SUNLESS SEA: ZUBMARINER EDITION
Writers: Alexis Kennedy, Chris Gardiner, Richard Cobbett, Emily Short, Meg Jayanth, Amal El-Mohtar
Developers: Failbetter Games
Publisher: Failbetter Games
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux (beta), iOS, PlayStation 4
Sunless Seas: Zubmariner Edition (2015) opens on a Joseph Conrad quote: “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most, it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” This is a good way to set the tone for this game that expands the world of Fallen London. If you’re unfamiliar, Fallen London is set in an alternate Victorian-era London where the inhabitants of the city live underground (the Neath) near the Unterzee, a vast underground ocean. The atmosphere is very Gothic and a bit steampunk.
All of the games in the Fallen London universe (including Fallen London, Sunless Seas, and the latest, Sunless Skies) are text-based exploration/adventure games. Think of it like playing a tabletop role-playing game, but in a video game format (gamers of a certain vintage will remember text-based games like the original King’s Quest series by Sierra). You create a character and are given storylets to follow and decisions to make in an effort to achieve your character’s goal. Sunless Seas takes this a bit further by adding a rogue-like element to the game; when your Unterzee steamship captain dies (and s/he will, often), your next character inherits some of your wealth, knowledge, etc. (based on which inheritance you choose) of your previous character.
The game is heavy on resource management. If you run out of fuel, your whole crew could die stranded at sea. If you have inferior arms, you could get destroyed by a pirate ship or zee monster. If you run out of food, your shipmates might start looking at each other for a tasty meal. Unless you choose to inherit the map, each new game starts out with the map covered, so you start blind each time. When you find your ship out in the depths of the dark water, no land in sight and only the places you’ve been uncovered on the map, it definitely feels creepy.
The art design is beautiful. The whole game takes place on the map as you pilot your ship through the Unterzee exploring different ports and the storylets they contain. The bird’s eye view illustration of the map looks like something you might see hanging on the wall of an 19th century admiral’s office. The audio is simultaneously atmospheric and soothing: the drips and waves of the water, the string instruments that carry you into the unknown. The game does an excellent job of putting you in the setting of the Neath.
Since this is a text game, the writing quality is very important. Luckily, that’s one of the ways that the Fallen London universe of games really shines. Like a skilled GM, the descriptions and storylets keep you immersed in the game. Whether your talking to someone of high society, a rough and rugged passenger on your ship, or a trio of isolated sisters on a small island, the dialogue and descriptions matches the tone of each interaction perfectly. And there’s no small amount of the dry British wit you would expect from Londoners who were driven underground and now live in a steampunk dystopia. However, the storylets can get a bit repetitive, since you will undoubtedly find yourself returning to some of the same places legacy after legacy, but this is functionally no different from any other rogue-like game where you have to replay over again each time.
The game controls take some getting used to. The ship is controlled by the bow of the ship and its position on the map. So, if you’re travelling north, you would push right to go right, but if you’re travelling south, you would push left. This is a relatively short learning curve, however, before you get the hang of it. It’s worth it to get to explore the fascinating world of the Unterzee.