Now I've always been a fan of Fallen London (or Echo Bazaar for those who remember its earliest iteration) and jumped at the chance to review Sunless Sea. Its roots are -- at least in part -- in a miniature game in the original web game where you sail the seas of the vast underground reaches the city is set in, however this time around you've got all sorts of pretty art and very solid mechanics going into it.
You begin the game by deciding on your past (you can choose to leave your character creation until later however it seems choosing initially is the better option and it's not quite clear when you get the chance to choose again) which currently consists of deciding whether you are a Street Urchin (crafty little sorts used to sneaking about the rooftops of Fallen London itself,) a poet (a mostly honorable and educated profession in the Neath,) a Veteran of the Campaign of '68 (you fought the devils and survived even if London itself lost,) a priest (fallen of course, not a lot of reasons for a priest to captain a ship,) and a natural philosopher(SCIENCE!)
Each of these affects your Veils, Pages, Iron, Hearts, or Mirrors; attributes which the game more or less revolves around.
Afterward you're given a single officer who affects your attributes beyond the ship's mascot: A comatose (really just incredibly lazy) ferret and asked to choose an ambition (which just determines your win state.) Right now there's only Fulfillment and Wealth, however disabled options exist for Your Father's Bones, a Private Kingdom, and the Uttermost East. While Wealth is fairly self-explanatory, Fulfillment is all about collecting a multitude of stories of the world (which happen to be tangible in Sunless Sea, go figure) eventually retiring after releasing a song of the sea (or a Zong of the Zee in the traditional zailing parlance, you are sailing on the Unterzee afterall.) While technically they do work, the win conditions are definitely designed for the finished product, as they seem almost impossible to accomplish right now unfortunately.
Finally you're asked to pick what term you'd rather be called by (this mostly comes up in text referring to you) and have some rather egalitarian options beyond the assumed Sir and Madam including just opting to be referred to as Captain in case you'd rather be referred to by your title or Citizen if you're not a fan of formality. I adore this. It's too often that people get caught in the trap of assuming they're the standard and even a simple option or two otherwise means a great deal.
A quick choice of portrait and name and you find yourself in your ship, three storylets (small stories that are told through the in-game gazetteer as you play) sliding into view from the right: HELP ME, Your Lodgings, and London! A small introductory manual, your home where you rest and recuperate, and the hub where all businessis conducted respectively.
Gradually more and more options will be unveiled however as it is now character creation is short, sweet, and flavorful.
The game itself plays a good deal like some twisted combination of Sid Meier's Pirates! and a Choose Your Own Adventure book with reams and reams of evocative text practically raining from the ceiling of the immense cavern itself. Fights are handled in a sort of real time combat system where you queue moves that do various things in an attempt to sink (or kill) your enemies before they get you; forcing you to juggle distance, visibility, and your own clever observations of an enemy if you want to get the absolute most out of a victory which matters a great deal when you're already having to deal with terror, fuel, and supplies -- all of which deplete at a fairly rapid rate.
On top of this money seems to be extremely scarce in comparison to the prices of goods and it's all too easy to run out of fuel or supplies in the middle of the sea, finding yourself stranded or worse.
This presents a problem unfortunately. It is genuinely too difficult to make a profit and you seem perpetually in the red while prices for basic necessities and upgrades are so high you will die repeatedly until you find some fairly lucrative business ventures hidden about. Couple this with the upcoming addition of a map-shuffle feature where islands will no longer be in the same places from game to game and you have a recipe for frustration amidst the constant trial and error.
It's extremely rare that a game manages to have both stellar music and stellar sound effects with a clever mixture of both realism and panache. Few things can compare to the sound of a buoy bumping against your ship or the splashing of some horror in the dark past your own sight.
For instance I found myself sailing through a place where massive and deadly crustaceans (much larger and more dangerous than the Auroral Megalops that prowl the seas near Murray's Strait just outside of Fallen London itself) paddled about. Knowing at the time my battered and ship and beleaguered crew wouldn't be able to take one (much less the three) I gambled on my navigation skills, cut the lights, and managed to just barely squeak through them, using a nearby whirlpool to give me a speed boost and breaking free just in time to escape and find a safe port to hole up, repair, and buy supplies. Even sweating bullets at the time I loved every second of it, it's not often that a game can pull that level of tension off.
Of course that didn't stop my crew from mutinying after far too many close calls like that and far too little shore leave but that is another thing entirely and unfortunately unlike Fallen London itself, death seems to be very permanent on the Unterzee much like the surface.
Yes, I said the surface. In Sunless Sea you're able to take the Cumaean Canal to the surface and do some very, very temporary sailing. However the longer you stay on the surface, the more and more sailors you lose to various things and at some point you start to weigh the lives of your crew against the profits and eventually return to the Neath.
The setting is strong and extremely well-written with years and years of lore to back up the already significant skills on display. Every paragraph manages to convey the setting's dark humor, bleakness, or even genuine terror.
The sea itself is -- according to the roadmap -- roughly 38% finished, with a great deal of locales yet to be written however even then you can find yourself steaming through the darkness, dodging antediluvian horrors and pirates, trading, and exploring for hours and hours on end. Scattered about are places such as Godsfall where monks (or perhaps just really odd pirates) who worship a large fallen stalagmite drink, fight, and shout stories at each other or Mt. Palmerston where devils congregate or even Polythreme, a land where even the seas sing in keening voices, the land weeps vocally, and clay men (whether they're actually made of clay or not is in question, but are you rude enough to ask one?) toil ceaselessly.
Darkness as well is a very,very real danger with your crew's fear gradually increasing while you're outside of civilized (and mostly safe) waters and the darkness itself only worsening it. Yet light itself poses some amount of danger as the countless predators that stalk the sea are able to see you better with it on.