Escape Velocity

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Sunless Sea is a steampunk rogue-like game in which you steer a small ship over the vast procedurally generated Unterzee, encountering islands, port cities, dangerous Zee-creatures and other ships with which to interact. With writing that borders both on horror and on the bizarre, the atmosphere harkens back to the writings of Coleridge and Poe. As you set sail, beware of your supplies running out, but if you return safely to Fallen London, you are sure to be rewarded by the admiralty for your news from distant shores and your reports on the plans of the Khanate.

Sunless Sea

The gameplay of Sunless Sea is rather simple: top down, you view your ship sailing the Zee, steering through the mist toward the islands you see appearing on the edge of your screen. There is combat, but it is limited: you have an indication of your broadside range and a button for ‘fire’, and that’s about it. In port, you can play through quests and interact with shops and officials through simple text and conversation menus with little tidbits of charming art. 

Sunless Sea has many elements of a traditional rogue-like game, where you start with very little and are encouraged to slowly build up skills and resources over multiple playthroughs, with each character passing on certain aspects to their successor after their death. Each new character faces a completely new layout of the Zee, though many of the islands and places you’ve seen before will be out there again. 

Whilst the game’s atmosphere is amazing and the stories are fun, I found that the game is very slow-paced, causing me to put on a podcast as I was sailing around. I thoroughly enjoyed my first playthrough (though I stranded fuelless somewhere on the dark waters).  After the first one, however, I found that I encountered fewer and fewer new islands and stories, while actual progression towards a better ship, a faster engine, or increased skills was painfully slow. I found that I would have rather played the game without constraints, sailing and exploring until I had found everything there was to be seen, than grind my way through the progression system by ferrying passengers or goods back and forth between the same ports for a slight profit ten times. 

I want to say that my two-and-a-half star rating here is very personal – I can easily imagine someone else rating this game five stars and I would completely understand. But I am in a position where I like the content in my video games to be more condensed – and Sunless Sea simply does not offer that experience. I did really enjoy the atmosphere during the 10 hours that I played, and I would recommend this game to people looking for a laid-back exploration experience with the time and patience to build your way up through the game’s slow progression system. I’m convinced the developers have hidden some gems of stories behind higher-level places like the Cumean Canal, where stories of The Surface run down into the Unterzee…

Sunless Sea was recommended to me by a friend. I played it for about 18 hours in total, which consisted of three or four ‘playthroughs’. Although there were certainly elements I enjoyed, I found I was somewhat disappointed on the whole.

Like Peter also concisely describes in his review of the game, Sunless Sea’s gameplay is fairly simple, but also very slow-paced. I liked the exploration aspect, travelling through fog to discover new islands and stories, but quickly tired of the resource management that was required of me. Ferrying between the same islands for a tiny profit felt more like a chore than a pleasure. A life of commerce is apparently not for me…

However, after some grinding I was able to obtain a mansion, a will and a faster engine. I experienced some gripping tales – one involving a scary Santa Claus and a melting child, another left me with a Hesperidean Apple, which felt like a worthy achievement? – that were the highlights of my playing time. The storytelling and (cosmic horror) atmosphere of this game are its strong points.

I’m sure I have many stories left to uncover in the Unterzee. However, last time I played, my patience for the endless sailing had run dry. I might pick it up again in the future, though. People who don’t mind a little grinding, might find this game right up their alley.

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