Tobold's Blog
Thursday, July 11, 2019
Sunless Sea

I’ve been playing Sunless Sea on my iPad for several days now. It is a game with a great setting, somewhere between steampunk and gothic horror. Unlike its predecessor Fallen London it also has a gameplay beyond clicking through text: In Sunless Sea you control a ship exploring a large map, including getting into ship combat. However gameplay clearly isn’t the strong suite of Failbetter Games, and that ultimately lets down the game.

I have recently finished Out of the Abyss, a D&D campaign playing in the Underdark. Sunless Sea imagines a Victorian London having sunk into something very much like the Underdark, or rather the Darklake. There is a lot of fun to be had exploring this weird setting. Every new harbor you find has new stories to tell. Often you need to transport things from A to B in order to advance these stories, which gives you some motivation for your ship travel. At the start of the game you can set yoursellf a story goal, e.g. find and bury the bones of your father, and you “win” by fulfilling this goal and retiring.

I don’t know how many more hours it would take for me to win the game, because I already got tired of constantly losing it. Sunless Sea is designed to be lost. It is a survival game in which you can easily run out of fuel, food, crew, or hull strength, and die. You can then pass on some of your stuff to your next character, but even if you have a son and made a will, your death is a huge setback. You can die a lot less by save scumming (in the default mode you only get the autosave, but you can switch to manual saving). But even if you do that, the game remains very tough and progress is very slow. If you take enough fuel and supplies for a long journey, you have very little cargo space left. While trading goods between ports is possible, profits are slim. It takes forever to get enough money for a better ship, and even then you are still stuck with a small cargo space, as the ships with more space are unaffordably expensive.

But the fundamental design flaw in Sunless Sea is that story-based exploration and survival doesn’t mix well. I understand the appeal of rogue-likes and survival games, in which every new game starts in a new, random environment. That isn’t the case in Sunless Sea; there is some minor rearrangement of the tiles that constitute the map, but the stories and characters remain the same. Your umpteenth captain is going to again transport the same tomb-colonist to the city just to the north of London, starting the same story about rescuing her father for the umpteenth time. Needless to say that gets old pretty fast.

So I am avoiding death through save scumming now. I have a pretty good fighting ship, well equipped and with a full set of officers now. I am well advanced in the story about recovering my father’s bones. I have explored most of the map and know what I must do to finish that story. But I won’t. Because once you visited most places and have heard the initial stories, and understood the gameplay well, “winning” the game is just a tedious exercise of sailing your ship all over the map for many long hours to gather all the required items to advance the story. The game simply runs out of fun long before you reach the win condition.

Overall I had enough hours of fun with Sunless Sea to not regret the purchase price. But I am not yet sure whether I want to buy the successor, Sunless Skies. I really likes the world of Sunless Sea, but found the gameplay to be underwhelming in the long run.

I prefer Fallen London to Sunless Seas. I lasted several weeks in the former but only a couple of sessions in the free trial version of the latter.

There's a huge range of games using the same engine available from StoryNexus if you want to investigate the fascinating genre further. Most of them are free. Quality, inevitably with player-driven projects, varies but there are some gems.
I felt similarly - story is nice, but some devs nowadays seem to think a little story goes further than it should, even in a repetitive environment that could use a bit more work on game mechanics.

I think I would have persevered more if the combat was turn-based, though as you say save-scumming can work too.
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