Among all the roguelike games that I’ve been hoping to see make an appearance on my Xbox One, Sunless Sea is perhaps right at the top of the list. I love the idea of exploring an expansive sea filled with mystery and danger, and with what I’d heard about the quirky and smart narrative elements, Sunless Sea was an attractive proposition.
As a bit of background first, the version of Sunless Sea that has made it onto Xbox One (as well as PS4 and Nintendo Switch) includes the Zubmariner DLC, which allows players to switch their more traditional boat for a submersible one — surprise, surprise! Personally, I’ve had about ten or so hours playing the base game, and only a brief dalliance with the submarine, so please take this as an impression of the game rather than a detailed review.
So, let’s shove off, as they say. Firstly Sunless Sea will ask the player to create a character. This is done, in classic roguelike form, by clicking on things that you can’t possibly understand at this point in your career with the game. This option provides more hearts, that one provides more iron. This one does nothing just now, but later, it might do something. OK, thanks.
Sunless Sea is particularly bad at this, and the feeling of confusion will prevail throughout your first game, some of your second, maybe a bit of your third and then sporadically as new elements of the game are revealed in every later playthrough. As is also standard for roguelike games, death, during those first few plays, will come quickly.
You start the game with a tugboat equipped with a crap cannon and a rubbish engine, and you’ll have meagre supplies and little direction. This is linked to the feeling of confusion that I’ve mentioned above — Sunless Sea doesn’t give you much. You’ll probably meet with the Admiralty in your home city of London, and you may pick up a stranger. At best, you’ll have two or three destinations written in your journal and a rough bearing towards at least one of them, but that’s it.
Enemies include icebergs and giant crabs as well as both pirate and revolutionary ships. However you’ll also be up against features of the actual landscape such as storms or whirlpools. Most of these are avoidable, but the more effort you put into escaping, the more likely you’ll burn through your fuel and/or your food supplies. Having your hull depleted to zero, or running out of supplies will, after a brief period of suffering in the latter case, kill you. Death in Sunless Sea is permanent.
One nice feature which I think harks back to older roguelike games that came around at the same time as Sunless Sea hit the PC is the idea of a legacy. In games that are this hard and punishing (Sunless Sea does offer a softer mode) it becomes normal for your character to “pass something onto” the next. In this case, the player can choose what their legacy is, and the more competent you get, the more of a leg up this provides.
The meat of your time in Sunless Sea will be spent sailing from one location to another, and exploration is a huge part of the game. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but the hints I gave above about meeting with the Admiralty in London are just the tip of the iceberg. These first missions suggest that visiting new shores and collecting port reports is a good way to begin your career, and in doing so, you’ll end up meeting more and more new and varied people.
The story is all delivered through text and multiple choice decisions, many of which come with a test that will be rendered against one of the stats I mentioned earlier (hearts, iron etc.) Sunless Sea has a very unique writing style that is quite olde-worlde and often elaborate, and whilst this may not be for everyone, I really do enjoy it.
What works less well in its favour is that the structure around this written dialogue is quite obtuse. Each choice has a little image next to it that will articulate the actual effects of your choice — whether that be a loss of coins, a gain of crew members or whatever else might transpire. This took me time to get used to, and unfortunately when I did, it became quite reductive — I no longer read the dialogue, I simply moved through the different choices and assessed the outcomes.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it would be far worse for the outcomes of every decision to be secret (and it’s good that some are, where the dialogue reflects the uncertainty of the situation) but I’m not sure that I enjoyed how a game that is shrouded in so much mystery lays the outcome of so many key events bare in the way that Sunless Sea does. Hey ho though, this is very much a personal preference.
Now I did mention that Sunless Sea on Xbox One also includes the Zubmariner DLC, and I should mention that. When above the sea, you’ll obviously sail to and from ports, engage enemies in (mostly) cannon based gunfights, and move items from port to port. Explaining how the Zubmarines work needs a bit more context about the world, and for that, you need to know that the sunless sea that gives the game its title is in fact, a second sea that exists below the surface world in which we (in reality) dwell.
Collecting a zubmarine is relatively straightforward, and once you have one, you’ll be able to switch between the sub and your surface ship more or less at will. Exploring the Unterzee is even more challenging than the surface, and the animated shipwrecks and gargantuan leviathans that roam it will absolutely kill you if you don’t come prepared — in particular by upgrading your ship several times.
Whilst points of interest are fewer and further between in Unterzee, the rewards can be well worth it. Settlements are a little different, and there are wrecks and sunken cities to explore, as well as many a fallen beast to harvest. What I will say about Sunless Sea with this DLC is that it takes an already huge game and — more or less — doubles it.
There’s a lot more I could actually say about Sunless Sea, and with the way it structures its missions and dialogue being the only real issue that I found with the game, I’d say that anything I did say would be pretty positive. The problem is that Sunless Sea is a huge and complex game. I haven’t mentioned about 3-4 other resources, nor the presence (and favour or displeasure) of Gods. I haven’t explained ship and crew upgrades or a myriad of other features in the game.
I don’t even think that I mentioned how the dark, green-tinged visuals bring the experience together with the elaborate text, and the foreboding music (which goes gurgly when underwater) ices the cake. This is a daunting game that has a lot going on and a lot of hidden mechanisms and complex stories, most of which you won’t see on any handful of playthroughs, but it’s never grim — it’s exciting, challenging and very deeply satisfying.
Overall then, I really enjoyed almost everything about Sunless Sea despite feeling that I’ve barely even scratched the surface of the game. Sure, I’ve seen about half of what happens above the surface (purely seen it mind, not necessarily experienced it) and barely even dipped my toes into what lies beneath. Sunless Sea is a superb experience, and one that every console owner should think about diving into.