NOTE: I have purposefully omitted most images from the game, as they tend to contain spoilers or reveals that are far better to experience first hand.
Sunless Sea, the first Steam title from Failbetter Games (creators of the browser based RPG "Fallen London"), has been in constant rotation on my gaming laptop for about three weeks now. Other games have come and gone, but the Unterzee keeps tempting me back with its mysteries and dangers. I've read a whole lot of posts online from gamers who simply can't get into the groove of the game, can't wrap their head around the plot, or simply find the thing too frustrating to enjoy. I thought this might help offer some basic advice on how to survive and enjoy everything the Unterzee has to offer.
For those unfamiliar with the Fallen London mythos, imagine a classic "Choose Your Own Adventure" book from the 1980's, but set it in a Horror Fantasy version of Victorian London. A version of London that has been stolen by bats (yes, I know) and sunken miles below in a massive subterranean cave, containing its own ocean, island chains, continents, etc. Taking elements from a diverse range of influences. Including Victorian Sci-Fi, H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Rudyard Kipling, and dozens of others.
The Fallen London browser game takes place primarily within the city it self. While Sunless Sea takes place pretty much everywhere else. Sunless Sea is presented in a top down perspective which lends it self surprisingly well to the game. Combat is in real time with the option to use a turn based system instead, should you so choose. I tend to avoid combat altogether and stick to the Shadows. The other major gameplay system is text based adventuring, with subtle art that leaves much to the imagination. The world is dripping in dark, humorous atmosphere, with overly descriptive, clever and witty dialog. The sound design is excellent as well, using minimal other worldly music cues, and the constant lapping of waves, chugging of your steam engine, and dripping of stalactites.
On plot, the game is not constructed like a typical narrative title. Their are no "Story Missions" to drag you along a linear plot line. Your story plays out however you choose, based on where you go, and what you do or say there. The map randomizes most islands on each play through, and every Captain's story will be different. Their are half a million words in the game. I've seen maybe a few thousand so far.
You start the game in a tiny Steamship, with limited hold capacity, hull integrity, and engine power. You must set sail from Fallen London while slowly and methodically exploring the vast Unterzee, with all of its unseen dangers and esoteric entities (some of which can take you out in a heartbeat). If and when you die, you start over with a new Captain. But you get to keep one item/trait/crew member/etc from your previous Captain. Your first Captain is likely to run aground, be devoured at zee, or wander too far from home unable to return. This is totally normal, and how the game works. Personally, I decided to play with Manual saving on, which imho makes things a hell of a lot less frustrating. As long as I don't abuse the ability, it's still very tense, and atmospheric. I try to let the cards lie when making story decisions, and only use reloads to save myself from death (and starting everything over from scratch). If you find the grind too repetitive playing with the Rouge like system on, use Manual saves.
You learn to take advantage of light to curtail your terror meter from topping off and summoning Nightmares to the physical plane, driving the crew insane or worse - driving you insane. Using your light though can also draw in distant enemy vessels and monstrosities. Fortunately their are hundreds of light buoys spread all over the zee, to give you the benefit of light without tempting danger. When Terror starts building, there are many ways to to remove it. While on Shore Leave at various ports, the crew has a chance to lower Terror, but they can also lose crew, or suffer other setbacks. My personal method is to go carousing in London, till I meet a lover (aka. Sweety), knock them up, or get knocked up. Have a kid, buy a town house and visit my family when I am back from each expedition. Each visit can potentially completely remove all terror. And each story you tell your kid builds their fever to become a Captain too. If this happens they become your Scion, allowing you to pass along two traits after your current Captain visits Davey Jones Locker.
Each location/port presents a range of story options, and they tend to limit you to a specific amount per visit, so that you have reasons to come back later. Most decisions play out based on your specific stats. The higher a stat, the higher percentage of success. Some options require crazy prerequisites that you may never meet in a particular play through. Which creates loads of replay-ability. This is how it is similar to the Fallen London browser game. Speaking of stats, they play into a variety of gameplay mechanics, so it's kind of important to keep upgrading them periodically, depending on your play style.
Each time you are in London you will get offers to run shipments for Smugglers, go find information for the Admiralty, and many other similar quests for a colorful cast of characters. You can be at zee for years before returning to London so you want to be sure you are properly prepared beforehand. Supplies stave off hunger, which can lead to cannibalism. Fuel keeps you moving, but using your light eats fuel as well. Without fuel you get stranded, and can eventually get towed back to London. Though there's a chance you will just die like flotsam on the zee instead. The challenge comes in creating your own trade routes, where you have specific islands that you use as outposts for refueling, and resupplying. As mentioned above, each game shuffles the locations of the islands around the map, so you have to create new trade routes through exploration and risk.
While you are at zee, each time you run across an island, whether or not you have already visited it before, you get a Port Report. These are your life blood early on. Because each one you return to London with, nets you Echoes (the games version of currency), and Fuel/Supplies. With enough Port Reports you can fund your supplies and fuel without having to spend much out of pocket. I am currently about 500 Echoes shy of upgrading to a sturdy new ship. So I imagine with one more expedition I can get that damn thing. But what if I change my mind and decide to spend that money on other upgrades, or on items to help me meet my chosen end game goal of writing the great epic, and retiring to a Mansion (each Captain gets to choose one of several motivations for their adventuring, from wealth, to power, to revenge, etc)? That's the beauty of the game, it really is a "Choose Your Own Adventure".
Trading can be profitable, but it's slow and only really worth it once you have a big cargo ship. The game rewards exploration and risk taking, so simply going on text based adventures in the various locations can yield high value rewards, upgrades, new story threads, and loads of other possibilities. Adventuring, can of course lead to terror, madness and or death. Hence the Risk/Reward mechanic.
My current Captain, "Eva" has been adventuring for almost a decade now. She has seen and experienced wonders beyond imagination. She's limped back to home port more than a few times on nothing but fumes, and crumbs for supplies. She has sired a daughter who is now a renowned Zee Captain of her own. And she is currently unravelling ancient mysteries at ports o' call far and wide. She's had a pretty good run of luck, but that could run out any day now.
If you, like me... have the patience and imagination for a slow burning epic zee faring adventure. Sunless Sea might be just what you have been waiting for!
Available on PC & Mac through Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/304650/