjoyable. It’s not a perfect game, but there’s a lot about it that’s interesting and unique. Overall, I like it.

Favorite Quotes:

“I would dress you in razors and arsenic and the dream-dyes of Parabola.”


4 thoughts on “Sunless Sea: Captain a Ship and Explore the Dark Expanse of the Unterzee

  1. Theo Promes

    Picked this game up back in early spring sometime, I quite agree that travel is a bit dull, especially if you decide to try and go for a victory instead of just steaming out into the darkness to see what’s there. Trading coffee and sunlight is not particularly exciting after the first few runs.
    On the other hand, I have to say I love the setting – started playing Fallen London after playing Sunless see for a while, and its really fun, even now months later, something I really didn’t expect from a browsergame. The writing is brilliant, and there is a ridiculous amount of hidden lore, rumours and speculation to discover. Sunless Sea is certainly worth the 10 bucks or so it costs, and I have to admit I am looking forward to Failbetter’s next project.


    1. I guess I’d agree that the travel isn’t as bad in the early game, when everything is new and exciting. Once you know where everything is, that takes some of the wonder out of it.
      Maybe that next Failbetter project will have improved on that? I think it’s going to be available somewhat soon, actually–though I haven’t even gotten around to Sunless Sea’s expansion yet.


      1. Theo Promes

        I found it exciting in the beginning when you are exploring and find all those cool new places, and then boring for quite a long while until I had the resources to get a powerful engine and enough funds to not worry about fuel efficiency anymore, and it was mostly about furthering storylines. Continually Full-steaming on a frigate is pretty fast, again, but getting there is definitely a pain – especially since it took me way too long to wrap my head around the various inheritance mechanics – actually, thats another point to make imo, I don’t mind a truly hard, punishing game, but that the ways to accumulate resources over deaths via scion, heirlooms etc are not quite obvious, so it took me quite a long time to get to the point where it didn’t feel like starting with nothing once again.

        As far as I know, they plan to do inheritance different in sunless skies, so we will see. I am not quite sure how to improve the travel time issue though, if you reduce distances you lose that feeling of vast loneliness and danger that is quite essential… perhaps simply more random events and things to do on the vessel itself?


        1. That sounds interesting, actually–more random events and stuff on the vessel. Especially if they up the frequency when traveling through areas already discovered. Them maybe lower that frequency when you’re low on fuel and supplies. But I guess we’ll see if they do anything with that when the new game comes out.

          I hadn’t heard about them changing inheritance. I wonder how they’ll do that, especially since Fallen London itself is nowhere near as punishing as Sunless Skies.


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