Sunless Sea -Review
Helplessness is a feeling often captured in videogames, at the mercy of the game world, reliant upon overarching systems that affect health, action set and the protagonist’s sanity. Sunless Sea plays with this in a darkly comic way, telling you straight up that your first few captains will likely die horrible deaths, victims of the unforgiving Unterzee (if you replace ‘s’ with ‘z’ it becomes archaic and steampunky and cool).
Indeed, to be a zailor on the zee is a life short-changed, battling against the darkness, both of the zee itself and your fellow crew. Upon the isolated waters, it is possible to turn to all manner of dark actions while starvation and dwindling fuel supplies run their course. Kill a swarm of bats on the zee and you might drain their blood to place in the cooking pot. But zailors are a suspicious lot, so another more prudent option is to offer their remains back to the dark waters, to reduce pent-up fear and appease whatever dark gods laugh deeply down there.
Gameplay takes place from a top-down perspective as you pilot your ship using the WASD keys, utilising mouse clicks and on-screen buttons to attack creatures and other ships, turn your searchlight on and off (leaving it off is sneakier) and dock at rare safe havens dotted about the randomly generated map. Resources are scarce, so you must push into encounters, both for the provisions they provide and the experience; as captain, you aren’t going to reach your legacy by simply standing at the prow, Titanic style.
It’s tough and it won’t be long before your prophesied demise. Yet dying itself is a statement within this world. There is meaning in it. Upon your horrible end (starvation, mutiny, abandoning ship, or perhaps simple drowning), you can choose a legacy to leave to your successor, be it an inherited weapon or passing on the map you have painstakingly explored in your short, sharp existence. Then it’s time to start all over again with a new identity and end goal (I’m partial to trying to searching for my father’s remains).
Although text heavy, there’s a nice humour to the proceedings that draws everything together. You may be clicking through the same options again and again, but then something unexpected will pop up: what to do with the bodies of dead crew members, or how exactly do you console your crew as supplies dwindle and you’re marooned with no more fuel?
Structurally, you’re expected to get better at the game with each subsequent ‘life’, lasting longer, unlocking more perks to pass down the line and generally rocking the whole ‘captain-against-impossible-odds’ scenario. While the missions themselves are often wafty, comprised of going to places and getting X to bring back, there’s a satisfying sense of chipping away at a block of very hard stone that offers its own reward in the motions rather than the result. It’s also incredibly easy to get side-tracked, to become hypnotised by the unknown bounties of the darkness, to consider simply sailing off in a straight line and accepting whatever fate decrees.
It’s all laughably stacked against you. Monsters never carry enough remnants when defeated to get you very far, and the vast distances between ports-of-call have you constantly worrying about fuel stocks. And so it becomes about wringing everything you can from each docking location, trying to earn perks on each play to unlock additional mission options, attempting to leave a strong legacy once you pass on so that the next generation can get a head start in this cruel world.
Sunless Sea is frustrating, almost to the point of absurdity, but there’s something hypnotic about it that keeps you signing up for another round of punishment, even as your last character’s outstretched hand sinks into the briny depths. The promise of becoming powerful in this powerless world is alluring, with weapon upgrades you have no hope of affording, but perhaps one day you will, and when you do, perhaps you’ll pass it down to your next of kin, and they will enter this world far more prepared than you, more likely to succeed where you failed.
The perfect balance of frustration and allure comes down to the game’s writing and the way that there always seems to be another layer, another option, another adventure just waiting to be unlocked, even when all you might do for several lifetimes is roam the dark ocean shooting aggressive crabs. It’s not satisfying in the way that most games are, passing levels and checking off progress. It’s about holding the memories of all the piled-up tragedies you’ve enacted. It’s about attempting to make their disasters worth something, so that some kind of progress can be appreciated.
But of course, you’re always just an errant stone on the road, suffering under the illusion of meaning and destiny, and so shall you too be remembered in your cold, eternal tomb. But hey, perhaps that letter you wrote to your niece will find her, and maybe, just maybe she will feel the lure of the zee also. . .