Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Game Review - 'Sunless Sea'

If you're at all familiar with Fallen London, developer Failbetter Games browser-based RPG, then you would probably already know what to expect from Sunless Sea, their recently released game set in the same fictional universe. But, how to explain it to someone unfamiliar with Fallen London? Well, imagine a Victorian England setting, with elements of Gothic Horror, elements of Steampunk, and elements of H. P. Lovecraft. That should give you some idea of what to expect.

Fallen London is a city that has been stolen from the surface world, placed in a massive cave a mile underground. It's residents are forced to survive as best they can in this strange new world. In Fallen London players take on the role of one of these residents - taking on a variety of potential roles, as they pursue a variety of potential goals. In Sunless Sea, things are a little more ambitious. Here, you are cast in the role of Captain of a steamship, tasked with traversing the mysterious waters of a strange underground sea (called the Unterzee, by the people down there). What is it that you're going to find out there? Well, that's where the fun begins. Sunless Sea is a game about exploration, more than anything - there are mysteries and dangers out there, you just have to find them.

Now, while the two games are obviously linked, it's probably important to point out that it's not necessary to play Fallen London in order to enjoy Sunless Sea - though, naturally, doing so may enrich your experience (not just in terms of all of that extra background information, either. The developers seem to already be experimenting with ways for your Fallen London character to interact with your Sunless Sea character).

When a game opens with the warning that your first character is likely to die, and that you shouldn't let that deter you, you should go in knowing what you're in for. Sunless Sea is a challenging game, by design. It's default setting is for permanent death, if one of your voyages end in tragedy - with only a single auto-save that kicks in to immediately lock you in to every decision you make (even the bad ones). That's how the game is meant to be played - though, of course, it's not the only option. If that seems a bit too unforgiving to you, then there is still the option of manual saves - though, that comes at the cost of turning off 'Merciless' mode, missing out on a possible achievement, and losing the bragging rights you could have earned by beating the game in the way it was intended to be played.

Personally, after spending some time with the game, I would recommend that you should stick with the 'Merciless' style of play for your first couple of attempts, at least. It just feels like you would be missing out on an important part of what the developers wanted you to experience. By forcing yourself to press on to the (most likely bitter) end, accepting both the good and the bad, you could potentially find yourself weaving together a story for your character that feels much more personal than what you would have had if you aimed for a 'perfect' play-through on your first try (and, besides, the option to start using manual saves on a later attempt will always be there, if it does start to get a bit too frustrating).

When starting a new game, the first task is to make a few choices about your character. First, you will need to decide who your character was before they became Captain of their own ship. Options such as 'street urchin', 'veteran soldier', 'traveling professor', or even 'poet' will give bonuses to different statistics. Next, you will have the significantly more interesting, and important, decision of your character's goal - which translates into the 'win' conditions for your current Captain. There are currently only three options, here (though, it's possibly that more could be added in later updates). One option gives your character a father who was lost at sea, and a quest for find his remains. Another essentially places you in charge of a personal research expedition. The third gives you the straight-forward goal of amassing a fortune, and retiring in style in your own manor.

First up, for me, was the voyage of the wealthy poet, Sebastian Hawthorne, a Byronic figure driven by an obsessive desire to know everything that there was to know about the Sunless Sea.

Things started out simply enough - gathering reports on the current conditions in nearby settlements for an Admiral in Fallen London saw him paid with more fuel for his vessel. And, a trio of lovely, though mysterious, sisters were always happy to invite him to lunch, so long as he brought stories from the outside world to their isolated island home.

But, after naively accepting a 'gift' of fuel and supplies from a rather shady character, he was caught off guard when that same figure reappeared later, this time with a request for a simple 'favor'. Now, Sebastian found himself caught up in the illicit world of smuggling. But, it wasn't just any ordinary cargo that Sebastian was asked to transport. It seemed that what he was to transport was a human soul - stolen, perhaps, or fairly bought. Though, either way, it was now his task to see that it reached its destination. The problem, though, was that the only direction his new 'friend' was able to give was that his destination was somewhere to the north-east. Still, Sebastian wasn't too eager to learn the cost of refusing - so, he stocked up on as much fuel and supplies as he could afford, and set off.

But, as they ventured further and further, they found nothing but endless water in front of them. With the safety of home further and further behind them, Sebastian began to worry that, perhaps, they had missed their destination - that he had chosen the wrong bearing, and that the island they needed to reach was now behind them. Still, he pressed on - at this point, they had come so far that he wasn't sure they had enough fuel or food to make the journey home. It was an encounter with one of the many monstrous creatures that lurk in the depths that finally convinced him to turn back. The creature was bigger than the ship, itself - so, fleeing felt like the only realistic option.

The ship was more than fast enough to outrun the massive creature - but, unfortunately, the extra pressure that the they had had to place on the ship's engines had consequences of its own. An explosion killed three crew-members - burning through the already meagre fuel reserves and threatening to leave them stranded. Growing desperate, Sebastian ordered his crew to shove everything they could find into the engine's furnace - including the ship's similarly meagre stock of food. That gave them enough to continue a bit further - but, not nearly enough to make it home.

With no other option, Sebastian turned to 'religion' - offering dark prayers to half-forgotten gods, and giving his own blood as a sacrifice. And, his prayers were answered! The ship's engines were suddenly filled with enough fuel to continue their voyage. But, of course, there was still the small matter of the lack of food to feed the crew. They were able to move once more - but, now, starvation felt like a very real possibility. Still, they pressed on, with the Captain turning a blind eye to his crew's new found habit of hunting the ship's population of rats for food - because, given the circumstances, it was probably better than the alternative.

The ship pressed on - and, for a few shining moments, it seemed as though the crew might actually make it home. Though, once again, things ground to a stop as the fuel ran dry, and the engines went cold. Opportunistic scavengers offered 'help' reaching port - but, only on the condition that he turn over his ship as payment. Half-mad with hunger, Sebastian turned them down - instead turning to the same dark and mysterious deity that had helped him before. Though, this time, he offered too much.

And, so, the tale of Sebastian Hawthorne ended - with the doomed poet bleeding to death on the deck of his own ship, with the safety of Fallen London within reach.

In all, my first attempt added up to a couple of hours of spectacular failure, but it still rates as one of the most entertaining gaming experiences I've had, recently. Sure, there was a fair bit of me filling in the blanks with my own imagination going on here, too - but, that's clearly something that the game encourages. After all, this entire story took place within the confines of a handful of text-based menus, and the visual display of a tiny ship puttering about on a massive ocean. My second attempt ended much the same, though this time there may have been a bit of cannibalism involved before the end. It wasn't until my third that I had any measurable success.

Death may be an expected part of the game, but it doesn't have to be the end. When one Captain dies, you are given the opportunity to transfer a portion of their resources on to the next - essentially continuing the same story with a new character. Eventually, as you learn the game's tricks and gather resources, you will find yourself in a better position to explore further, taking greater risks for the potential of greater rewards.

The game itself is actually fairly simple. Your interaction with the game's cast of characters will take place in a variety of text-based menus, with a list of options available to you - some of which will be open, and others will be locked if you don't have what you need to progress in that direction. The ship-based game-play is similarly straight-forward - nothing more complicated then a top down view of your little ship. But, the artwork that went into bringing this strange world to life is fantastic, the music is beautiful, and the quality of the writing is often genuinely impressive. It all adds up to create the right sort of sombre and haunting atmosphere for the stories that Sunless Sea clearly wants to tell - or, the stories that you can weave together for yourself while playing.

For the right sort of player, Sunless Sea is a fantastic experience. Though, at the same time, I do have to admit that it probably isn't a game for everyone. It's a slow moving and leisurely sort of game, even during combat - and, there are likely to be times where it might test your patience. It's also an unforgiving game, provided that you're playing it the way that the developers wanted you to. For my part, I can certainly see myself losing patience with the slower pace of Sunless Sea eventually, when some of its charm has worn off and I'm only interested in finding anything interesting that I might have missed. Though, hopefully, that point is still far off. For now, I'm having a great time - if a game that rewards exploration, and encourages you to weave together your own character's story, sounds interesting to you, then you probably will as well.

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