A Death at Zee: Sunless Sea Reviewed

The first expansion for Failbetter Games’ Sunless Sea will be here on October 11. The 2015 game was free on Steam recently, and it’s a terrifying wonder to behold. Though this roguelike game (or perhaps rogue-lite, if we’re splitting hairs) encourages you to “Lose your mind” and “Eat your crew,” its appeal is not in its difficulty but in its rich and haunting world. Sunless Sea draws rough poetry out of the code and is a worthwhile experience in spite of its flaws.

In Sunless Sea, you enter the midnight carnival world of Fallen London, the setting of another of Failbetter’s games of the same name. Victorian London has been swallowed beneath the earth and into a vast cavern called the Neath. Sunless Sea itself takes place primarily throughout the vast Unterzee, an underground archipelago. Taking the role of steamship captain, you explore a Gothic steampunk world that’s one part Edgar Allen Poe, one part H. P. Lovecraft, and one part Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Official promotional wallpaper for the game.

This won’t happen to you. You’ll be fine. Honest. Failbetter Games

At its heart, the gameplay of Sunless Sea is balancing resource management with exploration. Setting out from Fallen London fully stocked, you’ll want to plan your course and explore as much as you can before sputtering home nearly empty but with a wealth of information for the admiral. Fuel and supplies are limited resources that can be replenished in ports abroad, though often at a high cost. Terror, representing your progress toward succumbing to madness, is much more expensive to alleviate away from home port and will usually be the factor that finally makes you decide to turn back.

What will make you decide to go farther, to push beyond the limits of your supply caches, is the story. Sunless Sea is clearly made by a team of developers who place great value in a well-written story. By this I don’t mean that they value story in the sparse and perverse sense understood by modern AAA games, in which a good story is about having any plot at all and then dressing it up with very high production values and as many cinematic techniques as possible (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect). I mean that Sunless Sea actually pays attention to the nuts and bolts of how to hook a player in and pique their interest without always having to dazzle them. Each time you discover something about one of the doomed islands that pepper the Unterzee, further discoveries are hinted. Even when you reach the conclusion of an arc, you’re left with the sensation that you might have learned more had you made a slightly different choice or succeeded in an optional challenge. In this way the game leans on the uniqueness of gaming as a medium.

There are plenty of other mechanics as well. A system of five stats determines your ability to move, fight, see, hide, and improve other abilities, but the improvement of these stats often comes at such a steady drip that it’s difficult to see a tangible benefit even when you know you’re getting one. Officers will provide a more substantial bump, but even they feel as though they could use a bit more mechanical differentiation.

Sunless Sea features optional permanent death, though it’s turned on by default until you manually save the game. I frequently turn it off. I will say that the only time I loaded my save was when I accidentally purchased something I hadn’t intended to, so the threat of death actually feels worse than it is.

Ultimately, its roguelike gameplay is where Sunless Sea comes closest to falling apart. Early on, the zee is vast and terrifying, and your understanding of how to manage resources is limited, so you can expect to suffer interesting disasters, die, and then discover an entirely different set of islands and stories on your next playthrough. But after playing for awhile, you come to the realization that the game is fairly static from playthrough to playthrough, and risk-and-reward actually isn’t the best way to progress.

A ship at zee.

Short runs can be an efficient, if dull, strategy. Failbetter Games

I call this the Don’t Starve problem, which I think is fair considering Failbetter lists Don’t Starve as an explicit influence. Because the early game feels the same once you’ve already experienced it, permadeath ceases to be interesting in ways that it functions well in other roguelike games (Rogue Legacy). This might be a small quibble if Sunless Sea were short (The Binding of Isaac) or if the early game quickly opened up midgame with a lot of choices (FTL), but because rewards are rarely commensurate with risks and you’re only allowed to keep a small portion of your progress until you’ve reached midgame, Sunless Sea rewards in a very slow and methodical approach that can feel a bit frustrating.

You could just play it with permadeath off, but even then you’ll reach a plateau of progress when the game starts to feel grind-y. You’ll want a faster engine, but a faster engine takes more fuel; so you’ll want a ship with a bigger hold to carry more fuel, but those ships are heavier and go slower with the same engine. You’ll want more stats to complete more difficult challenges, but you’ll run short of places to explore for experience. You’ll get the sense of being gated from interesting stories by not having an expensive item, which you need to grind for. This is a game that requires patience.

However, even when you feel this way, you’ll still feel the pull to one more voyage. As I said in the beginning, Sunless Sea is a flawed diamond that shines in spite of all its minor annoyances. Even when I use up all my fuel to get to the other side of the map and find out that I need an extra currency item that I don’t have in order to get what I came for, I still decide to play another hour when I said that I wouldn’t. The forthcoming expansion looks to be quite meatier than expected and adds many new locations and stories in the vein of the vanilla game in addition to the adorably named zubmarines. This is good, because having just a few more choices, features, or mechanics could easily alleviate some of that grind-y feeling. From everything I’ve seen, if the things I mentioned about grinding put you off, it seems like Zubmariner will be no better—but if the story-based exploration and world building appeal to you, the game will get much more exciting.

As it stands now, I’d still highly recommend Sunless Sea, especially if it’s on sale or if you enjoy games for their narrative. You’ll enjoy sailing the alien Unterzee, even when you don’t. So, if you’re a big fan of roguelikes or you enjoy games that are heavy on reading stories and world building, go ahead and pick it up. If you’re just sort of a fan of roguelikes, or it sounds interesting but you’re not sure if you have the patience to let the game bloom, maybe wait for a Steam or GOG sale.

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