All aboard for darker shores
[Want to know how an Early Access game is coming along? Check out our Early Access Reviews, which will be a series going forward with the intent of informing you whether or not a game is worth buying into at this time.]
Captain's Log: the ship was less that 10 clicks from dock when a sinister noise rumbled from the deep. Damned fog meant you could nary see the nose in front of your face, let alone pirates, sharks... or worse. Still, the searchlight shone ahead, we'd soon see what the commotion was about. But the rumbling continued.... whatever was making that infernal roar was behind us! I ordered the ship to turn to starboard, only to catch a glimpse of three huge crabs clawing for the aft of the ship.
We had two choices: engage the devils or flee. If we fled, we might survive but the crew would be angry that I let fear make my choice. We could stay and fight -- risk our lives in the hope of salvaging the beasts' corpses to make a hell of a lot of crabsticks. I gave the order to light the flares...
Sunless Sea [PC]
After a very successful Kickstarter, UK indie studio Failbetter Games has launched its new title Sunless Sea on Steam Early Access. It's a top-down, naval exploration game set in the same universe as the studio's previous title, the card-based browser title Fallen London.
That game was set in a bizarre, alternate Victorian-era London that's been stolen by bats and now lies a mile deep under the Earth's surface in a colossal cavern. Fallen London was continually updated since its launch back in 2010 and became a richly detailed and darkly funny game. Sunless Sea looks to be definitely cut from the same cloth, as you start in London's dingy dock with the entire Unterzee to explore.
At the start of a game, you're asked to establish your history which basically equates to choosing a starting class in an RPG. Each will give you some unique starting stat bonuses but don't really make too much difference to the actual gameplay, so you're not going to be forced to play a certain way because of this first choice.
Sunless Sea is all about exploration and even in this early version of the game, there's plenty to explore. While I wouldn't describe it as a roguelike because it's not procedurally generated and you're granted a single autosave which updates whenever you hit a port, there is permadeath and there's reasons why that's a useful game mechanic.
At the start of the game, I found myself exploring gingerly up and down the coast so that I could find some local ports that I could make return trips back and forth to. It was a fairly safe way of playing but I eventually ran out of money and couldn't afford either supplies or fuel.
After drifting and suffering a slow death, I was given the choice of restarting from scratch with three options, the most interesting was retaining my map. This was what then made me realize there was a lot more to find out in the dark and taking risks wasn't such a bad idea. After death, you can also boost one of your core stats but that needs to happen a lot before you see a big improvement.
Combat takes the form of an interesting card-based system that revolves around illuminating your opponent whilst also trying to evade their attacks. You can queue up to four cards -- Attack, Illuminate, Evade and Misc are your options and your first order of business should be trying to see your enemy because most attacks won't be available until you get a bead on your target.
Each card has a warm-up time, so you've always got some planning to do as to whether you line up some quick but weaker light sources in favor of a longer but more effective power. You need to keep your eye on your own illumination bar as the higher it gets, the more at risk your ship is of a big attack. In truth, fleeing most enemies seems to be the most sensible option although there's a chance you'll get some tasty supplies from larger sea monsters and even more mysterious items.
Sunless Sea has one of Fallen London's downsides in that there sometimes feels like there's a lot going on and it's often hard to keep track of it all. You can get commissions from the Admiralty in London but there's no way of keeping track of where you need to go to get the information you need, aside from coming back to London. Same if you take on some "specialist" (or illegal) cargo that needs to be sold on a specific island. I must've traveled a fair amount of knots before I finally remembered that a crate of souls were in my cargo hold waiting to be sold off.
The main currency in the game are Echoes which work like any other currency, however there are also more abstract forms of money like Secrets and Fragments. When you dock at an island you might be able to trade secrets for information or goods and it's well worth it; information will get you better commissions at the Admiralty and larger rewards.
Again, it's hard keeping track of all of these alternate currencies and there's still a fair amount of content locked off just now, which is understandable but it didn't make it clear to me either how far I was progressing or if I was really making any headway into the game.
On its Steam store page, Failbetter Games has outlined regular updates that will run from July to September, so considering how big Sunless Sea already feels, it's only going to get bigger.
The game's big strengths are its strange and surreal story and atmosphere and while I've got concerns about how it communicates a lot of the goals and player progression, I feel it's a game that will click the more that you explore.
When you begin gathering a large crew with unique officers and really start to scrape away at the hidden history of the Unterzee, then it feels really unique and engaging.