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