Victorian London has been pulled underground, and now lies just downstream from Hell. Surrounding it is an endless, black expanse of water called the Broad Unterzee, and as a ship captain, it's your job to explore it. This is the bizarre premise of Sunless Sea, a Lovecraft-inspired nautical RPG with a heavy emphasis on exploration and storytelling that's just been released for Mac and PC by Failbetter Games. It's a wonderfully original setting for some complex storytelling, and it might just be considered this year's first essential release.
The Unterzee is what superstitious sailors used to think the actual ocean was like: filled with hungry monsters, malevolent sea-gods, and slimy tentacles waiting to drag ships down into the briny deep. You begin by choosing a background for your captain. He might be a priest, a street urchin, or a salty veteran of the Unterzee. Or you can decide to leave their past unexplained and draped in mystery. These are the first of many decisions you'll make in Sunless Sea, and they will shape the story to come. Then you choose an ambition, whether it's exploring every corner of the Unterzee and writing a book about it, finding the remains of your dead father and returning them to Fallen London, or becoming filthy rich.
'Sunless Sea', trailer
But while this sounds like the create-a-character menu from a traditional RPG, Sunless Sea doesn't slot you neatly into any one role. Your captain's background only affects their stats and certain story elements, and not how you choose to spend your time in the Unterzee. This is a game where you shape your own destiny, even if your destiny is to run out of fuel miles from land and get eaten by an eel.
The first few hours of this game will be frustrating. You'll run out of food and your crew will turn on you. Your fuel reserves will dry up, leaving you lost and helpless. You'll get into a fight with a giant crab and lose.
And when you die, it's game over. Unless you have "merciful" mode enabled, which allows manual saving at any time, the death of a captain is permanent. You'll have to create a new one, but will inherit a map of the parts of the Unterzee your predecessor explored. Over the course of the game you'll go through several captains, each one venturing slightly deeper into the reaches of the Unterzee, adding their discoveries to the map and passing it down like a cherished family heirloom.
Sunless Sea's entirely text-based story is around 250,000 words strong, and you spend a large portion of the game reading. But thanks to vivid, witty, and evocative writing, it never feels like a chore. This is a world rich with history and mythology, and one of the most well-realized game settings I've ever encountered.
Docking at the many islands that litter the Unterzee reveals a varied selection of funny, strange, and macabre stories that you can interact with by making choices, much like a "choose your own adventure" book. The path you take through these stories can have a positive outcome, earning you supplies and fuel. Or it can be negative, increasing your crew's terror levels, losing you money, or worse. There's no voice acting or cutscenes to speak of, but the expressive writing means there doesn't have to be.
If you spend the game loitering around the relative safety of your home, Fallen London, you won't see much. It's by pushing into the unexplored depths of the Unterzee that you'll find the most interesting stories. This is where the game's survival element comes into play. You're constantly at war with the crew's sanity, your fuel reserves, and how much food you have to keep your zailors fed. Making it to some far-flung island and limping back to London with half a crew, no supplies, and a trickle of fuel is hugely satisfying. If you don't take risks, you won't see the best of what Sunless Sea has to offer.
Information about the locations you discover on your travels can be sold back to the admiralty in London, and you can use this money to upgrade your ship's weapons and engines—or buy a new one altogether. But, realistically, you'll be spending most of your hard-earned money on fuel and food. Making progress in Sunless Sea is a grueling war of attrition, and you'll need saintly patience to get through those first few hours.
But it never feels unfair, and any predicaments you end up in are usually your own fault. Knowing how far you can travel with the supplies you have is something you get gradually better at, but you'll still make mistakes and end up dying in the ass-end of nowhere. There's a random element too, which keeps you on your toes. I once died because a crew member went on a murderous rampage, and I failed to calm her down. She killed the whole crew, myself included, and that was it. Game over.
The weakest part of the game is the combat. The Unterzee is swarming with enemies, including glowing jellyfish, albino eels, pirate ships, and those oversized crabs. Fighting them involves slowly circling your target, waiting for an ability to charge, then firing it. It works, mostly, but feels disappointingly video game-y. The challenges you face in the stories and aboard your ship, like having to sacrifice a crew member to appease an angry god, are far more interesting than fighting hokey sea-monsters.
Sunless Sea is a supremely original, clever game. Its choice-and-consequence storytelling is deep, textured, and beautifully written, and the constant looming feeling that you might die at any second makes it exhilaratingly tense. The glacial pace and near-vertical learning curve might make you seasick to begin with, but push through it, master the strange rhythm of its gameplay, and you'll find an experience like no other. Your first captain will probably die in a really shitty, embarrassing way, but that's supposed to happen. The next time you fight that crab you might win.
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