Matt Bird writes all sorts of nonsense, but he dedicates a large chunk of his time to writing game walkthroughs.
Welcome to the Unterzee! A place of horror, mystery, intrigue and witty English quips, the Sunless Sea is just about the last place anyone would want to live. It's a shame, then, that merry London has been plopped down into this horrifying underworld, and thousands of its stalwart subjects have gone with it. These people have to live below the sun, forever cursed to live without natural light—and surrounded by the beasts who dwell in the dark.
This article will serve as an introduction to Sunless Sea. Hopefully it will give you a small leg-up when sitting out on the darkened zee for the first few times.
Your ambition in Sunless Sea is to achieve some form of success vis a vie the captain of a ship, and you are that very captain. Consequently, your first step is to create said captain. This is an important process, as it will dictate both your beginning stats and your ultimate goal in the game.
Choose a Past
First step: choose your personal history. Your captain has a past, and this choice will determine the nature of that past, as well as which of the game's stats will receive a starting boost. They are as follows:
- A street urchin: Receive a bonus to Veils. Veils is important to various challenges, and it determines your evasiveness in combat. The higher your Veils, the easier it is to flee from horrifying monsters. A good choice if fighting is not your prime objective.
- A poet: Receive a bonus to Pages. Pages is important for a large number of challenges spread throughout the game.
- Veteran of the Campaign of '68: Receive a bonus to Iron. Iron is important to a few challenges, but it's of most importance to your ship's damage-dealing capacity. The higher your Iron, the more damage you inflict when firing your weaponry.
- An ordained priest: Receive a bonus to Hearts. Hearts is important to a variety of challenges. It's also a strong skill to develop if you wish to improve and maintain the morale of your crew, which, given the nature of this horrible realm, is very important.
- A natural philosopher: Receive a bonus to Mirrors. An important skill for a large number of challenges, largely to do with tracking or deducing the truth of matters. A higher Mirrors score will also allow you to deal more Illumination damage in battle, which essentially equates to combat accuracy. Mirrors is a good pair with Iron.
You can also decide not to choose at all, and the details of your past will be sculpted as you go along. This can ultimately prove a more interesting course, though you'll begin with no immediate boosts to your stats. I recommend not taking this route on your first character.
Choose an Ambition
Now that you've established your past, you need to chart your future. Why are you setting out upon the briny zee? Your Ambition is essentially your end point. Once you've achieved your Ambition, the game will end in success. You have several different options for this:
- Fulfillment: Gather a multitude of stories. This will require sticking your nose into every corner of the zee and listening to people. Whenever you collect stories and Secrets, you'll probably want to keep them.
- Wealth: You desire social advancement through money. A good Victorian attitude, that. In this case you want to scrape together enough money to buy yourself a lovely home in Fallen London. In this case, that money is represented in Echoes.
- Your Father's Bones: You want to find the bones of your father and return them to Fallen London for burial. Not currently available.
- A Private Utopia: Establish a settlement of your own on some lonely island. Not currently available.
- The Uttermost East: Discover what lies to the far, far, far east. Not currently available.
Regardless of Ambition, you'll have to return to your Lodgings in London to fulfill them and complete the game. Keep that in mind when wandering far astray of friendly territory.
All the important tidbits of character development have now been fulfilled. You finish up by selecting a title, a name, and a profile shot for your captain. Go wild. (For the record, you can be a dude and still be called 'ma'am', and vice versa. How delightfully progressive.)
Welcome to London! The westernmost hub of activity in the Beath, Fallen London is, for much of the game, your go-to point after successfully setting out on an adventure. You can do a large number of things in London, including:
- Visit your Lodgings, whatever their form. You may read the morning papers, important for picking up Recent News items that you can trade elsewhere; you can rest, which is vitally important for staving off nightmares when your Terror is high; you can purchase new Lodgings when you've saved enough Echoes; and you can complete your Ambition.
- Visit the city, and all that entails. As with other locations throughout the Unterzee London has lots to see and do, and most such opportunities allow you to lower your Terror score. London is also the best place to recruit new Crew, which is absolutely essential to running your ship properly.
- Visit the Admiralty's Survey Office. The Admiralty will give you commissions for Strategic Information, sending you off to distant locations and paying well for Port Reports. Consulting the Admiralty is a great way to earn influence and Echoes.
- Visit the University, which you can do once you have Secrets. The University will trade other items for Secrets.
- Shop! London is second to none as far as shopping goes, and if you click the Shops tab at the top of the screen you can carouse its many stores. London is also (as far as I know) the only place where you can purchase a new ship, via the Shipyard.
London is important for the reasons listed above, and for two others as well. First, every time you visit London your Terror score will immediately be reset to 50, assuming it was above 50 to start. Terror is bad. Second, London is one of the only places where you can confidently recruit new Officers, which are necessary for advancing your stats . . . as well as discovering new story avenues.
Run out of things to see in London? It's time to set sail. Exit the menus until you've staring at your ship, then hit E to debark.
Zailing the Open Zee
Movement in Sunless Sea is pretty simple. Look to the top-left corner of your screen and you'll see a wheel with five numbers on it. This wheel represents your engine speed, and you can raise and lower it via the W / Up and S / Down keys, respectively. Raise it to the positives and you move forward; lower it to the negatives and you move backwards.
Hitting A / Left or D / Right will move your ship to the left or right, relative to the direction your boat is facing. Hit the Spacebar to pause the game at any time if you need to think about your next move.
What You Might See on the Zee
You'll run across a variety of things while on the zee:
- Monsters or enemy ships. Anything that moves is likely an enemy, and making contact with said enemy will trigger a fight. More on that below.
- Landmarks. Whenever you enter a new area your crew will automatically make note of new landmarks, typically islands or strange formations out in the water. Each time you locate something new you'll receive Fragments, the game's equivalent of experience.
- New ports. Every now and then you'll come across land where you can debark. These locations will be noted on the map via a pier, stretching out into the water, and a light spot beside the pier where you can park your ship. Hit E to debark. Note that time stops whenever you debark, and only starts again when you return to the ship.
- Light buoys and light ships. While wandering the darkness your ship will accrue Terror. You can offset this by slipping close to any light sources that may be nearby. This is generally a good idea, as Terror is bad.
Though you have a lot of stats to pay attention to while at zee, there are three in particular that you absolutely must track at all times. They are as follows:
These are your food. The game keeps track of your Crew's hunger in the top-left corner of the screen. Whenever the red bar reaches the midpoint, your Crew will use up one of your Supplies. Run out of Supplies and your Crew will potentially resort to cannibalism. Eventually, of course, you'll just up-and-up die from too much Hunger. You can purchase Supplies from most ports and collect it from events or defeated enemies.
Your boat needs Fuel, indicated by a bar in the top-left corner of the screen. Run out of Fuel and you'll be dead in the water, which also leads to a game over. The stronger your engines, the faster you'll burn through Fuel. If you're almost out of Fuel you'll gain the option to burn Supplies instead . . . or simply give up. Yay. Always note how much Fuel you have before you go sailing too far from London.
This is a scary environment. Stay in the dark too long and your Crew will slowly accrue Terror. Gain too much Terror and bad things will start to happen. Maximize your Terror and your Crew will immediately mutiny, and you'll have to pass a challenge to not lose the game. You can lower Terror by participating in events in ports, resting, returning to London, and by simply navigating in lit areas. It's vitally important that you keep your Terror score low. This article delves more deeply into the Terror mechanic, and what you can do to alleviate Terror.
Your captain's abilities are dictated by the five stats outlined at the beginning of the game, and each of these stats can be advanced by speaking to your Officers, listed at the top of the screen. Offer these Officers Secrets—gained by collecting Fragments—and they'll upgrade your stats accordingly. Each Officer offers different stats, so you'll want a wide variety of different Officers to cover your many stats. The Officers also have side stories that will lead to different opportunities, so it's a good idea to engage them when you don't have Secrets on hand as well.
Life begins and ends on boats in Sunless Sea, and your captain's life is no different. You must maintain a sturdy vessel to be successful in this game, and that means repairing, upgrading, and preserving your ship whenever possible. Vital stats and features on your ship include:
- Hull. Your ship's HP, in essence. Your ship will take damage whenever struck in battle, or if you run into objects on the map. If this drops to zero, you're toast. You can repair Hull at London's Drydock, and other places besides.
- Crew. The men and women operating the ship. If your Crew gets too low, your ship will lose its capacity to move at full speed. If you ever run out of Crew completely the game will end in defeat. Your captain is counted as a crewmember. You can take on more Crew in London, and during some events in other ports.
- Cargo. How much physical weight your ship can carry. Each time you take on a new item, it takes up a space in your Cargo. Note that insubstantial items (ie Curiosities) do not take up Cargo space. Only Goods fit into that category. You can toss items you no longer want overboard by clicking on the Cargo button (top right corner) under the Hold tab.
- Equipment. On your Hold tab you can see what items are equipped on your ship. These items dictate your ship's abilities, and it's a good idea to continually add new and better equipment purchased while in London.
Why is your boat important? Navigating the seas is reason enough, but maintenance of a ship becomes all the more vital when you start getting into fights . . .
Maybe you weren't paying attention. Maybe you were low on Crew, and your ship wasn't moving fast enough. Maybe you crashed into an island and got ambushed. Maybe, just maybe, you were mobbed. Regardless, you're now in a fight. How does combat work?
Combat in Sunless Sea operates on a timeline, with actions going off at set intervals, dictated by the cooldown time of the action. You and one other opponent square off against one another, trying to inflict damage until one opponent is either dead or fled. You can queue up to four actions at a time; cancel an action before it goes off by clicking the action's icon on the timeline.
The idea behind combat is pretty simple. In order to deal damage to an opponent, or for that opponent to deal damage to you, you must achieve a minimum amount of Illumination. Illumination damage is dealt by using Flares or the Seek attack to home in on opponents, and is indicated via green bars on the combat screen. Once Illumination has reached a certain point you can begin using weapons (typically a Salvo from your guns) to inflict damage to the enemy's Life or Hull.
If Illumination drops below the minimum amount dictated by the attack move (say, by somehow evading the opponent's attack) the queued attack move will immediately fail and disappear from the timeline.
How Combat Ends
Combat ends under several different conditions:
- If an enemy's Hull or Life is depleted. The same goes for your ship.
- If an enemy's Crew is depleted. The same goes for your ship.
- If you flee the battle by drawing away from the enemy. Note that the enemy's attacks on your Illumination will work counter to this, and you should try to flee as early as possible.
Always do a quick comparison of your strength versus the enemy's by hitting the Spacebar to pause combat. If you appear to be overwhelmed, it's best to try to run for it. It's also possible to escape combat before even taking on an enemy, though attempts to run are typically quite difficult—and you may have to sacrifice one or more members of your Crew to drive away the bloodthirsty beasties patrolling the zee.
After defeating an enemy you'll be presented with a number of ways to dispose of their corpse. The possibilities are different for each enemy, but they typically include scrounging the remains for supplies, investigating them (FOR SCIENCE), or, if you Observed them enough times during the battle, making an Observation about the enemy that may serve you well in later encounters. You have to Observe an enemy at least ten times for this latter possibility to open up.
Sunless Sea is rogue-like in its execution. If at any point your boat runs out of Hull, runs out of Fuel, runs out of Supplies / runs too high on Hunger, runs out of Crew, or your captain is somehow otherwise thrown to the wind, the game will end. Your save file is automatically deleted and you're forced to start over.
But! Death is not the end. Upon defeat you'll be given the opportunity to pass one of three things on to the next generation of captain:
- You can give them your Chart, allowing you to view the map of the Unterzee as it stood before death. No need to uncover anything.
- You can give them one of your stats. Pick your highest stat and the next captain will have it, too. Note that this calculation only takes personal bonuses into account—bonuses to a stat given by the ship or its officers are deducted.
- You can give them one of your officers. Said officer will join whichever lower-tier officer you automatically get when the game begins. Try not to have your officer types overlap, if you can avoid it.
I recommend going for a stat, personally. By doing so your next captain can essentially have two start-of-the-game stat bonuses rather than one, which is very helpful in early conflicts and challenges. Handing over charts is probably the weakest choice, as you'll soon learn what direction to travel to reach well-known ports without need a chart.
Not satisfied with this setup? Try switching to Merciful mode in one of the game's ports. In Merciful mode you can save your game manually, and then reload it if you die / get a story outcome that's undesirable. Merciful mode removes one of the game's most notable achievements, but it's a wise choice for players who are just starting out and don't know the ins and outs of Sunless Sea enough to survive for long.
You should now have a pretty good idea of the basics of Sunless Sea, and you can set off into the Unterzee with a bit of a leg up. That said, there are still many other things to keep in mind. Here are some more tips that may help make your first few voyages a little easier.
- Always note your Supplies and Fuel when setting out. If you're running low on either, don't sail too far east. Getting stranded is terrible.
- Make a note of ports that demonstrably sell Supplies and Fuel. Not every location you'll hit does. You should always purchase enough of both in Fallen London anyway, as the outer colonies charge more for their services.
- Consult your map when sailing. Always. It's easy to go the wrong direction even if you're headed to a place you've visited before.
- Use the Zee-Bat! You have a form of sonar known as the Zee-Bat (hit Z or click the icon on the bottom toolbar), and when at zee the Zee-Bat will give you a rough idea of where you should go to reach a friendly port. The Zee-bat can save your life if you're running low on Fuel or Supplies.
- Battle Terror constantly. Constantly. You should never let it run above 50, when possible.
- Don't spend all of your Echoes in Fallen London. Save a couple hundred for distant ports. You never know when you'll need 'em. (Or want 'em.)
- Don't necessarily maintain a full Crew. The higher your Crew count, the faster they'll accrue Hunger. That said, you don't want so small a Crew that the loss of one will slow your boat to half speed.
- Don't fight every monster you come across, at least not unless you know you're going to win. Your Hull is precious, and the gains from killing some monsters really isn't worth the damage you're likely to take.
- Always look for opportunities to offset your Hunger without the use of Supplies. Auroral Megalops, for example, are extremely easy monsters to kill that will completely wipe out your Hunger if you choose to eat their remains. Om nom nom.
- Visit the Admiralty often, and accept their commissions whenever you're in Fallen London. You can make a lot of Echoes performing missions for them.
- Early on, take on Tomb-Colonists in Fallen London and escort them to Venderbight in the north. You'll receive 15 Echoes per escort, and it's a short trip from London to Venderbight. You can make a fair amount of money this way . . .
- . . . especially if you couple it with fighting Pirate Steam-Pinnaces. These surly rogues wander the water between Fallen London and Venderbight, and after defeating one you have the opportunity to send the boat back to London with two of your Crew aboard. Most of the time they'll do so loyally, and you'll get 50 Echoes upon return to your Lodgings in London. (Occasionally they'll sneak off, of course, which will force you to recruit more Crew. Worth the risk anyway.)
As for the rest? It's up to you. Good luck on the zee! Collect a ton of stories, kill a ton of monsters, observe a ton of horrors, and try not to go ten types of crazy in the process. Enjoy!