A Weekend With…Sunless Sea

Anyone who’s been following games for long enough knows that once every while developers put out free weekends on Steam. This makes the game free to play for a few days, usually with a discount if you purchase during this time. Its an excellent chance to demo the game and see what you think, and this weekend it was the turn of Sunless Sea, by Failbetter Games, which has been rather well recieved. I decided to go and see what the fuss was about. Sunless Sea is the second game made by Failbetter Games, and is set in the same world as their previous outing, Fallen London, their rather good browser-based social game with a rather Lovecraftian vibe, which has been celebrated for its ability to create an enthralling and characterful world for players to explore and interact with.

The first hour or two of the game is weird, wonderful and confusing. While most of the gameplay is carried out through controlling your ship in the normal top-down view, with a basic combat system to go with it, the meat of the game is in the style of a ‘choose your own adventure’ novel, and this certainly is to the games benefit. The game’s writing, the ability of its words, pictures and music to build a setting that sticks in the mind, is evident from the moment you start building your character, a swift process that mainly gives you the chance to choose a few minor characteristics and your eventual win condition. You’re then given a few options and leads to follow, and whatever happens next is up to you. It didn’t take long for me to become hopelessly lost, my fuel and supplies running low scrambling for the nearest place to dock, and finding no such haven in sight I slowly ground to a halt in the middle of a bunch of islands barely a fifth of the way across the map. The game is tough, and there are no manual saves unless you turn the difficulty down. Failure sends you back to the character creation to begin a new adventure, though you can take some of what you’ve gained from the previous playthrough with you. Straight on to a new character for me, armed with what I’d learned.

After about 5 hours of play I’d gone through a rather merry loop of ridiculous deaths, and on to my 4th character, who was broke as hell but with a full complement of officers on board, barely making the trip back to London to restock (and barely having the funds to do that in the first place), but uncovering about half of the Western third of the map on the way. It was at this point though I started feeling a little different about my playtime. The game is unforgiving, and I was loathe to go through the early portions of the game again. In addition, I barely had anything, but what I did have in terms of the story threads, the character relationships, and the map, I didn’t want to lose. I was playing careful, and it hampered my enjoyment of the game by making travelling into unknown waters a slow, careful plod, and travelling in known waters an exercise in tedious repetition, wanting to click ‘full power to engines’ until they blew up or I reached my destination. I was getting frustrated by my slow progress and what I regarded as the unnecessarily cryptic descriptions of objectives.

This came to a peak when I forgot to patch up my ship after one too many encounters looking for a location required by one of these objectives. My ship nearly falling apart, I sped back to London, forgetting about the package I had originally been sent to collect. The quest giver in question took offense to this, killing half of my crew and nicking some of my stuff. ‘I didn’t even know where the place was and no one would tell me!’ I wailed at the monitor, and took 10 minutes to consider my next move. After which I finally said to hell with it, fixed my ship up, sold everything, loaded up on all the supplies I could carry and set sail to uncover as much of the map as possible until the free weekend ran out, thoroughly enjoying the sites and sounds along the way. For those last few hours, I was worrying less about progress and simply allowed myself to be enraptured once again by the world that Failbetter had built.

After my playtime, I had a read around the internet to see what others had thought of the game over the weekend. What I didn’t know was that there’s a small team of modders out there slowly adding to the game. Increased speed, storage space at your home base, tweaks to ship stats…theres a lot of additional changes there and many of them I would have welcomed. The changes these mods bring and the updates and additional story threads Failbetter are committed to adding means I may well consider going back for another sail on the Unterzees, and I’d recommend anyone who likes the idea of a punishing, slow burning adventure through a world dripping with character to do the same!

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