Hullo chaps, I'm back!
I bought this last night, because drunk and trailer. I've put about six hours into it so I guess you'd maybe like a 'Wot I think?'
Well, it's probably the most obtuse game I've ever played. It's like playing 'Guess Who' with Johnny Tightlips. The setting and goals seem simple enough. Once upon a time of Victoriana, London was dragged down through the ground into the undersea, where she attempts to hold together a shaky sort of empire out of strung out naval bases and trading posts. But in this subterranean briny deep there are pallid monsters, giant crabs, corsair pirates and screaming horrible Eldritch things from the deep which are enough to put off all but the hardiest explorer of ancient rime mariner stock. And so you hop on your venerable little steamer and chug forth into the inky long, lapping dark. A feeble light at your helm a few crates of ship biscuits to see you through with your plucky and incredibly gullible crew. What do you seek? Closure for a troubled past? Fortune? Knowledge? These are valid goals and its heartening to see that there is an achievable outcome. The simplicity and grandeur of the premise really stokes you for firing up those engines, too.
But in walks with Johnny Tightlips, a handy mentor for this game and, no... he's shrugging his shoulders, shaking his head.
"Hey, Johnny Tightlips! This guy says I need to find seven impossible colours described in some children's book. I guess these vague ramblings are about some sort of islands, huh?"
"I don' know nuthin'."
"Okay, Johnny. But I'm turning up to these islands that I think are them and nothing's happening. I know that certain items trigger events, but everything's pretty pricey and I can't make much money at all unless I complete quests. How do I know if I'm thinking straight and I need to something to unlock things?"
"Names, faces... I don't keep track."
"But Johnny, you see I'm finding it hard to even keep track of all this. There's no real quest log with hints or anything, you have to look at items and then try to remember what the hell they were talking about first time around."
"Ey! 'ands of the merchandise. An' I want my phone call."
"Sigh. Okay, Johnny. You can go."
"Stay cool, Cap'n Flatfoot."
Infuriating! There's no real trade either, unless you want to die a slow, hideous death. You see there's an admittedly wonderful game mechanic where chugging along burns fuel and lighting your lamp burns fuel just that bit faster. But to sail without a lamp raises terror which leads to all sorts of Lovecraftian hi-jinks when it gets out of hand. (Rather wonderfully on rare occasions, some of these terror based things actually work out with weirdly cool results for yourself, but you'll never be able to predict it working out that way.) Meanwhile your crew continue to chow down on supplies.
And if you run out of fuel you go adrift. And if you run out of food you inevitably turn to cannibalism. Now the food problem can be mitigated by blowing up crabs and bats on your way and stuffing your face with their icky lights and danglies. But if you're caught in a non-profit spiral of doom then fuel can really lead to a point where you're fucked any which way. Because fuel and supplies cost. And there's no real trading. The only way you get money is by completing quests or fulfilling admiralty missions. Now admiralty missions don't pay much but at least they're not confusing as hell, but alongside the incomprehensible quests they both require you to really set sail into the dark beyond... further and further... and because there's only really your home port that deals in fuel and supplies at a reasonable price in safe waters on one remote side of the map, you have to do either a lot of trudging back and forth or... well... dying.
So after six hours I've explored a fair chunk of map but have barely gotten anywhere. I'm yet to upgrade my ship AT ALL, excepting new ships officers, and the only missions I've properly achieved have been fact finding admiralty missions. I still have little concept of how to actually get ahead. I can only reach about 200 of the game's currency on a good day - cheapest upgrades start at around 600-1000 - and that's always gobbled up my food, fuel and repairs. So no trinkets to potentially unlock those terribly secret unknown things that pass for regular quests.
Oh, but I'm also really enjoying the game.
No, really. This game has genuine atmosphere. The writing is some of the best I've seen in a game. I know it seems like it's been designed to make Kieron Gillen school fap one out, but honestly, it's been a while since I've happened across a game with this level of imagination and delicacy of touch. It would have been so easy to make the thing a ridiculously overblown one-note gothic whiny emo gloomfest like the sadly misguided Sandman comics spin-off series of The Dreaming. But happily it has a completely winning streak of humour and whimsy to it. Most of the inhabitants seem to be perfectly happy living around this strange subterranean ocean thang-yew-very-much, and for example being perfectly stoically resigned to having vision causing eggs full of gall-wasps in place of their eyes. It doesn't stop them from having a knees up, dreaming big things or going dangerously but charmingly eccentric out on their lonely little island kingdoms. Death or madness may come quickly or lingeringly, but one musn't grumble. Let's play the game, dear boy.
So I've sort of resigned myself to playing this like a sort of Whicker's Eldritch World, where the charming, urbane travel correspondent interviews nameless horrors and the gibbering insane before drinking a nice gin and tonic on the side of the briny pool and reflecting on the local cuisine. Mostly made out of semi-sentient mushrooms. Although, of course, my character is anything but an urbane travel correspondent. No, he's a fallen priest who went down to the underworld and set sail for riches so he should never know the humble poverty of his monastic life again. He explores the oceans, bringing news and stories to the far flung outposts before returning with port reports for the admiralty, along with dangerous whispers of the great game being played by the strategic powers. He has a sweetheart at home and a child which he's acknowledged as his own but is too poor to raise, so he's leaving the waif to fend for scraps for himself. Of late, his crew keep being killed through sheer bad luck or errors of judgement - usually resulting from fishing things out of the water that weren't meant to be fished. He is however very proud that at no point - despite the dire circumstances - has he reluctantly resorted to cannibalism. And that one time when in sight of the home port he sacrificed several deck hands to the gods in exchange for magical fuel? Totally allowed in the Ancient Mariner Rulebook. He's as honest as the day is long - if only because he got the crap kicked out of him and several of his crew killed through clumsily bungling his one criminal mission by selling the crate of lost souls entrusted to him at the wrong port. Now he has a happy crew of officers and is able to take on ships bigger than himself, but at night he wakes up screaming having dreamed about a giant eye in the roof of the world. Although tea with the three sisters usually helps him with that for a while.
He has sided himself with the rats against the guinea pigs.
He still has absolutely no clue what he's doing.
There's no way in hell I can score this yet. The game looks beautiful, if simple with little animation. The art design is very effective, the customisation options and potential for different play-throughs pretty extensive. The sound is fantastic and the sparse music burrows pleasingly into your brain. Travelling the spooky inky night elicits an adventurous but tolling and echoey tune of bleak beauty. Returning to home has swelling, cosy, reassuring music that reflects and expands the feeling of relief and happiness at being home-safe, once again. Again, the writing is great. And it knows when to stop, when to wink, and when to get a little unnerving. If I can find a way of understanding how to comprehend these quests and the item system to a successful result, then I think I can class it as a truly great game. If I spend the next week cocking about and failing then, well... I don't regret the purchase, it told a fine setting, but I will confess myself to being somewhat disappointed.
Oh, a final note. It has PERMADEATH. But that's a sort of inbuilt mechanic, as you can bequest traits or items to your successor - more if they're in your will or are child. As such, you will get a little more powerful and wiser each incarnation, with still the options to play it out to a different goal. The map, by the by, will randomise each time. Death is not to be treated with frustrated horror apparently, as such intriguing misfortunes are at least usually borne out of circumstances startling and original.
So, Sunless Sea then. Buggered if I know whether you should buy it or not, but it's certainly the most interesting and atmospheric game I've played in a long, long while.
Oh, and before you ask, no - the wiki doesn't really make much sense either. And no, there are no trading runs in this game to speak of.