Stellar story-writing aside, Sunless Sea has grindingly boring gameplay.

User Rating: 6 | Sunless Sea (Early Access) PC


Sunless Sea is the result of indie developer Failbetter’s attempt to brainstorm special gameplay for its browser-based title Fallen London. After a successful crowd-funded period of development which also includes Steam Early Access, that idea has been turned into a full-fledged game which complements the browser game.

Like its sister game, Sunless Sea benefits from Failbetter’s roster of stellar writers and content creators. Unfortunately, it also has the same major problem: ploddingly slow and repetitive gameplay. Furthermore, some of the ways which it goes about implementing and justifying this highlight just how conveniently exploitable the bizarre setting of the Neath is.


Although the story of the game does present a date, including an AD year, it is still not clear when exactly Sunless Sea takes place relative to Fallen London. Presumably, it runs concurrently, but there is content in Sunless Sea which brings further development to certain locales, such as Hunter’s Keep and Mutton Island, which are otherwise unchanging in Fallen London.

Anyway, for the sake of people who do not know this already, Sunless Sea takes place in a fictional alternate universe where otherworldly things have visited Earth. Earth itself has a surreal subterranean region known as the “Neath”, and this is where the otherworldly things have set up shop. For thousands of years, they have undertaken an endeavour which involves taking entire cities from the surface down into the Neath for a purpose which is best left undescribed here.

Embarrassing glitches like this sometimes happen. In this case, the game has failed to fetch the data which described the last port which the player’s ship has docked in. (The ‘update’ mentioned here did not happen, i.e. this is a stock message.)
Embarrassing glitches like this sometimes happen. In this case, the game has failed to fetch the data which described the last port which the player’s ship has docked in. (The ‘update’ mentioned here did not happen, i.e. this is a stock message.)

The player character is a newly registered sea captain. He/She has decided to go to sea according to an agenda which the player can set at the start of character creation. The Unterzee, the sea of the Neath, is not a particularly forgiving place, however, so the player character may well suffer an ignominious end. On the other hand, it is full of treasures both terrifying and wonderful, and these may well be what the player character needs to achieve his/her ambition.


Failbetter has very early on mentioned that Sunless Sea would be a rogue-lite, i.e. the player will be going through multiple playthroughs and multiple player characters, with a little bit of progress and advantage retained from each previous playthrough, if the player was successful enough. On its own, this would not have been noteworthy; there are plenty of other indie rogue-lites around, so Sunless Sea is treading proven ground.

However, one of the causes of failing a playthrough is that the player character dies while out in the Unterzee. In Fallen London, death is but a mere inconvenience. In Sunless Sea, the player character dies for good. There are few justifications for this, one of which is that the Grim Reaper of the Neath, the “Ferryman”, somehow has a stronger hold on the deceased who died out at sea.

This can seem like a deus ex machina, made possible by the bizarre and inexplicable nature of the Neath. Yet, in Fallen London, there are gameplay segments where the player character in that game does go out to the Unterzee, but death is not an issue because there are no death-causing events at Zee and the player can accrue very high levels of Wounds, beyond the threshold which causes death while in the city. Therefore, death in Sunless Sea can seem like a canonical contradiction.

Furthermore, there is also content in Sunless Sea which suggests that death out at Zee is not permanent. For one, a certain character known as the “Fathomking” has the ability to bring back people from death, apparently by somehow reconstituting them. Yet, the player does not seem to have any opportunity to commission the Fathomking to bring the player character back if he/she dies.

All these discrepancies give the impression that the element of permanent death has been implemented just to stretch the gameplay, at the expense of the lore of the Fallen London universe.


There is a backstory element that appears to be unique to Sunless Sea; it is rarely mentioned in the content of Fallen London. This is the “Alteration”, a seemingly unpredictable occurrence which causes the Neath, with the seeming exception of London, to “reset” itself. For example, whatever has happened to any location other than London seemingly have their fates reverted to a default state.

Gameplay-wise, this is practically an expression of the rogue-lite element of the game. An “alteration” happens every time a player character dies or retires. Most of whatever has been achieved in the previous playthrough is lost, and the player has to start an almost-fresh playthrough.

As in Fallen London, equipment which is sold in the city’s market has considerable asking prices.
As in Fallen London, equipment which is sold in the city’s market has considerable asking prices.
No Caption Provided


London, the titular city in the universe of Fallen London, is the port-of-call for the player’s ship. The player character’s ambition and other major endeavours start at London, and often end there, assuming that the player character does not die out at sea. London is where the player character would meet characters which give them quests and errands too.

London is also where the player purchases and sells goods and equipment for the ship. However, not all things are purchasable at London, and there are goods which cannot be sold openly at London either.

People who have played Fallen London know that there are many districts and locales within London itself. In Sunless Sea, some but not all of these places can be visited, and even so, only a few of these are available to the player. Furthermore, the content at these places may not match that which has been seen in the browser game.

A good example is the Labyrinth of Tigers, which is a zoo of sorts that is owned by talking tigers. This location is only available after the player has lost at least one player character. After it has become available, the most which the player can do is to buy and sell two types of goods (both of which are living things). The player will not be feeding, training and breeding animals like a player character in Fallen London could do at the Labyrinth of Tigers.


As per the laws which have been set by the Masters of the city, a player character can only ever have one ship to his/her name. If the player wants to switch to another ship, the previous one has to be sold off. Conveniently, there is always a trade-in value for any ship, so the purchase price of another ship is always lower by that amount.

The player starts with a regular tramp steamer. It is good enough for travel as far as the Salt Lions (which are relics of a city before London), but for any further travel, the player might want to upgrade to something that is more formidable, such as one of the frigates. The parts of the ship also have to be top-of-the-line, and these also cost money.

Unfortunately, the endeavour of becoming able to afford a better ship and better parts highlights a major problem in its gameplay, which will be described later.

Anyway, the player’s ship is practically an extension of the player character. If its hull points (i.e. its hitpoints) deplete to zero, the ship is destroyed, and the player character goes down with it too. (There is no option to abandon the ship, for whatever reason other than to have the game conform to perma-death rules.)

You would be aghast at how much legitimate grinding it took to switch from the steamer to the Maenad frigate. (In hindsight, it would have been wise to switch to ships before the Maenad and grind some more using those ships.)
You would be aghast at how much legitimate grinding it took to switch from the steamer to the Maenad frigate. (In hindsight, it would have been wise to switch to ships before the Maenad and grind some more using those ships.)

Repairs happen to be quite costly too, and repairs out at zee are even costlier (in more ways than just monetary) and also slow. Therefore, the player will want to minimize damage to the ship as much as possible.

There are other gameplay elements concerning the player’s ship which will be described in their own sections later.


As in Fallen London, the monetary currency is the Echo, which was introduced by the Masters of the Bazaar. Echoes can be used to buy just about anything, as long as it is being sold in the markets of the ports which accept the Echo as a currency.

Conversely, there are many places which do not accept the Echo. These places tend to be locales which had been around longer than London, having either rejected urbane civilization (such as the monster-hunting Chelonate), or being places that sane mortals should not live in (such as dream-like Irem).

Generally, it is in the player’s interest to have as many Echoes as possible. Yet, the main way of getting Echoes is to sell things. This is because most endeavours which reward the player with marketable gains often exclude payments in Echoes. There are only a handful which do include payments in Echoes, and these tend to be concluded in the city of London itself instead of elsewhere.

Incidentally, there are scant few things which serve no purpose other than being vendor trash. There will be more elaboration on this later, but it has to be said for now that Sunless Sea is a game that will punish the player for selling things too readily. In other words, just like Fallen London, Sunless Sea is so much more sophisticated than many other role-playing games in the matter of tradeable goods.


Like Fallen London, Sunless Sea has many resources and many categories for these resources. Again, like Fallen London, it is in the player’s interest to have a mixture of resources, and considerable amounts of each, because there are many occasions which allow the player to expend these resources for profitable gain.

However, unlike Fallen London, the player cannot hoard resources so easily. This is because many resources have to be stored in the player’s ship as cargo which takes up space. This is the case for most commodities and trade goods, such as prisoner’s honey. This is an understandable limitation, though there are lost opportunities for more gameplay features concerning cargo; this will be described later.

Fortunately, the ship’s cargo capacity and how much it is being used does not appear to be a factor in the ship’s mobility and fuel consumption.

There are some resources which are not tangible goods. These are in the form of knowledge, stories, mysteries and secrets. There are also items which are considered to be small enough to be easily stored away such that they do not take up cargo space. For example, there are “Outlandish Artefacts”, which is the catch-all term for the bizarre, small and otherwise innocuous things which the Neath has many of (at least relative to far more esoteric and dangerous things).

Resources which do not take up cargo space are lumped under the placeholder category “Curiosities”; this category is also used in Fallen London for this purpose. This can seem a bit too convenient. More importantly, the lack of further categorization for items under this category means that there will eventually be a lot of Curiosity items. Checking the inventory for these items can be a chore.

You would be aghast at how little cheating it took to get up to this grade of lodgings. (If it had foresight, Failbetter would have been wise to actually encrypt the progress files.)
You would be aghast at how little cheating it took to get up to this grade of lodgings. (If it had foresight, Failbetter would have been wise to actually encrypt the progress files.)


As mentioned earlier, any cargo which the player has must be stored within the player’s ship. There is a lost opportunity to implement a feature that allows the player to use warehouses to store cargo in. Considering that the player can spend money to upgrade the player character’s lodgings, the lack of other property options can seem like a glaring omission.


The player’s ship requires fuel in order to move about and activate its searchlight. The rate of fuel consumption happens to be proportional to the power of the ship’s engine, so the player might want to think twice about upgrading to a more powerful engine.

Running out of fuel means that the player’s ship risks being stranded where it flounders. When this happens, the game gives the player the option to burn supplies for a little more fuel; this option is one among other even more unpleasant options. Furthermore, the outcome of these options are terribly luck-dependent.

Fuel is also used for many other purposes; after all, these are combustibles, and it so happens that in the Neath, there are a lot of uses for things which can burn and explode. There are locales with no ready access to sources of fuel too, and they either pay well for fuel or trade for it with exotic items.

Fuel is one of the two resources which the player will be procuring the most. Not all ports sell fuel, however, so the player will want to remember which ports do so, because the game certainly will not, for better or worse.


“Supplies” is the catch-all term for the resources, other than fuel, which the player needs to keep the ship running and its crew looked after. First and foremost, supplies are consumed by the crew (and presumably the player character too) as sustenance; the gameplay element which determines the frequency of consumption, “Hunger”, will be described later.

Supplies can also be used to enact field repairs on the player’s ship, if it has not lost more than half of its hull points. This is a costly method of repairing the ship, however, because Supplies are not cheap (unit for unit, they tend to be more expensive to purchase than Fuel).

Like Fuel, Supplies also have other uses than being something which keeps the ship and its crew running. There are places in the Neath where “proper” food is scarce, so the food which are among the player’s Supplies are valuable trade goods. There are also occasions where expending Supplies would solve problems. This is, of course, quite risky.

Both Supplies and Fuel take up cargo space, meaning that the player has to balance between carrying cargo around and having enough of both resources to keep going. Indeed, getting to places which are far from London is much easier if the player’s ship has the capacity to carry the Supplies and Fuel needed to get there while carrying cargo which are needed for endeavours away from London. Incidentally, this also means that the player needs to switch to more capable (and more expensive) ships.

Getting this acquaintance at the university early in a playthrough is helpful for dumping off knowledge-based resources, which only become more important after the player is able to reach further than the Salt Lions.
Getting this acquaintance at the university early in a playthrough is helpful for dumping off knowledge-based resources, which only become more important after the player is able to reach further than the Salt Lions.


In Fallen London, there are the four main qualities which represent the skills, intellect and other personal capabilities of the player character. There are similar statistics in Sunless Sea, albeit there are more than just four. They will be described in this section, though the means of increasing them will be described in another section.

(Incidentally, they are all named after the Masters of the Bazaar; players of Fallen London would recognize their self-given names almost immediately. Interestingly, however, they are rarely if not ever encountered in Sunless Sea. The only exception is Mr. Sacks, but this is not exactly one of the Masters; elaboration will be withheld here because it would be a spoiler.)

“Pages” is the rating which determines how knowledgeable and clever the player character is. It is the most difficult rating to improve, because there are relatively few opportunities to do so, compared to the other ratings. “Pages” is used for occasions where intellect is the main factor of success. “Pages” also determines the accumulation of Secrets, which will be described later.

“Iron” is the rating which determines how capable the player character is at combat and other dangerous endeavours. “Iron” also determines how much additional damage that the player’s ship would inflict with its attacks.

“Veils” is the rating which expresses how cunning the player character is. It is the rating which is used for occasions where guile is essential. In combat, “Veils” determines how well-hidden the player’s ship is from the attention of enemies; there will be more elaboration on staying hidden later.

“Mirrors” is an esoteric rating that sometimes stands in for “Pages”, especially if the occasion is more arcane than it is intellectual. “Mirrors” also determine how quickly the weapons on the player’s ship can be aimed at enemies.

“Hearts” determines how robust the player character’s health is, and how persuasive he/she is. If the occasion calls for a silver tongue, “Hearts” is often the rating which is rolled against. “Hearts” also has a subtle effect on how quickly Terror is accumulated. (There will be a section on Terror later.)

There are a lot of RNG rolls and checks against these ratings. Generally, the player will want the ratings to be as high as possible so as to access more game content. (Speaking of ratings which are as high as possible, the highest which these ratings can reach is 200 points.)

Reading recent news sometimes rewards the player with free Supplies – this is quite useful early in a playthrough.
Reading recent news sometimes rewards the player with free Supplies – this is quite useful early in a playthrough.


To make any progress in a playthrough, i.e. discovering and experiencing more content, the player will need to increase the main qualities. Where most other role-playing games would implement a convenient but lazily-designed system of experience points and levels, Sunless Sea takes a different approach. It is also one that is different from the system in Fallen London too. (Fallen London uses a practise-makes-perfect system, i.e. the player improves a skill by using that skill over and over.)

The five aforementioned qualities in Sunless Sea do not increase over repeated use. Rather, they have to be increased by having the player character pick up lessons which are associated with them. The ship’s officers can provide such lessons (though they are not the only sources), in exchange for the resource known as “Secrets”; Secrets and another associated resource, Fragments, will be described later. Each of these lessons increase their associated quality by only one point at a time, and certain officers cannot help the player character improve beyond certain thresholds. (The other designs of the ship’s officers will be described later.)

There are other means of increasing these qualities. These other means can provide more than just one point, but the exact amount depends on luck; in the case of some stories which grant these, the player may even have a bad outcome in which points are lost instead of gained.

Unfortunately, increasing the main qualities is one example where the gameplay can seem awfully repetitive. This has to be done for every playthrough, because the next player character cannot retain the previous player character’s qualities in their entirety. Of course, the player could obtain special qualities which increase the initial levels of the main qualities. This helps the player blow through the early stages of subsequent playthroughs, but not for the middle or late stages.


Like Fallen London, Sunless Sea has many occasions where success is determined by RNG rolls which use the main qualities as thresholds. The magnitudes of the thresholds can vary tremendously. For example, the early-stage rolls only require low thresholds, meaning that an advanced player character would eventually be able to blow through them with 100% chances of success.

However, the RNG rolls which occur late into a playthrough often require high ratings for any significant chance at success. They may even require levels which are beyond the maximum of 200.

This means that the player will be grinding for increases in main qualities from the start to the end of a playthrough. This can become tiresome after several playthroughs.

Almost without exception, the Zee-creatures in the Neath are bizarre and dangerous.
Almost without exception, the Zee-creatures in the Neath are bizarre and dangerous.


The crew of the player’s ship need to eat in order to survive. They are primarily fed through the consumption of Supplies. Their regularity of feeding is determined by how fast the Hunger meter fills. Regardless of how quickly the Hunger meter fills, after it reaches the 50% mark, the crew has to be fed with Supplies.

If there are not any Supplies left, bad story events start to occur. These events do give the player some options to mitigate Hunger, but they often come with considerable price. Some of the options also have luck-dependent outcomes, meaning that the player would just be wasting other resources if he/she is not lucky.

On the other hand, great hunger may also lead to certain game content being unlocked. This game content concerns cannibalism, which is perhaps something that jaded players would love to immerse their playthroughs in. On the other hand, this involves the loss of crew and the accumulation of terror, neither of which is desirable.

For the most part, hunger is an understandable and manageable gameplay element. There is a problem though, and it involves a gap in the gameplay designs of London. In London, there are several means of reducing Terror; there is even a reduction in Terror if the player returns to London with the “Something awaits you” quality (more on this later). Yet, there are unbelievably few ways to reduce Hunger while in London.

Perhaps this omission was deliberate, just to impose the rogue-lite gameplay onto the player. If this is the case, then believability has been sacrificed for the sake of artificially-imposed challenge.

Another notable complaint is that many locales have inns where the player character and the crew could lift their spirits in, thus reducing Terror. Yet, they do not seem to be able to simultaneously reduce there Hunger while they are in these rest-places. One would wonder why they did not bother to feed themselves while drinking themselves under the bar.


The player’s ship needs crew in order to be operated. In this matter, the percentage of the crew capacity that is filled is the deciding factor. For normal operation without any problems, the crew capacity has to be filled over 75%. Anything below this causes problems. Reaching zero means that the ship is utterly lost, and the player character is also doomed to an ignominious end.

However, the actual number of crew determines how fast Hunger accumulates. Coupled with the emphasis on the percentage of filled crew capacity for the operation of the ship, this means that larger ships which require more crew will go through Supplies much quicker than smaller ships would.

Interestingly, although the game implies that the captain of the ship, i.e. the player character, is also part of the crew, the officers on the ship do not count towards its crew capacity. Moreover, the stories which concern them suggest that the officers take up more space on the ship than regular crew do. This discrepancy is, of course, likely a gameplay contrivance.

Crewmembers are a resource which the player will want to keep an eye on, because there is a relative rarity of opportunities to replenish the crew outside of London. If the player’s ship is docked at London, hiring more crew is a trivial matter (though not necessarily a cheap one, depending on the source which is utilized).

Elsewhere, additional crew members are hard to come by. They may be people whom the player rescue, or denizens of other places who wish to go on adventures. Even so, these are examples of crew members of the innocuous kind. In other occasions, the player may gain crew members through dubious and risky means.

For better or worse, Sunless Sea rewards good luck as much as it punishes bad luck.
For better or worse, Sunless Sea rewards good luck as much as it punishes bad luck.


The player character and the crew are ultimately mortals. Even if they may have been in the Neath for a long while (as most who sail the Unterzee are), the Neath can still be too much for their minds.

The degree of mental stress that they have been subjected to is indicated by the “Terror” rating. Terror always accumulates, albeit at various rates depending on what the player has been doing and where the player’s ship is. For example, if the player’s ship is sailing across the open Unterzee with no land features in sight, Terror rises faster than it would if the player’s ship had been following a coast.

After the Terror rating rises to 25 and above, bad events start to happen, forcing the player to make unsavoury decisions to attempt to stall any further accumulation. As Terror rises further, the frequency of such events increases, as does their severity.

If the rating reaches 100, the crew rise in mutiny. The player is faced with a do-or-die situation; specifically, there are only two options to go from here, one of which rolls against the player’s Iron rating, the other Hearts. Failing at either is an immediate game-over. Even if the player succeeds, some of the Crew are lost anyway, and the player risks game-over by the complete loss of the crew.

Obviously, the player will not want this to rise too high. Unfortunately, reducing Terror is a costly matter, often requiring the consumption of resources whenever the opportunity arises. Such an opportunity is rare outside of ports, and even this can be quite expensive.

Incidentally, returning to London and making use of options there is the best recourse to managing Terror. However, as the player makes progress in a playthrough, the player will be making forays further and further away from London, often to places which pile a lot of Terror on the crew. This makes late-stage content a lot riskier to seek out, but these tend to be the most rewarding (and least grinding-heavy too).


Players who are used to controls which are dependent on the player character’s orientation regardless of the camera perspective would quickly become familiar with the controls in Sunless Sea. For players who are used to faster player characters, such as those in twin-stick shooters, the ship might seem a tad sluggish.

On the other hand, most enemies which the player would encounter are also similarly sluggish, if not more so. Indeed, one of the key factors of victory is being able to outmaneuver enemies. Nevertheless, even the fastest and nimblest ship in the game moves slow enough such that the player will need to rely more on anticipation and planning than he/she would practiced reflexes.

Observant and inquisitive players would eventually realize that the ship turns faster if it is slower, and even faster if it is going in reverse, for whatever reason. However, the ship cannot turn when it is not moving at all.

Unfortunately, controlling the ship is just about all there is to the portion of the gameplay that occurs outside of the storytelling-related ones. Watching the ship trundle around the Zee can become tiresome after several hours.

Most enemies can be defeated by staying in their rear arcs. There are some enemies with rear-firing weapons though.
Most enemies can be defeated by staying in their rear arcs. There are some enemies with rear-firing weapons though.


There is no hard limit to the speed of a ship. The engine power to weight ratio is the main factor in determining its speed. As mentioned earlier, increasing engine power increases fuel consumption too, but this is a necessary concern if the player wants to upgrade to the bigger, more durable and more capable ships.

Even though greater engine power means greater fuel consumption, it is in the player’s interest to increase the ship’s speed whenever feasible and possible. This is because spending less time sailing means slower accumulation of Terror and less consumption of Supplies relative to the distance that has been travelled. If the player chooses his/her route carefully, the savings would be considerable.

Moreover, the engine power to weight ratio also determines the turning rate of a ship. A ship which turns faster performs better in combat, and can follow tighter and more economical routes.

For the purpose of controlling the speed of the ship, there are speed toggles which partition the ship’s speed range into a few tiers: there are two tiers for reverse speeds, two tiers for forward speeds, and one for complete stop.

Changing the speed toggle does not immediately produce an effect. The ship does have inertia, which is inversely proportional to the engine power to weight ratio. This can complicate the player’s attempt at maneuvering around an enemy, but it can also be utilized in convenient ways, such as setting the ship in reverse in order to rapidly decelerate it.


Some enemies can be avoided simply by sailing past them, if the player’s ship is substantially faster. At other times, the player has to engage them in combat, usually with the intention of looting whatever they can yield.

Combat occurs in real-time; this is a gameplay design which Failbetter arrived at after receiving feedback for its original design for combat, which involved turns and RNGs. The real-time format is more conducive to gameplay than the original turn-based one. More importantly, it allows the player to disengage if the player notices the opportunity to do so; combat is rarely worth the trouble and time.

The player’s ship can only engage a single enemy in combat at any time, but it could draw the hostile attention of more than one enemy if the player is either unlucky or not careful (the latter is likely to be the case). Being attacked by more than one enemy at a time usually means disaster, and there is no reward for fighting more than one enemy at a time.

Some locales have oddball names, but they are otherwise just there for sight-seeing purposes.
Some locales have oddball names, but they are otherwise just there for sight-seeing purposes.

Engaging an enemy is as simple as clicking on the enemy which the player wants to target. After doing so, the player needs to have the target stay within the firing arc(s) of the ship. Doing so allows the ship’s gunners to come up with firing solutions to hit the target with the ship’s weapons. The acquisition of firing solutions is much faster if the player can have the target illuminated with the ship’s searchlight or flares, though either option comes with some drawbacks which will be described later.

The “firing solutions” are actually the probability of success at the RNG roll which is made when an attack is executed against the enemy. If the player can be patient enough to let the firing solutions be completely calculated, the next attack which the player makes is guaranteed to hit.

On the other hand, the rate of achieving firing solutions is different from the rate of reloading weapons; the latter is generally faster. It might be tempting to spam shots, trying to defeat the enemy with a sheer volume of fire instead of calculated shots. However, this is usually a futile effort, because missed shots are completely wasted.

Keeping enemies in the player’s firing arcs as long as possible is one of the factors of victory. However, most enemies also have firing arcs of their own, or an equivalent if they happen to be sea monsters instead of armed ships. These are invisible to the player, though there are indirect visual indicators such as the direction of the searchlights of enemy ships or the direction that a sea monster is facing.

If the player’s ship tarries too long in its arc, the enemy eventually makes an attack that the player’s ship is not able to reliably evade. Therefore, it is in the player’s interest to maneuver the ship such that it is out of the enemy’s firing arc while keeping the enemy within its own arc; this is easier said than done, of course.


Oftentimes, it may be better to just avoid enemies entirely, especially if the player’s ship is in a serious condition or the player is in a hurry to get somewhere. Unfortunately, most of the other things at Zee are invariably hostile; they will pursue and attack if they discover the player’s ship.

There are a few factors which minimize discovery by enemies. The most significant of these is the player’s Veils rating. A higher “Veils” rating means that the player’s ship is more difficult to be detected in almost any kind of situation where detection is a risk.

The second of these is whether the searchlight of the player’s ship is turned on. With it turned on, the player’s ship is much easier to spot. If the searchlight illuminates an enemy, that enemy surely knows that the player’s ship is around; all it needs to do is turn around and it will spot the player’s ship. However, a very high Veils rating, and searchlights with the “Obscure Energies” quality, will make it difficult for enemies to figure out where the player’s ship is even if they are being illuminated.

It might be tempting to turn off the searchlight in order to stay hidden from enemies and also to save fuel. However, Terror accumulates much faster with the searchlight turned off, unless the player’s ship is already in an illuminated region, such as areas lit by buoys.

The fourth wall might have been broken a bit here.
The fourth wall might have been broken a bit here.

(By the way, being in illuminated areas also means that the player’s ship is easy to spot.)

The next factor is distance. Maintaining a distance of half a screen away from anything usually guarantees that the player’s ship remains undetected. This distance is also generally the distance at which most pursuers would give up. The player’s Veils rating determines how close the player’s ship can be to an enemy before it is detected, assuming that it is not doing overt things like shining the searchlight on the enemy or shooting at it. Indeed, a triple-digit Veils rating allows the ship to practically be the shadow of just about any enemy in the Neath.

(On the other hand, there is no reason to shadow another ship or sea monster. Thankfully, there are no quests which require this.)

The final factor is whether the player is already attacking the enemy or not. Obviously, an enemy which has been attacked will be alerted to the presence of the player’s ship and will turn in the direction of the player’s ship.

Interestingly though, taking offensive action does not mean that the exact whereabouts of the player’s ship is automatically revealed. If the player’s Veils rating is high enough relative to the detection capability of the enemy (the exact measurement of which is, unfortunately, hidden to the player), the most which the enemy can do is move towards the general direction of the player’s ship; this is depicted via the question mark appearing above its sprite. It does not initiate any attack routines until it has definitively detected the latter.

This means that the player could “kite” enemies around, shooting them at the maximum range of the ship’s weapons whenever a reliable firing solution is acquired while having the ship sail away from them.


As mentioned earlier, the player’s ship can be mounted with weapons. This is very much a necessity, because there are monstrosities and pirates (and enemies which are practically both) in the Unterzee that would try to bring the player’s ship to battle.

Most weapons have no ammunition concerns to worry about; the player’s ship is assumed to always have the ammunition for weapons such as cannons and flensing guns. However, torpedo launchers do require ammunition, namely “torpedo parts”. To compensate for this requirement, torpedo launchers inflict more damage than other weapons of comparable price. (It is unclear whether these parts have to be assembled into torpedoes before firing or the launcher does the assembly itself.)

Cannons are guns which are primarily intended to be used against ships, though they also inflict equal amounts of damage to other types of targets. Flensing guns are intended to be used against monsters, because of their higher damage output against these enemies.

Weapons are categorized further according to the slots which they are mounted on. Most ships have slots for deck guns, which have the widest arcs of fire. The bigger ships tend to have slots for “forward” weapons, which like deck guns, are oriented towards the front of the ship. Forward guns have narrower arcs of fire, but compensate by having more damage potential than deck guns of comparable price.

Bees in the Neath are a very, very different sort from the ones we know.
Bees in the Neath are a very, very different sort from the ones we know.

Some ships are big enough to have rear-facing gun-mounts. These are useful if the player’s ship is not fast enough to outrun enemies, but is fast enough to “kite” them anyway. However, their damage output to cost ratio is not as high as those of deck and forward guns.

There are no weapons with splash damage, i.e. area-effect weapons. This is despite the fact that many weapons appear to be cannons which fire ordnance with explosive payloads.

This is just about all there is to the weapons which can be mounted on ships. If the player expects any more sophistication than this, he/she would be disappointed.


There is not much that the player can do in battle other than to aim and shoot at enemies while maneuvering the ship. However, there are a few types of items – emphasis on “few” – that can be used while fighting.

The first of these is the “Strange Catch”. This is bait for Neath Zee monsters: upon casting this, any monsters which were submerged rise back to the surface, presumably because they were (somehow) enticed by the Strange Catch. Strange Catches also take up cargo space, and more often than not, getting them is itself a reminder that hideous things live in the Zee.

The second is the Flare. It can be fired at enemies in order to illuminate them, making the acquisition of firing solutions much faster. However, Flares take up cargo space, though flares and their launchers should have been rather compact devices.

The third is the Rattus Faber Assistant, which can be used to restore 100 hull points immediately. This might seem useful, but it requires the player to mount a specific type of ship equipment that has been designed just for this purpose. The mounting slot which it occupies could have been used for some other device instead. Furthermore, Rattus Faber Assistants are expensive consumables, and “free” sources are not easy or convenient to farm.

All other consumables follow similar design policies. They have very situational uses, but come with drawbacks and opportunity costs that are always there as long as they are in the player’s possession.

Also, most of the consumables have very little uses outside of combat, the exception being Strange Catches, which enable certain options in certain situations.


There are a few hazards out at Zee. There are no rogue waves, but there are whirlpools which can trap the player’s ship if it does not have the engine power to break free. There are also clouds of vapour which not only obscure the player’s view, but also reduce the rate of the acquisition of firing solutions.

However, the most common hazard is simply collisions with other things. This is often indicated by loud harsh clangs, so the player will know that he/she has goofed up in his/her navigation.


There are many enemies to be encountered in the Zee; they are generally either other ships or monsters. Some of the ships can even seem inhuman or outright monstrous, especially those which are encountered far away from London.

The enemies can be categorized according to their attack behaviours. For example, there are monsters which, if the player’s ship is in range, prep for a ramming charge, but otherwise have no other means of attack. As another example, enemy ships generally attempt to keep the player’s ship in their firing arcs, but do occasionally fire flares at the player’s ship, which help them aim faster if the player does not have the sense to move out of their range of illumination.

Most enemies move about much like the player’s own ship does, e.g. they have to make wide turns to turn around if they are already moving at speed. They are also blocked by obstacles much as the player’s own ship does.

Piracy is an option, but not everyone in the player’s crew would go through with this.
Piracy is an option, but not everyone in the player’s crew would go through with this.

However, there are a few enemies which have much freer forms of movement, such as flights of bats and flocks of killer birds. These are not halted by any obstacles at all. Their hitboxes also tend to be difficult to discern, though a complete firing solution will always hit them regardless.

Some of the most difficult enemies have attack and movement behaviors which are unique to themselves. The most notable example of these is Mt. Nomad, a living moving mountain of sorts. It is incredibly fast, and also turns on a dime. It also has an instantaneous ranged attack which is similar to that of another, more common type of Zee monster, but its own attack deals other kinds of harm in addition to hull damage.

The variety of enemies may suggest that there is an ecosystem of some kind in the game world, or at least some form of aggression between enemies of different nature. However, there is not any to be had; enemies do not fight each other. As different as they are from each other, all of them have something in common: their animosity towards the player. There is perhaps a lost opportunity here to further bolster the presence of the lore and backstory in the actual gameplay.


After defeating an enemy, it leaves behind something which the player can attempt to loot, salvage or learn something from. For the sake of convenience, this is referred to as “loot” in this article. In the case of monsters, the loot is depicted via bubbles and a smear of red (sometimes this is black) that appear where the enemy was. In the case of ships, it is floating detritus.

The player only has several seconds to approach the loot before it disappears, presumably sinking to the bottom of the Zee.

Getting to the looting point does not result in automatic success at looting either. The player is often provided with a few options of what to do with the remains of the enemy. Some of these options are guaranteed to give the player certain things, but often at a non-monetary cost, such as an increase in Terror. The flavour text which comes with this occurrence provides narrative justification for this.

Some other options lead to wide-range RNG rolls; two such examples are “Cache of Curiosities” (which is usually the loot from ships) and “Unprepossessing Mass” (which is usually the loot from monsters). The variety in the ‘reward’ which the player would receive from either roll can be incredible.

In the case of “Cache of Curiosities”, the rewards are usually varieties of cargo. In the case of “Unprepossessing Mass”, the rewards usually include a reduction in Hunger (but often an increase in Terror, because consuming monster flesh is always an unseemly ordeal), in addition to other things like trophies and particularly valuable body parts (which are usually converted to the catch-all Outlandish Trinkets and Captivating Treasures).

Think twice – think many times over – before drawing the ire of Mt. Nomad. Its key strength is its considerable mobility.
Think twice – think many times over – before drawing the ire of Mt. Nomad. Its key strength is its considerable mobility.


One of the most challenging (but not necessarily rewarding) ways to achieve monetary gains is to commandeer enemy ships. To do so, the player must reduce the crew in the enemy ship to zero. This is easier said than done, because there does not appear to be any weapons which inflict more damage on enemy crew than anything else on the enemy ship. More often than not, the player is likely to destroy an enemy ship before killing off all of its crew.

Unfortunately, the player is not guaranteed to be rewarded for putting up with the trouble of emptying an enemy ship of its crew. The player will need to expend a number of crewmembers so as to man the captured ship and return it to a certain place for a reward. However, the player is subjected to a pure-luck RNG roll; if the player succeeds, the player can return to London later to claim the reward. If the player is unlucky, the commandeered ship is lost, together with the crewmembers which were supposed to bring it back to London.

This means that commandeering enemy ships can be a terribly dissatisfying gameplay element and one that is not worth bothering with. Worse, according to the statements of players who had been following the game since its Early Access days, this gameplay element is something left over from a revamp of the gameplay.


The flawed gameplay element of commandeering has highlighted the lack of any weapons which specifically inflict harm on crews. Considering that older games like Sid Meier’s Pirates! has already implemented such weapons, Sunless Sea’s lack of such things reveal the lack of sophistication in any of its gameplay elements which are not narrative-related.

In addition, it also highlights the lack of any feature which allows the player to make boarding actions against enemy ships. Even if the player bumps his/her ship against another ship, there is no way to enact a hostile boarding action. The lack of this feature is emphasized further by the presence of story occasions in which the player’s own ship is boarded.


As mentioned earlier, there are ports which the player’s ship can dock with so that the player character and the crew can visit the locales which have those ports.

Docking is a very simplified matter. If the player’s ship can get into proximity with the port circle until the “dock” button prompt appears, all the player needs to do is to press the corresponding button. The player’s ship warps over to the port circle and the story module for that locale immediately triggers.

Docking is an important thing that the player should frequently do, because this is how the game records the player’s progress. If the player quits the game or the game crashes, the last port which the player docked with will be where the player’s ship resumes its journey; any progress which the player has achieved after the player has last made a port-call is lost.

Getting out of a port circle and away from its associated locale can be a problem though, especially if there is an enemy nearby. This is because the button input which causes the player’s ship to dock also happens to be the button input for activating combat mode. As long as the player’s ship is close to the port circle, the button input is set for docking and remains so until the player can get far away enough.

Some port circles are obscured by the visual features of their associated locales. In this case, an overhang of Grand Geode’s eponymous geode obscures its port.
Some port circles are obscured by the visual features of their associated locales. In this case, an overhang of Grand Geode’s eponymous geode obscures its port.


Sunless Sea’s other gameplay elements may lack sophistication, but its narrative-related ones are the best which it has. Indeed, they would be very satisfying to players who appreciate good story-telling.

Like Fallen London, the player’s progress in Sunless Sea’s narrative-related parts of gameplay is tracked by variables known in-game as “qualities”. These “qualities” have names of their own as well as tooltips and descriptions, which in turn act as quest trackers of sorts.

(However, like in Fallen London, the qualities do not include any logs of what has happened earlier.)

These qualities are in turn placed under several categories. Most of these categories are named after the places where these qualities are obtained. For example, there are story qualities which concern the hideously hedonistic culture at the Isle of Cats, so they are placed under the “Isle of Cats” category.

Unfortunately, some qualities which link to the same story are duplicated across multiple categories. This is the case for the “Ambition” stories and the stories which are associated with some officers.

Many story qualities also happen to matter in stories which they are not exactly associated with. These circumstances usually occur when the player character knows something that is pertinent to the matter at hand. For example, there is a quest with a loosely defined goal: the player has to witness the death of the “oldest of its kind”. There are at least a couple of stories which fulfil this condition. After the player has obtained the quality which signified the conclusion of either, the player can fulfil the aforementioned quest.


There are some stories which act as the overarching goal of the player character, i.e. the reason for the player character going out to Zee. The player can pick one of these during character creation. Players of Fallen London would be quite familiar with these stories, which are categorized as “Ambitions”.

“Ambitions” are long and involved stories, often requiring the player to complete many tasks. Indeed, the player will have to sail throughout the Unterzee (or the places which can be sailed through without suffering some awful setback) in order to pursue the “Ambitions”. The rewards for completing these Ambitions are “Legacy”-category qualities, which will be described later.

Unfortunately, there is no in-game feature which helps the player recall what he/she has done for an Ambition. In comparison, Fallen London at least has some scripted qualities that produce pop-up windows which provide recaps of what the player has achieved for the Ambition of his/her player character.


Among the Ambitions which the player can pursue, the most well-developed of them is perhaps the quest to discover the remains of the player character’s father. The progress path of this Ambition is actually dependent on the player’s choice of a background; choosing one may send the player to places which are different from those which the player would be sent to if the player chose another background. The ending of this ambition is also different, sometimes unsettlingly so.

Unfortunately, the other ambitions do not appear to have as much as depth as this one – pun not intended.

Most of the Officers have a few screws loose, as is to be expected of a proper citizen of the Neath.
Most of the Officers have a few screws loose, as is to be expected of a proper citizen of the Neath.


As mentioned earlier, there are special characters who can fill the position of officers on the player’s ship. There are only six open positions, but the player can have more officers than there are positions. Five of the positions are the First Officer, Navigator, Cook, Doctor and Gunner; these are nominally for humans (or humanoids). The sixth is the Mascot.

The player always starts with an unenthusiastic ferret as the default Mascot. The player is also given an officer according to the background which the player took for his/her player character. The officers which are gained in this manner would be referred to as “default officers”, for convenience of reference.

If the player character that is to be created happens to be anyone other than the first, the player can select an option to retain one officer from the previous playthrough (among a few other things). If the player has scored some Legacies, there can be another officer that the player could retain.

Every officer provides statistical bonuses to one or more of the player character’s main qualities. Some officers do provide more than just these, so they happen to be more unique than the others in terms of gameplay.

Doctors, in particular, provide the “Doctor Onboard” quality. If the ship doctor’s position is filled, this enables options which obviously require the service of a doctor. There are many occasions where this would be important, such as when the player character is injured (more on this later).

The first reason for having Officers on-board is to have them train the player character in one of his/her main qualities, as has been mentioned earlier. The default officers can train the player character’s main qualities up to 50; more ‘advanced’ Officers can train the qualities up to 100 or 150. To do so, the player has to give them one Secret, along with some other resources. Some officers can also cause harm to the player’s ship or the player character, in which case the player will be warned of the risks.

The other reason for having Officers around is that all of them have their own stories to tell. The player character can approach them to make queries about their background and motivations. In the case of the non-default officers, the player character needs to earn their trust, usually by having meals with them (though some of them have to be impressed by more esoteric means). Afterwards, they divulge their intentions and/or ambitions, which the player can choose to satisfy – or twist to his/her advantage.

The default officers have the shortest stories among the officers. More often than not, all the player needs to do is to bring them to some place in the Neath. Afterwards, they leave the player’s employ and also leave behind some valuable things. It can seem a bit jarring, especially if the player has noticed that their intentions may be more than a little harmful to themselves. On the other hand, they are the earliest indicators that the player should invest effort into sailing further into the Neath if the player wants to see more content.

Besides, the non-default officers render the default ones obsolete, both gameplay-wise and narrative-wise. After all, these officers can be “upgraded” into more capable versions of themselves as the player pursues their stories, assuming that the player does not sacrifice them for some other gain. (There are a couple of non-default officers which cannot be upgraded, but pursuing their stories grant the player the most powerful ship components in the game.)

People who played The Silver Tree offshoot of Fallen London will be quite familiar with this text.
People who played The Silver Tree offshoot of Fallen London will be quite familiar with this text.


When the player character returns to London, the player is likely to have him/her return to the Lodgings for some rest. The Lodgings have options which let the player readily reduce Terror, though not Hunger. (There is a complaint earlier about the lack of any means to reduce Hunger while in London, despite there being options to reduce Terror.)

Speaking of which, there may be a narrative disconnect about the options to reduce Terror: the Terror rating is supposed to involve both the player character and the crew of the ship, but the Terror-reducing options at the Lodgings appear to involve the player character only. The crew of the ship can be presumed to have their own ways of reducing Terror that match those of their captain, but this presumption becomes shakier when the player upgrades the Lodgings and obtain better (but more expensive options).

Speaking of upgrades, upgrades for the Lodgings are needed for accessing more content. For example, the first upgrade enables the option of crafting special Aft-section parts for the player’s ship. These are often late-playthrough endeavours, thus requiring a lot of expensive and rare resources, as well as certain story qualities. Crafting these is also one of very few ways to increase the player’s main qualities above 150.

Interestingly, after upgrading it at least once, the Lodgings also present a way to end a playthrough. The player can choose to have the player character retire, whether or not he/she has achieved his/her ambition. This will give the player character some increases in his/her main qualities, though this will not amount to much in the next playthrough as the next player character is not guaranteed to be able to retain the main qualities of his/her predecessor.


“Secrets” have been mentioned more than a few times already in this article. Secrets are practically the player’s most valuable resource. In the early stages of a playthrough, the player uses these to improve the player character’s main qualities. In the later stages, when increases in these main qualities are much harder to come by, Secrets are used as bargaining chips.

Being something intangible, Secrets can be hoarded without any limit. However, the player would be hard-pressed to keep a reserve of them; increasing the main qualities is a major imperative in much of a playthrough.

There are few ways to gain Secrets, but one of these is more readily doable than the others. This is the gathering of “fragments”, which are pieces of knowledge that can eventually be collated together into something worthwhile. In terms of functionality, fragments are a facsimile of experience points in typical so-called RPGs.

The stories in Hunter’s Keep will eventually come to a mysterious and sad conclusion.
The stories in Hunter’s Keep will eventually come to a mysterious and sad conclusion.

Sunless Sea doles out fragments in many occasions, such as when the player character discovers places which have yet to be mapped (but which the player may already be familiar with from earlier playthroughs). Fragments are also given when the player character is given some inkling about the story behind something in the Neath. They also tend to be the “consolation prize” for failing RNG rolls.

Anyway, the player has to accrue a specific number of fragments in order to gain a Secret, much like how the player has to accumulate enough experience points to achieve a level in typical so-called RPGs. The number of fragments which the player needs can be reduced by increasing the player character’s “Pages”; presumably, the player character becomes more skilled at piecing together scraps of knowledge to come up with a conclusive revelation.

In the late-stages of a playthrough, gaining Secrets in this manner becomes increasingly worthless, especially after the player has discovered relatively more reliable ways to obtain Secrets, such buying Secrets with Echoes.


There is a certain quality which can only be obtained by being out at Zee for a while. The player is notified of this occasion by the tolling of unseen bells and the appearance of an icon of a bell in one part of the user interface.

This quality – named “Something awaits you” – enables special options at many locales, including London. Taking these options removes the quality, which can be regained by roaming around at Zee again. These options tend to be quite lucrative, and they are also needed to advance certain storylines (such is the case with one of the stories at the mysterious heartmetal-harvesting Station III).

This gameplay element has been introduced to encourage the player to sail out and return regularly, without spending too much time on either. This design would be praiseworthy, but the quality is sometimes used for options that, from a narrative point of view, should not have needed the player to go out to sea for a while and then return. For example, some stories which are advanced by expending this quality on them merely involve having the player character talk to a character in a meeting which could have been easily arranged.


Terror and Hunger are not the only worries which the player has to be concerned about. There are others, though they are implemented as qualities instead of meters like these two. Fallen London players would be familiar with some of these, as they are hold-overs from that game.

There is the “Suspicion” menace, which in this game, determines how difficult it is for the player to profit from smuggling contraband into London. However, unlike the Suspicion menace in Fallen London, the player will not be sent to prison after reaching a certain level of Suspicion in Sunless Sea. There is also another form of Suspicion, one which is used in the Khaganate Isles; this determines how many options are available to the player while in that region.

There are many text formatting glitches in the game.
There are many text formatting glitches in the game.

A specific Menace quality kills the player character if it reaches three levels. This is the “Wounds” menace, another hold-over from Fallen London. However, unlike its counterpart in Fallen London, this one does not send the player character to a purgatory state when it reaches a critical level; the player character is instead outright dead.

Of course, there is the complaint earlier about the perma-death gameplay element in Sunless Sea contradicting the lore about death in Fallen London. There is also the convenient excuse which Failbetter concocted to cover this hole, specifically about how death would be permanent if the player character dies out at Zee, away from London.

However, the player can test this excuse by having the player character accrue the critical level of Wounds in London. There are very few ways to gain Wounds while in London, but there still are, one of which is to spar with the Presbyterate Adventuress and suffer a negative outcome. The player character will die anyway, even though he/she is in London where permanent death does not easily occur.

On the other hand, Sunless Sea does introduce more ways for a Neath human to die permanently. In Fallen London, cranial decapitation, Cantigaster venom poisoning, getting eaten and old age are some of the ways that a human can permanently die from. In Sunless Sea, an additional cause is highlighted: death by sunlight (pardon the pun). This will not be described any further in order to minimize spoilers, but it should suffice to say here that in the gameplay, it manifests as a certain Menace quality which causes the player to lose control of the player character in situations involving sunlight.


One of the Menaces is “Unaccountably Peckish”. In Fallen London, this is an intrusive and detrimental menace, the suffering of which happens to be mandatory if the player wishes to pursue a certain self-destructive quest. It also has themes of hideous gluttony.

In Sunless Sea, this Menace is portrayed differently. Although it has been categorized as a Menace, it does not appear to come with any detriments. Rather, it enables options which allow the player to approach an issue with cannibalistic solutions.

Speaking of which, this menace is accrued by taking options to eat other humans, either during times of hardship or just out of morbid curiosity. Higher levels of Unaccountably Peckish enable even more options, and are needed to advance certain storylines (which shed light on the significance of cannibalism in the Neath). However, some options to increase Unaccountably Peckish will become obsolete, thus requiring the player to take even more drastic or more disturbing ones.

Arguably, this is perhaps one of the “best” aspects of the game’s storytelling, if only because it has a sophisticated portrayal of cannibalism, which is rarely done in video games in any way except to show that a villain is very villainous.

The curses of the Gods of the Zee are some of the most debilitating setbacks in the game. In this case, Storm causes vapour clouds to form all over the Zee.
The curses of the Gods of the Zee are some of the most debilitating setbacks in the game. In this case, Storm causes vapour clouds to form all over the Zee.


The main reason that Sunless Sea can be firmly considered a rogue-lite is the gameplay element of “Legacies”. Some of these special qualities can be obtained by pursuing rather long quest-lines. Some others are quicker to get, but they often require considerable expenditure of resources anyway. They are retained by any subsequent player character, their benefit being that he/she obtains an initial advantage from each Legacy.

For example, there is the Ironclad Will legacy. This can be obtained after the player has upgraded the Lodgings at least once. After the payment of a fee, the will allows the passing of the current player character’s lodgings to the next one, along with any heirlooms.

As for heirlooms, these are resources which can be passed onto the next player character; they can be sold off for some quick cash. These are converted from particularly valuable resources, such as Captivating Treasures, but there is a premium to be paid for each conversion. This means that heirlooms are best made if the player intends to end a playthrough early, or believes that a playthrough is all but doomed to failure and tries to salvage whatever that can be salvaged.

Legacies will be the middle goal of every player who would not cheat. With these, subsequent playthroughs are made a bit easier, with reduced early-stage durations. Ultimately though, they will not eliminate the early stages altogether. This will be elaborated shortly.


Unless one cheats, the experience of Sunless Sea will not be an easy one, due to the vagaries of luck. The honest player likely has to go through many playthroughs in order to experience the content of the game.

Yet, there is the preponderance of having to grind up the player character’s main qualities and accrue enough Echoes in order to obtain a capable ship. Therefore, the honest player will be going through reliable stories over and over across the playthroughs in their early stages. The appeal of these stories and their branches is often only worthwhile the first time around, so seeing them over and over again can eventually lead to a feeling of tedium.

This is the greatest flaw in Sunless Sea’s rogue-lite design direction. Failbetter could have mitigated this by ensuring that any playthrough, even failed ones, would grant some measure of irreversible progress anyway, but there is no such accommodation. There are only Legacies, which are, as mentioned earlier, only available from successful playthroughs.

User interface glitches, such as this one which disables all tabs above the “story book” window, are rare, but they can happen.
User interface glitches, such as this one which disables all tabs above the “story book” window, are rare, but they can happen.


Like Fallen London, much of Sunless Sea’s visuals are presented through still artwork, which can be praised as “evocative” and “striking”, among other words that those who believe in the all things ‘nuevo’ would use.

Many of these pieces of artwork can be seen by going through the game’s installation directory, much like how those in Fallen London can be seen through looking up their URLs. However, without the context provided by the accompanying story-telling text, most of them would seem as bewildering as they are beautiful. Speaking of which, the text and artwork are presented through an interface which looks like the leaves of the pages of a storybook; this is certainly a step up above the presentation of the user interface in Fallen London.

Next, there is the look of the game world. It is only seen through a top-down perspective; objects larger than humans are the only things which can be seen (though flocks of bats and birds are still viewable).

It might take a while for a player to get used to looking at ships as little more than a geometrical shape floating around. There are other details which make them out as ships, such as the smokes which they belch out and their rotating turrets. Yet, the only details which the player only needs in order to identify ships are their silhouette shapes and colour schemes. Any other details are not useful for the purpose of gameplay. Due to the ships being only viewable from above, these other details are difficult to recognize and appreciate, unless they happen to be overt things such as crests.

The monsters are much more interesting to look at. Even from a top-down view, many of them are unsettling to look. For example, there are the Megalops, which would be typical video-game giant crabs if not for the odd organic lanterns which jut out from their pincers. As another example, one of the most hideous monsters is the oddly-named Tree-of-Ages, which is a fused mass of hive-minded spiders which float on the water.

Finally, there are the ports and their associated locales. One would think that a top-down view would make it difficult for the game’s artists to differentiate them from each other, considering that roofs are the only things that could be seen. However, apparently, in the Neath, there are many kinds of ‘roofs’ which are visually distinct.

There is an island that is practically a massive cut-open mineral geode. There is another island that is practically a vast colony of fused mushrooms with a canopy of thick hypha. There is a floating settlement that is practically a mess of ships which have been hammered into each other. There are other examples, but it should suffice to say here that the player eventually learns to recognize these locales before their text label pops up on-screen.

Suicidal characters are nothing new in video games, but a timeless creature which wants to devolve into a lower and mindless form of life might raise eye-brows.
Suicidal characters are nothing new in video games, but a timeless creature which wants to devolve into a lower and mindless form of life might raise eye-brows.


The music is the first of Sunless Sea’s sound designs which the player would hear. Indeed, for people who played the silent browser version of Fallen London, the music – composed by Maribeth Solomon and Brent Barkman - would be particularly notable. In particular, many of the tracks contain music that is related to the instrumental music in the non-English regions of the British Isles. Most of the tracks are melancholic, however, which when coupled with the oppressive and lonely atmosphere of the Neath, can seem a bit depressing.

Then there are the sound clips which are associated with sailing. The Neath and its Zee are mostly a silent place, however; the most which the player would hear when the music is subdued and when combat is not occurring is the chugging of the ship’s engines.

Speaking of combat, the sound designs might help mask its rote tedium for a while. The impact of shots and the boom of explosions are satisfying to hear for the first few dozen times. There are distinctive differences between the sound clips of cannons, torpedos, flensing guns and more exotic weapons. Ultimate though, there are not many reasons to learn the differences because the player’s ship is one of very few in the Neath which is capable of using different weapons.

Oddly enough, most monsters, or at least those in the vanilla version of the game, do not utter anything. The monsters which do have audible sound clips are particularly troublesome enemies, such as flocks of Blue Prophets, which are killer parrots that screech the names of their victims (the player will only hear avian shrieks in-game though).

Perhaps the sound clip which the player wants to keep an ear open for is the clacking of typewriter keys. These come together with notifications which appear in the bottom left of the screen; some of these notifications are useful, such as flavour text which indicates that the player’s ship is approaching a certain locale.


The crux of Sunless Sea is its story-telling and how it would complement the lore which has been established in Fallen London. Failbetter has delivered splendidly in this regard, but unfortunately, almost everything else is sub-par in comparison.

There is also a noticeable lack of effort in the development of any gameplay features which are not narrative-related, such as most of the combat. Other sailing-oriented titles such as Sid Meier’s Pirates! have already set a bar on this matter, and Sunless Sea falls so, so short of it.

The game does have some striking visual designs such as the portraits and paintings which accompany the story-telling text, but these are contrasted by its lack of animations which is in turn caused by the lack of any gameplay features which need animations.

Even in the game’s strong suite that is its narrative, there are gaps, such as the lack of means to reduce Hunger while the player and the crew are in London. Its story-telling appeal is also diluted by the rogue-lite gameplay, which has the player going through the same early-stage stories for every playthrough.

Overall, Sunless Sea gives the impression that it benefited from the talent and skill of great story-writers and artists, but in terms of gameplay and design direction, it falters and wastes a lot of its potential.