Game Review #505: Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition (Nintendo Switch)
Reviewer: John B
Developer: Failbetter Games
Category: Role-Playing, Adventure, Simulation, Strategy
Release Date: 4.23.2020
Watch the Trailer
Buy Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition for the Nintendo Switch isn’t a new game, exactly. It’s a port of a game released for the PC in 2015 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, and it includes DLC that came out a year later. It came out to no small amount of critical acclaim as a follow-up to another of Failbetter Games’ acclaimed releases, a browser-based game called Fallen London. The two games share a setting, Fallen London – a Victorian era London that moved underground into the Unterzee, a mysterious underground ocean. I’ve been interested in the game for a while, so when it came across the Switchmania code list, I was pretty interested in seeing if it could live up to the positive notices I had been reading. I walked away with mixed feelings.
The Family Business Is Misery
Players assume the role of a captain of a small ship in the unterzee. One of the neat parts of the game is that you get to set your character’s background and objectives. You can search for fame and wealth, your father’s bones, or even set off to found your own colony! It doesn’t have quite as big an effect on gameplay as you’d think; you get some stat bonuses based on your background, and choosing your objective opens up a few questlines, but overall neither had a very huge impact on how the game played out. When your captain dies (and they will die, a lot, especially at the beginning when you’re learning the game), some of his possessions get passed on to your next captain. If you get far enough and complete the right quests, you can actually write up a will and give all of your possessions to an heir so you get a full inheritance of all your hard work.
This Cap’n Is Crunched
Gameplay is a mix of text-based adventure and real-time exploration and combat. Real slow time exploration and combat, that is. Your ship has four different speeds; two for ahead and two for reverse, and you can stop. Your initial ship inches along the sea, even at full speed, which makes the game extremely hard to get into. Blindly plodding around a big, dark map with no direction or even very many good hints gets really old, really fast. Add to that the fact that you need to keep your ship stocked with fuel and food, and the survival elements just become a tedious bore. Early on, money is hard to come by, which limits your ability to explore. Grinding for money to get a better ship – or at least a faster engine – is slow-going and the payoff is that you get to do more of the same, just slightly faster.
Combat is similarly limited early on. There are a few types of low-level creatures and pirates to fight, but you run into fairly powerful enemies early on, too. Your only hope is to (slowly) run away and hope they don’t follow too far. It takes time and erodes resources to do so, further extending the grind and diminishing the overall experience. And this, most of all, is what I didn’t like about Sunless Sea; the core gameplay takes too long to get to a state where it doesn’t feel like a chore to play. It takes time to get used to the controls to begin with, but even once that’s happened, the game doesn’t pick up the pace.
The Zee’s Bounty
It’s not all doom and gloom, however; OK, yeah, the in-game atmosphere is all doom and gloom, but the player’s experience has its bright spots, is what I mean. As you discover and enter different ports, you encounter semi-randomized events that play out as choose-your-own-adventure style prose pieces. You can use your skills to resolve these encounters with varying degrees of success, but even in failure you may get something useful. If you win, you get glittering prizes, maybe some stat bonuses, and probably some good experiences to share around the zee. If you fail, you’ll maybe lose some crew members or supplies, but you’ll get a negative experience, which still has some value to the right people around the zee.
But those aren’t the rewards I care about; the richly immersive text that accompanies these adventures is easily the high point of Sunless Sea. Because of the open nature of its narrative as opposed to a more tightly-focused, character-driven adventure, Sunless Sea doesn’t reach the breathtaking heights of, say, a Planescape: Torment, but it comes darn close. More than anything else in the game, the writing sets the mood for your captains’ adventures and does the heaviest lifting in terms of building the world of Fallen London. If you put in the legwork and time commitment required to finish the questlines offered by your captain or crew members, you will be rewarded with fascinating tales of terror, adventure, and – once in a very long while – vindication.
Paced Itself Out Of Atmosphere
Perhaps it is merely a failure of my own imagination, but I never really felt any of the tension that I’ve read is supposed to be the game’s signature. After experiences like the Resident Evil 2 and 3 remakes, the barebones graphics and painfully slow pace of Sunless Sea felt more tedious than tense. The atmosphere was dark, certainly, but that was more a factor of the game’s color palette than anything related to the experience. Watching my ship slowly, painfully cross the sea in search of nebulous goals didn’t engender any feelings of suspense or terror, but rather an excess of boredom between nuggets of rich text-based adventures.
Sunless, Can’t See
Like I said above, this game is dark, visually. Sure, the themes of the story get pretty dark too, but the graphics team really took that motif to heart. Even the areas ringed in light are dark; they even found a way to make white clouds look dark. Everything’s so dark the game just feels oppressive to play; this game was so dark it would turn me goth for the rest of the day when I played it. More seriously, it was so dark I could hardly make out the details on the screen at times, especially when I was playing undocked; islands were just slightly lighter areas with a few muddy/shadowy buildings scattered about. There wasn’t really a whole lot of variety to the different islands; certainly, they had different features and sizes, but the similar color schemes (lots of black, gray, and very, very dark green and blue) were all similar. Combined with the slow pace of movement, the visuals became tired and monotonous very quickly as well.
Unter the Zee
The Zubmariner expansion is great to have already bundled together with the base game on the Switch. It essentially doubles the game’s explorable area; you can look under and above the zee pretty much anywhere. The stuff you find down there is more pretty much more of the same from an exploration standpoint; some landmarks, some settlements, and some enemies. You can fight, loot, and explore them pretty much the same way you always did, so if you were already into the base game, there’s nothing but good times ahead in your zubmarine. IF you were already into the main game.
“Sunless” Is Accurate
Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition is most decidedly not for everyone. Its plodding pace and excruciatingly slow start will scare off a lot of players; heck, if I didn’t have to write this review, it would have sent me running before I’d even put in an hour. For the sake of the game’s engaging prose, I’m at least partially glad I stuck around for a while, but overall it is tough to recommend a game that left me so cold. Sailing, combat, and the dark aesthetic are 90% of the experience, and I couldn’t find a way to get into any of those aspects of the game. One of the things I respect about Sunless Sea is that it doesn’t care at all if I found a way to exist in its waters; it doesn’t seem like the Unterzee wants me there anyway. I’m happy to oblige it in that respect, but if you’re the type of gamer who will accept any challenge just because it’s there, this is your game.
Buy Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
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*A game code was provided for review purposes