Published: 14 November 2016
Editor's note: Maiyannah's copy of Sunless Sea was provided free of charge by a friend as a gift.
Sunless Sea is a roguelike management hybrid game developed and published by Failbetter Games. I found myself inclined to be skeptical of this game, given how much people came to me and gushed breathlessly about it like it was the best thing since sliced bread, and well, the truth is there certainly are some strong points to it, as much as some detractors may have enjoyed me ridiculing it given how certain pretentious outlets have lorded it over others, but neither is it a great game. Sunless Sea has a pace that could be beaten by an ant moving a mountain across a solar system, and when you peel back the heavy thesaurus usage and substitution cipher that are some of the letters in words, you're left with a game that makes the process of getting to the truly good bits some what arduous.
A lot of the Sunless Seas are left unexplained
At the start of Sunless Sea, there's a fair bit of guidance and hand-holding, as it guides you through character creation. You can assume a random character or one of a handful of backgrounds and aspirations. The aspiration you choose essentially selects your victory conditions: getting a lot of money, having a nice house, and whatever, or a lot of sea stories, and so on. It's not really a proper choice per se though, because you can essentially trigger any of the victory conditions if you so choose, regardless of the original choice. So the game doesn't really hold you to it. Lack of discipline in design is a problem in Sunless Sea, and we'll come back to it, but this is one of the first instances where it comes up.
So the game takes you through the motions of character creation. Most importantly, you select a backstory from which your captain comes (or chose to leave it a mystery), and the reason they took to sea. While this process is guided adequately well, or would appear so at first glance, it becomes the first manifestation of something the game does a lot - and that's give you choices to which there are significant costs and benefits both which aren't really obvious nor self-evident. While I can understand this is intended to create a certain mystique about the game, there's a fine line between being mysterious and not engaging in adequate player-training. Ideally, this line is adeptly walked by guiding the player through the process of exploring those mechanics, but the approach Sunless Sea takes is rather ham-fisted and abrupt in comparison, and once you're out on the sea you're mostly left to your own devices.
That mystique might be well and good, but to steal one of popular critic Yahtzee's lines out of context (and perhaps into a better context), Sunless Sea feels as twisted and impenetrable as a granite octopus. There are a great deal of interconnected and interleaving systems of commerce, currencies, and events here that form a complex web of player choices and economic circumstances. And basically none of these are explained to you when you step aboard your ship and head out to sea, beyond the basic needs for fuel, and affect of weight on your ship, as well as the games currency called echoes and the essential insanity gauge that every Lovecraftian game must have by law. There's all kinds of currencies at work here, between stories you trade for goods, goods that are traded for other goods, goods traded for stories, reputations, and so on. It's very deep but almost too deep, especially with so little explanation.
Seafaring is interesting but slow
Regardless, thus set out onto the seas with my own small ship, a plucky crew, and a couple of guns for good measure, I was given a firm slap on the buttocks and encouraged to seek my fortune on the high seas. And thus I did, taking a mission to take a "tomb colonist" to their final shores at Venderbight.
This lead to the aspect of exploration, since there isn't even any bit of the map revealed from the start except for your starting port, the beleaguered Victorian city of Fallen London, which functions essentially as your home base. At first, this was great, and the sense of exploring the seas was wondrous. There's a variety of different places to end up, so I didn't mind the aimless wandering so much at first, because everything was fresh and new.
As is often the case, however, as time went on and the initial appeal wore off, and the bugbears became more and more prominent. The speed of the ship was a big bugbear - a six foot tall bugbear with a mean disposition and bad flatulence. It is tremendously slow. Just getting to Venderbight - one of the nearest major ports, took the better part of half an hour round trip, and there was nothing I was doing in the intervening time other than navigating around the rocks, which wasn't at all challenging.
The game likes to waste your time, frankly, in this matter. While I can appreciate that the intention is likely to create a feeling of anticipation when some baddie comes out of that dark horizon to gun you down, boredom is not trepidation, and moreover, boredom is not something I should feel during a video game, something ostensibly designed to entertain me in some fashion.
The difficulty curve is pretty polar
Another big problem that the game has is in it's difficulty curve, which lives or dies on how much the random generation loves or hates you, really. I have read many people have had a hard time getting started and I can believe it, because how much of a hard time off the bat you have will depend on the world generation.
Allow me to expand: The game world is procedurally-generated using a variety of "pieces". It's best thought of as a puzzle that can be assembled various different ways. Some of these pieces entail different cities and different threats, and some of those threats are much meaner than others. So if, for example, your map is generated in such a way that a piece with really nasty enemies (such as the more aggressive or bigger pirates) is near your starting location, just getting between the different nearby ports to try to bootstrap yourself into a bigger boat with better guns is going to be a trying affair. Likewise, you can have an inverse result if all of the difficult pieces end up far away, and things can seem to easy, as it did for me early on. I spent most of the time just watching videos on Youtube with a hand on the proverbial steering wheel that was my keyboard to course correct around the rocks on occasion.
Combat feels reminiscent of the kind of game we'd see on Newgrounds in ages past and mobile devices nowadays, with a simple top down perspective and two simple firing arcs - fore and aft. You basically just end up pointing your biggest gun(s) at an enemy and firing every time the cooldown lapses because there isn't much way to skillfully maneuver and even if there was, the AI is dumb as bricks. Indeed, most of my fights were spent either with other opposing ships rubbing amorously up against my hull and not firing, or easily kiting the many sea monsters, who telegraphed their attacks so clearly it was kind of insulting.
Difficulty, in a very artificial matter, is added to the named, special enemies that could be considered the game's bosses, by way of making it so their telegraphed attacks are only avoidable by getting out of range, which in just about any of the boats I tried is nigh-impossible to do since they can easily keep speed with you most of the time, and indeed, only the erratic AI seems to keep them from getting closer than that.
The wasted time element also comes up in the consequences for defeat - if you are sunk then you're starting all the way over again. Most "rogue-like" games have some sort of meta-game element that makes this restart lesser, because good game design minimizes the time between death and getting yourself back going again, but Sunless Sea is frankly not well-designed in this aspect. You're only going to be able to keep a single thing from a few choices across games, and then you're stuck spending hours just to get back to some sense of being on tyhe same footing. I guess it's just as well the AI is stupid as a sack of bricks.
The net effect of the AI's inability to put its trousers anywhere but on its head is that even enemies that are otherwise objectively difficult since they outrun and outgun you, end up easy anyways, since you can just exploit the rubbish intelligence on hand to your advantage. With a smarter AI on hand, these battles would represent a much greater threat and would, perhaps, break up the monotony of the plodding pace the navigation from point to point has, but as is, they just end up irritations more than anything.
Sunless Sea's writing is simultaneously good and overrated
It is difficult for me to understate how much the slow pace affects my impression of the game. One of the easiest ways for a game to get me frustrated is for it to feel like it doesn't respect my time, and frankly, Sunless Sea doesn't respect mine. This kind of touches on the inverse of the Just Cause 2 thing. It doesn't matter how big the world is if the means of getting around in it is enjoyable and man, Just Cause 2's hook shot and explosionopalooza did a great job of that. Contrastingly, Sunless Sea's world is not actually that big, when you consider it. There's only a few handfuls of notable locations and they all become very familiar within hours of play. The slow travel times feels like a deliberate, shitty choice, to waste my time to make the game feel larger than it is, and man, I do not like it when games are dishonest with me.
All of this could be forgiven if the destination was worth that arduous journey, and here is where we come to the breaking point, dear reader. This is what essentially will make or break the game for you, and that is the writing. Most of the people who laud this game do so for the writing, and I suspect they do so from a place of feeling that the writing makes up for the tepid pace of trading and sea combat. Meanwhile, others who have disliked or panned Sunless Sea, are those whom have not found the writing sufficient to make up for what are essentially weak and ill-explained mechanics that underpin the game.
Myself, I'm of a more divided opinion. The setting is an interesting combination of Victorian themes with both horror and comedic aspects both, but this is what ultimately lets it down to me. It comes down to a certain lack of consistency in tone. I go from one island where I am literally trying to treat with a demoness that lusts for my immortal soul to get things I want from her, to an island with a giant statue of a postman in the middle where all the postmen ran off to to file lost mail. It's trying to go for a certain air of surreal mystery, but to me, this just comes across as a game that doesn't exactly know what it wants in terms of tone.
The vocabulary used is certainly probably some of the appeal to the more pretentious people whom were, back when it was released, shoving this game in the faces of just about anyone who passed by, but it found it pretentious and hard to follow. Rather than following Victorian middle English, for instance, it's basically just normal English, with a thesaurus at hand, and a few simple substitution ciphers thrown in for good measure. It didn't take many times seeing "sea" written as "zee" before it was eliciting the occasional rolling of my eyes at how it seemed a bit "try-hard" - and that's to the detriment of the work really.
The pretentiousness harms the work ultimately, because it presents a barrier between me and the actual good parts of the writing - and there are quite interesting bits of lore in here. My personal favourite was an island where visitors are required to don masks, and play out specific roles to find a place in the society of the island, the this really tapped well into the sense of exploring and understanding a foreign culture. This was the chief appeal of the game to me, and I wish it did more of it, frankly.
- Very simple controls so it's not difficult to play
- Long quest lines will require note-taking because of the lack of proper information being presented.
- Windowed and full-screen modes available
- Game doesn't seem to work well on fullscreen with multiple monitors