Sunless Sea — First Impressions

I mentioned in my Knights of the Old Republic playthrough how creeped out I am by water. So naturally, when it came out, a friend pointed out Sunless Sea to me — what better game for a borderline hydrophobe than a Lovecraftian roguelite set in a black sea full of chthonic entities? And yet I find the concept weirdly compelling, probably in part because there are few better ways to appeal to me than to combine the Lovecraftian with the Victorian.

At this point I’ve played two hours of the game. When I first fired it up, I could not have been more lost — the only thing resembling a tutorial is a handful of pop-ups that often seem to bug out and come up blank, and are unhelpfully vague even when they don’t. There’s also a newcomers’ handbook which gives you an idea of what your objectives are but not, you know, how the UI actually works. After twenty minutes of sitting in Fallen London trying to work out what Fragments and Veils and Mirrors were and why there were strange numbers in the top left hand of the screen, I gave up and watched a fan-made YouTube video that helpfully explained everything. Even if you prefer to tackle the actual gameplay unspoiled, I heartily recommend a trip to YouTube just to get to grips with the UI. It took the streamer I was watching nearly twenty minutes to finish explaining the interface and actually move his ship, and that’s despite talking faster than I think I could manage without amphetamines.

So, I went back into the game feeling well equipped to handle the outset. And to be fair, I made it to two different ports before I managed to set myself on fire. I also spent a while whirling around and around a giant crab trying to figure out how to hit it, since combat has been totally changed since the videos I watched, and the tutorial pop-ups that presumably covered it were coming up blank. The original form of the combat frankly looked better, being less about steering and more about tactics, but maybe I just feel that way because I’m very bad at it.

Despite flailing around a bit at the beginning, I do feel like I’m beginning to get enough of a handle on how everything works that I can begin to get into the meat of the game. It seems like the meat of the game for now is going to consist mostly of grinding a profitable route to get enough money to buy a ship that can actually handle combat with anything besides a crab, and to not feel starved for fuel if I stray outside of that route, but that’s okay, since I don’t mind a bit of grind and it is a roguelite.

So, the basics so far: When you create your steamboat captain, you choose an ambition. Mine is to retire to write a book about my experiences on the seas, which means I need to go around collecting different tales with which to make up said book. I don’t know how to tell when I’ve got enough — the streamer I watched was able to view which ones they still needed, but I can’t seem to do that in the current build of the game — maybe I’ll know it when I see it, or maybe I need to find an up to date guide to explain that as well, since I gather that this isn’t a game that’s particularly keen on handing out its secrets. You start off in Fallen London and venture from there into the unknown, stopping at different ports to write reports on their activities (which you can sell to the authorities back in London), to trade goods with them, and to complete events.

Every so often you get a ‘Something Awaits You’ status, and that means the next port you go into will have a story waiting for you. As you learn more about the types of stories that will await you in particular ports you can use this to your advantage to trigger desirable events. The stories I’ve encountered so far are pretty great — I’ve obviously not played enough to really see how things unfold, but the ports I have hit up feel unique and flavoursome, and the game and its writing is absolutely dripping with atmosphere.

When you die, which the game immediately warns you will probably happen a lot to begin with, your next captain inherits some of what your dead captain left behind. To start with this is pretty small, mostly just a stat boost and something like keeping how much of the map you’ve uncovered, but you can unlock things that will increase your inheritance, so if you’ve put more work in then it also won’t be quite as painful to lose it all. I haven’t progressed far enough to see how difficult those unlocks are to attain, though.

So far I’m finding the game mildly frustrating but pretty engaging, with an ‘I’ll just hit up one more port…’ quality that reminds me of the One More Turn mentality my favourite strategy games bring out, and so charming and full of atmosphere that I’m ready to brave the learning curve to see where this goes.

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