Sunless Sea (Review)

I should love Sunless Sea. 

It’s a game with so many great ideas, so many wonderful concepts working together. Almost everything that Sunless Sea is trying to do is something that I want games to do well.

I should love Sunless Sea, but somehow I find myself underwhelmed.

It must be stressed, before continuing, that this is more of a first impression of the game than a review of the full thing – I haven’t in any way reached the end of the content, and many games are extremely slow starting. If my opinion changes as I play more, I’ll write another post. For now though, these are my impressions of the game.

Failbetter Games’ Sunless Sea is set in the same world as Fallen London, an award-winning online “choose your own adventure”-esque game. Essentially, Victorian London now rests in a vast cavern, far below the sunlit lands. As the captain of a small, rickety ship, you undertake to explore the subterranean seas that border the fallen city, venturing into the darkness in search of knowledge and profit.

I first heard about the game ages ago, before it was buyable in any form, and got extremely excited. Naval exploration, Gothic settings, combat based around the environment and light, not simply gun size – everything I heard about it made it sound wonderful. However, I held off buying it throughout Early Access (I’ve been burnt before) and only picked it up in the past month, once it was ostensibly finished.

And now, with all the waiting over, I own my much-anticipated game, but am not playing it. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough to get my teeth into. Sunless Sea is a competent game, but it doesn’t live up to expectations, and it doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of gameplay depth.

There are, of course, positives – Failbetter Games is a studio with a strong focus on the narrative, and that’s evident here. So many games have such ham-handed writing that it is nice to see a game where the dialogue and description are not simply detailed but engaging. The writers keep the dark Gothic tone going throughout, extraneous details being used liberally to add depth to the world.

Very little of the story and detail is up front – you catch odd lines that explain certain ideas or ports, but the game is content to let you work for the story. The reasons behind the names of various landmarks are left entirely to your imagination, and that’s how it should be: Gothic literature is all about implication and suggestion. The little details and withheld knowledge add a lot of interest to the world.

At times, the narration gets a little over-wrought and self-conscious, but that is a tiny negative compared to all of the positives in the writing. Each port has its own sense of atmosphere, each significant NPC has their own voice and backstory. I’ve explored only a tiny part of the gameworld so far, and I’m already impressed with the variety and detail. Unless the rest of the world is extremely sparsely-populated, Sunless Sea is a triumph from this perspective.

The game seems to reverse the expected pattern – in this game, gameplay is the weakness, not narrative. There are so many games with a terrible plot and slick gameplay, it’s odd to find one that’s the other way around.

The actual game is divided into two sections – in port, and out of it. In port, you can flick through various screens that describe the place, and carry out tasks (the specific ones available vary from place to place: visit the admiralty in London, harvest mushrooms on Demeaux Island). Information is presented to you by pictures and text, interaction is limited to clicking on given options.

That sounds like a criticism, but it’s actually not. Too many games force the player to walk down unnecessary corridors to reach the same shops again and again. In  contrast, Sunless Sea doesn’t waste your time; accepting quests and trading are all available with a simple click. Making the player waste time in camps and towns is poor design – padding a game whilst irritating your audience. More developers should have the confidence to ape Failbetter Games in this regard. It doesn’t break immersion, it does make routine tasks a lot faster. In addition, for a primarily text-based game, no atmosphere or detail is lost by this.

And the atmosphere is good – for a top-down, text-based game, it’s very good. The pictures add visuals to well-written descriptions, and the world itself is full of dark, swirling colour that makes the whole game have a portentous and oppressive feel. Most of the world is in darkness, and there are only islands of light amidst the gloom – all very sinister and Lovecraftian.

Out of port, you have a top-down view of your ship, and set off into the darkness. Patches of light illuminate landmarks, and pirates (as well as worse dangers) lurk in the shadows. Fuel and supplies have to be carefully husbanded, and no ship can survive too far from port.

Sunless Sea’s big weakness is the actual ships, in both movement and combat. I found myself feeling a little disconnected from them – you can turn left and right, speed up and slow down, but a lot of the exploration is just watching the little ship trundle off. I want more – more meaningful choices, more responsive ships, more struggles with the fuel. I’m not sure, in fairness, what level of interaction would satisfy me, but there does need to be something else. As it stands, the ports are more interesting and interactive than the actual exploration that the game is ostensibly based around. The journey to new shores should be exciting in and of itself.

The combat was one of the things I was most excited about – in a dark sea, light is both the only way to see your enemy, and a beacon to more deadly things that lurk in the deeps. Naval battles were supposed to be careful games of cat and mouse, seeking to illuminate the enemy whilst remaining shrouded in darkness yourself. Every decisions should have mattered, every careful second should have been spent on a knife edge of tension, waiting to see what would loom out of the dark,

I saw the early combat mechanics back when it was still in Early Access, and the current mechanics are definitely an improvement. It used to be just card-based, staring at a picture of the enemy while using abilities. That all changed when initial players found it dull; in a move that demonstrated how Early Access should work, the developers took the game back to the drawing board and delivered real-time combat, on the world map.

Now, enemies exist in real time, and will attack you if they become aware of you. Similarly, you still have control of your ship’s movement, and can manoeuvre round islands and monstrosities in a bid to either escape or gain some kind of advantage. That is a definite improvement. However, just as with general sailing, I found myself feeling quite disconnected from the whole thing.

Combat is not slow exactly, but relies strongly on cooldown timers, leaving you feeling powerless for long periods waiting for them to fill up. Then you click once, and it’s back to waiting. Your ship waddles awkwardly round to keep foes in range, and targeting is automatic. It works, and there isn’t anything wrong with it per se, but it is rather uninspired – it should be tense, it should be tragic and triumphant, but instead it is just functional.

One last thing that bears mentioning – like almost every other indie game at the moment, Sunless Sea has rogue-like elements. In this particular case, the elements are a randomly-constructed map (islands remain the same, but their placement changes) and permadeath: a fallen captain might pass on some of his goods or knowledge to a successor, but otherwise success in one life has little to no bearing on the next. I’m all for such elements appearing in games, and in this one, they are integrated well. The mechanics make sense within the narrative, rather than acting in conflict with it.

I could go on for a while, talking about the different things that Sunless Sea does right, the different things that don’t quite work. Overall though, the game fails to impress: the whole isn’t engaging enough. I should love Sunless Sea, and I very nearly do, but it’s let down by somewhat dull gameplay. I so wanted this game to be great, but it isn’t quite there.

The developers do seem to be updating and adding content quite regularly, so hopefully, over time, the issues I have with it will be ironed out. For now though, it’s a good game if you want it just for the narrative. Buy it here.

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