Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Full Steam upon the Sunless Sea

I mentioned a short while ago that I liked things that were evocative, particularly when they inspire me to create other places, other worlds, and even more so when they seem to have been crafted by people who share at least some of my inspirations.

Last year I backed a kickstarter for a game called Sunless Sea, billed as a roguelike game where you’re sailing the seas around the port of Fallen London, trading, exploring, and when all else fails, fighting your way through the waters to make sure you get back to port in one piece.  I backed this when it was a kickstarter and it introduced me to the game of Fallen London itself which I have been playing on an irregular basis since that point.

The mechanics of the game are fairly simple, you have a ship that’s not tremendously well equipped to begin with and you have to keep it fuelled and supplied while you go delivering things and seeking your fortune.  Added to this you have the mechanic of Terror, and this for me is where it gets interesting.

Given that the game is about sailing around on a dark ocean underneath the world above, there are terrors out there to be faced, and the longer your crew are running around in the dark, the more scared they get, the more they long for the bright lights and safety of home, so your terror rating goes up the more you’re out in the dark and goes down (slowly) when you’re in the bright lights of the light ships and ports.

I’ve been playing it since it was first put out there, and when the first version of the game turned up, it was unplayably difficult, the supplies got eaten so fast you couldn’t get to the ports beyond medium distance and the terror went up so fast with no way to bring it down so that even if you made it through a few runs, you ended up with a crew mutiny and then failure shortly afterwards. 

Frustrating was not the word that described it.

However, if there’s one thing that Failbetter do, it’s listen, so from all the feedback from people who’d been playing it, they started changing things, with the first things being the terror mechanics so that just leaving the harbour didn’t cause you to have a heart attack and then fall off the side of your ship, then the hunger, so that your crew weren’t the biggest bunch of fat b’stards to ever sail the sea.  Then they started adding other locations and the thing that has always made Fallen London the most interesting...


The ship has you, your crew, and a number of officers, each of which has a backstory and skills that they improve the statistics of your ship and by extension, the chances you have of making it back from voyages in one piece.  More importantly, the officers aren’t treated as expendable, and as you journey further, so you find that those stories inspire you to go further, to seek out new ports to get the goods you need that you can’t find in the places close to home waters.

It’s two dimensional exploration on an ocean of dark nastiness, the things you’ll find close to home are not well equipped pirates and giant crabs that present no real threat, even to the underequipped small ship you start out with.  As you complete commissions and find new ports, you start to build up a chart of the places you’ve been, so when the admiralty asks you to retrieve strategic information, you know where to get it from and don’t waste tons of fuel and supplies trying to find it.

The other thing about it is that the places you find out there are stunning, each of them with their own particular feel and character, each of them unique and not just unique, crafted to look and be interesting.

As an example, take the Mangrove College, where various plants and herbs can be found, but it’s also possible to search the wildlands upon the island for rarer things.

Take the Iron Republic, where all manner of engineering can be found for those willing to pay the prices.

Take the Salt Lions, where you can earn a very handsome living ferrying sphinxstone back to Fallen London as long as you have the cargo space to carry all that stone.

And then, on the far side of the world, Khan’s Heart, the rival to Fallen London, where possibly an invasion force waits to be unleashed upon the ocean, where you find that your every move is watched and waited for, and you have to constantly find a way to be diplomatic and lower the Khaganates suspicions of you.

As time goes on, you’ll amass enough money to get more equipment and weapons to make your ship more lethal.  Eventually (although I haven’t got there yet), you’ll have enough to get new ships that are larger, stronger, and faster than the steamer you start with.  I have to say I’ve got my eyes on a particularly nice Dreadnought, but I’m some distance from being able to buy it.

As you manage more, so your list of accomplishments will increase and you’ll find that more people seek you out to manage commissions, you’ll have to decide which jobs you want to take, whether the risk of trafficking in contraband and souls is to your tastes, or whether the ethics of the job need to remain level. 

The combat system was originally static, with two cards, one to represent you, one your enemy, and you picked moves to try and defeat them.  In the latest version of the game, that’s changed, it’s now a dynamic combat system where you try and outmanoeuvre your opponent long enough to bring your guns to bear. 

In the example above, taking on a lifeberg (that’s a mobile iceberg loaded with zombies), all you have to do is keep out of the way of it, it doesn’t have guns, but it does have a hell of a rush attack.  You encounter other things, like Lorn Flukes (huge floating spider bstards), enemy frigates, and somewhere to the north, Mount Nomad, the Black mountain that eats ships...

And while these things are dangerous, watch out for the eastern ocean, deep in the dark, because when you look out there, sometimes something looks back...

Not that that’s going to stop me going back out there, but when you encounter something that can make the world tremble, you have to ask if you should be going out there to have another go. 

The game is still being updated even now and it’ll be some time before the map is completed (and for the record, the chart I’ve posted might not be as useful as it looks, because every time you get sunk (and it’ll happen the first few times you’re out there), the map changes unless you keep the chart, and if you keep the chart, you don’t learn anything new from discovering things that you already know about. 

There’s no rules presently for multiplayer, and to be honest, the area which the game takes place on is too small for hundreds of people to be running around on, but it’s an interesting game, loads of character, and has enough already in there to keep you playing for more than most commercially available games.