Sunless Sea review (Early Access)

Andy Kelly at

Early Access reviews offer our preliminary verdicts on in-development games. We may follow up this unscored review with a final, scored review in the future.

Welcome to the Unterzee, a vast underground body of water that was once the city of London. Plunged into eternal darkness, this colossal, shadowy sea is dotted with islands, filled with secrets, and swimming with unimaginable horrors—and as a ship captain, it’s your job to explore it.

Sunless Sea is an intriguing seafaring roguelike with an emphasis on storytelling, and one of the most atmospheric games I’ve played in a while. As you sail the Unterzee, your lights cutting through the gloom, you’ll discover ports that can be docked at, revealing stories. These are told entirely through text and are beautifully written and wonderfully evocative.

How you advance or resolve these stories depends on your choices. Depending on what you say and how you act, there will be different outcomes. This all ties into your stats. Sunless Sea isn’t just about storytelling; there’s resource management too. Stray too far into dangerous waters and your fear will increase. If it gets too high, your crew will panic and mutiny. Fail to keep your ship’s hold stocked with supplies and they’ll go hungry. Run out of fuel and you’ll be stranded.

But by completing stories you can unlock supplies, lower your terror, earn money, and eventually upgrade your ship. Some story choices are dice rolls, and your base stats—variations on strength, luck, and other RPG staples—will determine whether a risky choice will be successful or not. Fail a ‘roll’ and you’ll lose supplies or gain fear; win and you’ll achieve the opposite.

Described like this, the game sounds like a sea of stats, but it’s all cleverly hidden by the stories and their rich, vivid writing. When you get used to the game’s systems, the management elements take a back seat to the exploration. It’s all about knowing how far you can push into the darkest corners of the Unterzee with the fuel and supplies you have. You’ll find yourself getting stranded a lot when you first start, but it won’t take long for you to become a salty veteran of its black waves.

The ship is controlled in real-time, but most of the game takes place in your journal. It’s here that you read and interact with stories, view your supplies, and track your progress. As you move around the map, which is clouded by a fog of war that clears as you move through it, you’ll run into enemies. The combat is slow and turn-based, and I could happily play the game without it. Having to worry about running into giant crabs, colonies of bats, and monstrous eels can get in the way of the story.

In the current build the map isn’t randomised, meaning you’ll be coming across the same islands in the same order as most other players, but it’s still a joy to explore. You never know what bizarre location or characters you’re going to encounter next, and new stories are being added every week.

There are better roguelikes, and the management aspect of Sunless Sea needs a lot of work and balancing, but it’s the storytelling that makes it stand out. The use of lighting, music, and sound—and that excellent writing—give the Unterzee a palpable atmosphere as you drift through it. Lovecraft-inspired worlds aren’t exactly rare on PC, but Failbetter have done a wonderful job of fleshing theirs out and giving it its own distinct personality.

Verdict

Evocative writing and compelling exploration make this nautical roguelike well worth playing, but the ponderous combat can be a drag.

Outlook

Very good. The addition of a randomly generated map will make the Unterzee even more thrilling and unpredictable to explore.

Details

Version reviewed: V0.5.0.1375
Reviewed on: i5-3570K 3.40GHz, 16GB RAM, HD 7890
Recommended: 2GHz CPU, 1GB RAM, 512MB GPU
Price: £14 / $17
Publisher: Failbetter Games
Developer: Failbetter Games
Multiplayer: None
Link:Steam