There is a current run of older Indies making their way to the Switch and I for one welcome them all. Sunless Sea is the latest in the guise of the Zubmariner Edition. Including a base game and an expansion.
This is a game that some have heard of, but may well have also passed many by. Sunless Sea is one of those games that really doesn’t look appealing from a first glance. There is no colourful intro and joyful music, it is bleak, but boy is that bleakness a strong selling point.
It can be easy to ignore, that’s true. In doing so though, you would be depriving yourself of an experience that really needs to be played. Not an experience that will bring joy to your life, but one that will stay with you. You’ll just need to crack a very hard outer surface to get anything from it.
How do I know this? Well, the Switch port of Sunless Sea is my forth attempt at getting into this game. Whilst this may sound like a bad thing, you’ll have to trust me on this. Every time I have tried to get into this game in the past, I have failed. (for reasons that are not the game’s fault). Yet I knew I was looking at something pretty special. Something that was going to make me work for it, ultimately worth the effort.
Whilst most games want to WOW you as immediately as possible, the developers of Sunless Sea threw that out of the port side and tasked you with earning the right to appreciate their game, as long as you put the effort in.
Still with me? Good, let me tell you a bit more about it. Actually, before I get going, I feel I must praise Failbetter Games for one thing more than anything. Readable text!!! So many games with a PC origin have been struggles to play in handheld due to tiny text. Sunless Sea doesn’t have this issue and that should be celebrated. Especially as there is a lot of text.
What you have here is a roguelike exploration game, with a dark Lovecraftian setting. (got to 7 paragraphs without mentioning Lovecraft, that’ll do I suppose!). You need to explore, interact and survive to win, but how you win is left in your hands.
Starting by selecting one of a few pasts, you build a character and give them an ambition. Fulfill this ambition and you win the game. Simple right? There is variation here, as you could go for all the riches, go on a personal quest, become a best explorer in Fallen London and more. It is a great way to allow you to approach the game in different ways.
The build you create at the start can really shape the adventure you will have. It helps determine the bonuses you’ll start with, crew members you have among other little touches. Once you have created a reason for being in this world, you are let loose to do your own thing.
This is where the game really shines (as much as it can in this dark, dank world), giving you complete freedom to play as you wish. On my first effort, I missed out on loads on context. I was in a rush to get out to sea and missed a number of vital elements. I ended up going far out to sea with limited fuel, supplies and no weapons at all. Needless to say, death was upon my crew and I very soon.
Sunless Sea is a slow and methodical game which encourages you to really take your time with everything you do. Get as much information as you can when you are docked. Make sure you get fully stocked and prepared for every journey you do and always be aware of your surroundings.
Initially I tried to skip through a lot of the text, mainly looking at the effect I got from each conversation or on land action. This led to me playing almost blindly and aimlessly. It took me to spend time reading everything to give my journey a real sense of purpose.
For the developers to get this balanced correctly is no mean feat. You’ll be wanting to set sail at the earliest opportunity. That looks like the main reason for playing the game. However once you take it all in, you realise that Sunless Sea is a sum of all its parts. The reading of daily news, conversations with inhabitants, reports, minor and major quest lines, they all add to the overall experience.
It results in a game that isn’t comfortable, nor even enjoyable. It is dark, in tone and looks and because of that Sunless Sea is dripping with atmosphere. I got to a point where I was giving characters voices in my head and really feeling like I was part of an overworld and not just a lot of basic writing to progress a game. There is a ton of effort from the developers to give this game a life of its own.
So of course the main objective is to fulfil you ambition. Which requires you to explore the world and discover new locations from your ship. This is where the tension and atmosphere really ramps up. Again there is a slow and methodical pacing to this. Your vessel will move slowly over the water, making every journey feel like and effort.
You won’t be quickly jumping from dock to dock though. Namely as even the shortest of journeys can feel tense. Due in part to the fear of constant threats in the seas you are sailing. The combat isn’t difficult as such, but each encounter feels really tense. It becomes as battle of wits as you try your hardest to gain the upper hand. Circling and firing on pirates and sea creatures, as well as other threats. All whilst they try and do the same. On a longer journey? It can mean certain death if you aren’t careful
All this whilst managing your supplies, keeping your crew happy, alive and still trying to complete quests. Not forgetting the overall fulfilment of your ambition. This is made yet even more challenging by virtue of you interactions while docked have various effects on you and your crew.
The world in Sunless Sea wants you dead and will do everything it can to make your existence as miserable as it can be. Because this is a roguelike, it will succeed, many times over. You die, you get survived and start by creating a profile for those. A rival? A shipmate? Someone else? They have their own story to tell.
Added to all of this in the base game, is the Zubmariner expansion, which slots effortlessly into the base game and takes tensions to a whole new level, but taking you into the one place worse than the Unterzee. You are about to go underwater and discover a host of new locations and stories. The bleakness here is amplified to the nth degree and really is a fantastic addition to the game.
The way it integrates is wonderful and well worth discovering. You often see expansions added to games as a separate experience, namely as doing so could break the original to a point. However here it feels like it has been part of the main base game from the beginning. You do need to follow an additional quest to get the technology needed to unlock the Zubmarine, but it isn’t gated, nor it is overly difficult to get to.
This really is a unique game. Certainly not for everyone, but Sunless Sea really does stand out when it comes to atmosphere and gameplay. It is a game I have been enamoured with since finally being able to get into it. Persevere with a touch opening and you will be rewarded.