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Sunless Sea Preview: The Paddler In Darkness

Sections: 2D, PCs, Role-Playing

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In the massively overcrowded realm of free-to-play browser games, one name consistently rises to the top, distinguishing itself as the preeminent source of lowered productivity in cubicles the world over: Fallen London. While most browser games only merit a few clicks before being abandoned forever, Fallen London consistently succeeds in capturing players’ imaginations, and occasionally their money. It’s gameplay isn’t significantly different than any other story-driven browser game, playing out via a series of Choose Your Own Adventure decisions that slowly add experience points to various attributes, but it distinguishes itself via a fun, engaging narrative communicated in bite-sized chunks of evocative prose. Fallen London is dark but playful, dispensing its influences in a dense layer cake of the Gothic, the Romantic, the Fantastic, and the Horrific to create a seductively mysterious world that constantly beckons you deeper within its airless confines.

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The story goes something like this: The city of London has been stolen, sold to mysterious all-powerful agents by the Queen herself in exchange for the life of her dying consort. These omnipotent beings, these Masters of the Bazaar, have relocated the city underground, depositing it in an impossibly vast cave near an impossibly vast underwater sea. In some ways life has changed very little: The class system is as rigidly hierarchical as ever. People still voraciously pursue pleasure and power. Tea and the time at which it is consumed are still the subject of maniacal fascination. In other ways, things are not the same at all: Manual labor is performed by semi-autonomous golems called Clay Men. Sentient rats have formed elaborate societies and occasionally make war on humanity. Death is more of an inconvenience than a permanent state of affairs. The greatest change by far, however, is the manner in which Fallen Londoners see their world. While we denizens of the surface tend to loose our sense of wonder sometime around puberty, in Fallen London wonders never cease. When you’re in the Neath things can be abhorrent or amusing, delightful or dreadful, hilarious or horrifying, but they’re never normal. When it’s at its best, there is nothing mundane in Fallen London, only mystery and possibility. That is the source of its success, and what the ladies and gentlemen at Failbetter Games have to bring to Sunless Sea, their new early-access seafaring RPG set in the Fallen London universe.

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Whereas Fallen London is set almost entirely within the labyrinthine confines of its eponymous city, in Sunless Sea you seldom visit anywhere beyond Wolfstack Docks. You are a zailor of the Unterzee: casting off and exploring its great underground expanse is your desire, and Fallen London is simply a home port for resupplying, recruiting crew members, and finding brief respite from the numberless terrors of the open zee.

Launch your ship and you will glide serenely out over placid waters the color of emeralds in shadow. There is no light on the sunless sea, rather all light comes from artificial means, and the game’s top-down view has you navigating between puddles of light cast by buoys and wandering beams cast by lighthouses. It’s possible to venture out into the dark of the sea with only your ship’s lamp to pierce the darkness—indeed, you’ll have to in order to get anywhere—but it must be kept it to a minimum, since navigating through the dark increases Terror, and if your crew’s Terror reaches 100 it’ll mean mutiny, or worse. Truly, the Sunless Sea be a harsh and fickle mistress. To venture across its dark, glassy surface is to have your very mettle as a captain subjected to rigorous, unflinching test. More often than not it will be found wanting, and your ship and all hands will be hurled to the merciless zee’s cold bottom.

Sunless Sea Preview (1)You have five attributes you can develop to help survive your forays across the unterzee:

  • “Hearts: inspire, heal, defend. Sometimes helps with tests around terror.” (Personal fortitude, similar to persuasion or charisma.)
  • “Veils: speed, stealth, deception. Improves evasion abilities in combat.”
  • “Pages: esoteric and occasionally practical knowledge. Increases the speed at which you convert fragments into secrets.”
  • “Mirrors: detection and perception. Improves illumination abilities in combat.”
  • “Iron: DESTROY. Improves attack damage in combat.”

Fragments are bits of information acquired over the course of the game by uncovering landmarks as you sail across the map or engage in story actions at the ports you visit. Get enough Fragments and they’ll make a Secret you can spend talking to one of your officers, which in turn will raise the level of one of your attributes. Speak to your ship’s surgeon to increase your Pages attribute, your gunnery officer to increase your Iron, your engineer to increase your Veils, or your first officer to increase your Mirrors. Raising these attributes will not just help in combat, but raise the likelihood of successfully completing story challenges in the various ports you visit in your odyssey across the night-dark sea.

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Like in Fallen London, the story in Sunless Sea plays out in brief slices of prose that propose challenges where your likelihood of success depends on how high the particular attribute being tested is. For example, if you want to flee a nightmare and your Hearts quality is 29 Sunless Sea will give you a 57% chance of success, what the game describes as “A chancy challenge”.  Alternately, if you want to gather intelligence and your Veils quality is 37 the game will give you a 44% chance of success, what it describes as a “A very chancy challenge”. Fail in a challenge and you’ll loose crew members and gain Terror. Succeed in a challenge and your Terror will (maybe) lower and you’ll (maybe) gain something a little useful or valuable.

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In between ports you’ll be steaming your way across the zee itself.  You’ll have to keep one eye on your Fuel Gauge and Supply Gauge lest your ship become dead in the water or your crew resort to cannibalism. Your other eye will be fixed on the zee itself, whose deceptively calm surface is brimming with rocky hazards and all manner of malicious sea beasties. In Sunless Sea your humble craft is constantly besieged by giant crabs, swarms of predatory bats, sharks some sadistic individual has outfitted with underwater bondage gear, and pirates of all stripes. All these aggressors can be avoided with relative ease, which is good, since combat in Sunless Sea is incredibly dangerous, and can easily result in utter ruin.

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Enemy encounters initiate a turn based system of combat where both sides try to raise the illumination of their enemy, thus making them visible enough to be vulnerable to attacks. Each action, whether it’s a flare, a salvo from your cannons, or an evasive maneuver, requires a certain allotment of seconds to be deployed, precious seconds your enemy is also using to illuminate and attack you. The dance between illuminating your enemies and protecting yourself is an extremely delicate one, requiring precise timing, forward thinking, and a careful balance of competing factors. Encounters with pirate ships are particularly dangerous, since a single salvo can utterly devastate your hull, and expensive repairs can only be undertaken back in London’s dry dock.

Some things about Sunless Sea are relatively easy to judge at this stage. The music is an appropriate mix of the rollicking and the foreboding. The graphics are simple but evocative. The controls are clean and intuitive. Other things, like the all-important story, are far more difficult to gauge. The world of Sunless Sea will have to be extremely rich and varied to be a worthy companion to the free-to-play Fallen London, yet progress through it will have to be much more rewarding in order to justify Sunless Sea‘s price tag.

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Like in Fallen London, the story in Sunless Sea is communicated in tiny slices of expressive text that are portioned out like hors d’oeuvres. These fragments of story are clever, mysterious little hints of a vast world, but they serve more to whet the appetite than provide a nourishing meal. That’s fine in the world of Fallen London, where the free-to-play model means Failbetter Games’ goal is to tantalize players to keep them coming back for more like a kind of literary slot machine, but Sunless Sea needs a proper campaign, even if it’s just so the player can ignore it. Many did just that while playing Skyrim, electing to wander off and explore rather than play the main save-the-world campaign, but they would’ve missed it if it were gone. The main campaign in a video game isn’t just the main campaign, it’s the backbone of the world, serving to make everything else that happens feel real and significant, a part of something larger.

As of this preview, Sunless Sea presents a unique, beguiling, and exceptionally creative world, it just isn’t a very absorbing one. Fortunately, there’s every reason to suspect my concerns will be addressed. According to this chart on the Sunless Sea website, the fiction is only 38% done. Failbetter Games has been very judicious about updating their content, so it’s reasonable to assume the kind of robust Fallen London story I so crave will eventually take shape.  We can expect to find narratively rich adventure on the low seas in late September, when the game is projected to be complete.

Site [Sunless Sea]

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