REVIEW: Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition

Listen to the story this sea dog is about to tell ya, folks, while I empty my mug. A story about the zee hidden under the horizon. The zee the people from the Fallen London is now decades livin’ within. Oh, but I may be gettin’ ahead of myself here, son. If you have never heard about the old ‘Fallen London’, let me tell ya about it first. Fallen London is a 10 years old free text-based browser game set in a subterranean city inhabited by Victorian Londoners, disgusting talking rats and squid-faced people.

I cannot recall what took London to the Unterzee, but I can tell you how difficult our life in this sunless zee has been. These dark waters inhabited by monstrozities like Megalops, abyssal zquids an’ giant crabs – just to mention to you the ones I’ve already faced (and survived!) to tell ya about it. But there are many, many more terrors hidden in this godforzaken place so close to hell. Now you will excuze me ‘cause I have got a ship waiting for me at the harbor. The zee is callin’ for me, mate.

Fallen London and Sunless Sea are both fruits from the twisted (but utmost creative!) minds of developers from the UK studio Failbetter Games. First released in the remote year of 2015 for PC, it is a very well-received indie that holds a score of 81 in Metacritic. The ‘Zubmariner Edition’ from its name refers to the DLC Zubmariner, released in 2016, that comes in this package recently released for your favorite console.

In this 2D roguelike survival game, you will recruit officers and sailors for your crew, equip and upgrade your ship to face human enemies and menaces come from the deep zee while writing your own story. And never forget to Keep your crew’s terror and hunger at bay or you will face regrettable consequences that include quarrels, nightmares, madness mutiny, between others. In this adventure, you are free to be who you want to be and to write your destiny by the choices you make while exploring the Sunless Sea. Now get aboard: we are about to depart.

Most of the time, this is going to be all you will see in your screen

What we liked!

  • Visuals: The overall visuals of Sunless Sea are impressive. The level of detail in its scenarios is remarkable. The movement of waves cracking as your ship passes by, the many different islands for you to discover, the underwater terrain and hidden constructions under the water veil are perfect to create a feeling of isolation and despair. Menus try to emulate an old notebook worn out by the zee air and your hud has a copper-based color palette that refers to the steam machines that move this Victorian society of the late 19th century. Each new port you visit is represented in your notebook by a gloomy and interesting illustration – although this same quality can’t be seen in characters portraits. But it’s just a matter of opinion here.
  • Roguelike gameplay: The game is all about discovering: you will explore the underworld sea searching for new islands, civilizations and quests to attend, always keeping an eye to your fuel and supplies stocks – ‘cause you don’t want to be adrift succumbing to fear, despair and hunger, do you? And if the zee claims for your soul – and yes, it will – you will need to start a new journey with a different Captain that can inherit some of the knowledge, crew, wealth or equipment from your previous adventure, starting a new one from scratch, with a different captain, a different crew and a different Underzee to explore.
  • Looking for quests: While anchored in one of the ports of this dark world, you will be able to explore cities looking for shops ready to replenish your stocks and people willing to offer you new quests and missions. While on the sea, you will be able to interact with your crew. If you manage to gain their trust (try inviting them for dinner… maybe something will happen), sometimes interacting with them may open new missions related to their backstory – and each one of them has a different one for you to explore. It’s nice to see that your crew is actually important to the development of the story.
  • Huge replayability: I don’t know if it’s possible to unlock all story trials in a single run (personally, I doubt it), but that’s great if you’re looking for some more replayability in your games. Maybe you don’t care about achievements and all this shining stuff and just want to fully explore a game (like we used to do back in the day). No problem: Sunless Sea will have you covered for quite some time.
Although you live in the Underzee, you can still visit the surface

Somewhere between

  • Prepare your reading glasses: If you were expecting an action game, you better look somewhere else. This game is all about exploration and discovery and you will need to read A LOT. There’s little to no explanation about this world, your objectives, quests and so. Even the small pieces of the story I placed at the intro were only available after a long time in the zee (and the developers’ website). So, if you don’t like to spend time reading about the game story or world (what in the case of Sunless Sea has a huge amount of information for you), you better stay away from this title.
  • Ready for some nightmares? I have already praised some games that use the absence of sound in their favor, building up the tension and thrill as you explore the unknown, presenting remarkable soundtracks and great sound effects when available. With Sunless Sea things are a little different: your voyages, when not completely silent, will be accompanied by a sinister melody that helps to build the tension. The problem is that its constant repetition sounds like a missed opportunity to deliver something truly remarkable. Unfortunately, the same can be said about its sound effects: the sound of your enemies attacks and your guns miss on impact, with the most prominent sound you will hear (and remember) being the sound of menus and options being selected over and over again, harbor after harbor.
  • Economy: The economy in Sunless Sea is one of the most complex and most intriguing ones I have already seen in a game (I believe its due to its origin as a browser game). Echo is the only currency shops accept in these dark waters to sell you fuel, supplies or other goods. But other characters and institutions are willing for other more valuable things like information, hunt or even souls. There’s a good array of opportunities for you to get those precious items you need the most – as long as you’re willing to get them what they want. Most of the time I was feeling like Risky from Everybody Hates Chris! But something that had me concerned during all my time exploring the Underzee is how expensive things are. There’s a good difference in the prices of goods and services from one port to another, but exploring these waters will not be cheap, my friend. This game doesn’t take you by the hand like some others do (and I applaud Failbetter Games for that!), but there was no need to throw me from the fridge right into the fire.
Where I left my reading glasses?

What we disliked

  • Bad first impression with the UI: When I first started playing this game, I had some trouble finding myself in apparently endless menus and options to choose from. It took me precious minutes to understand how things work in this game and what I needed to do to raise my anchors and explore the game world. Later, after understanding the basic mechanics, it stopped being something frustrating to become only boring. But since the game offers you little explanation about what to do or where to go, the initial navigation could be a little more player-friendly. Yes, there is a tutorial indeed. But it only shows up as more and more information thrown at you at the beginning of the game.
  • Waters may be too quiet: You know,I am a very patient person. I mean a VERY patient person. The kind of person who usually doesn’t mind taking long lines in the supermarket or waiting or spending hours on the telephone with the cellphone company to correct something they have done wrong. No, don’t take me for someone who enjoys this kind of suffering, but if I must face it, so be it. The point here is that even with all this tolerance and serenity, traveling through the Underzee was painful. I love the exploration and this sense of discovering each mile of the map, but the absence of action while you do it almost killed me during this review! For real! Even though sometimes you face an enemy ship (or two) or a zee monster, the boredom hit me right after. And as your initial ship is not the fastest there is and objectives are considerably far from each other, each back and forth travel let like a suicide mission to me. To the point I can have my ship navigating on its own and write this review for you. Or go to the bathroom (just consider that as long as you don’t hit anything in your way, you’re good to go at any time).
  • Combat system: My last complaint about the game is about what I most had expectations about: its combat system. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the intense sea warfare from games like Assassin’s Creed One or World of Warships and I was expecting something similar here. Or maybe the real-time battle system of Sunless Sea is actually not interesting. When close to an enemy, you can activate battle mode and attack (and be attacked by) enemies on the reach of your radar. Attacking requires you to have the enemies in your reach and to be correctly positioned in front of you (or almost in front of you). You can use your weapons when enemies are within reach and position by pressing the assigned buttons. Your ship can equip up to three different weapons and bring along some consumables like flares or fish food (not going to give you any spoil about what it is used for) to the fight. But the fight consists of trying to get a better position than your enemy (preferably behind him and away from the reach of his guns, it’s a human ship or away from it if it’s a zee monster) in a zee dogfight that will keep repeating over and over. I must confess my ship wasn’t up to the task of most of the challenges I’ve faced, constantly in need to return to London for repairing it. Maybe I wasn’t prepared enough for the challenges of the Underzee.
When the combat is the most uninteresting aspect of a game…

Score: 65%
I felt a little disappointed with Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition. The game offers a great experience in a lore-rich world, but I’m afraid most players won’t be able to experience it to the fullest. It brings some neat ideas and a remarkably interesting world to explore, but the slow gameplay pace and strenuous exploration elements may be a challenge even for players who are used to this kind of challenge in survival games. I did my best trying to fully explore it, but the deeper I dived, the less I could hear the Siren Song that makes this game so interesting.

Written by Rafael

Xbox writer for LifeisXbox

Between an Excel spreadsheet and trying to conquer the world (one game at a time), he’s ready to share his experiences about every title he plays. Be it to praise a game or to bash it, you will always find an honest opinion in his texts.