Yeah their games have some issues.I wrote an essay about my rather mixed impressions in another forum a while ago:
This is really long and specific yet also pretty pointless. It’s really only worth reading if you are in the mood to read a long essay of questionable skill, quality and purpose and either:
- played or at least tried Sunless Sea and hated some parts of the game while liking the potential of some others and enjoy validation/counterposition/contradiction to your own impressions
- you never got into Sunless Sea and hope some weird mixed opinion report experience will maybe make you try it again, because for some reason you want to try a game you disliked again
I recently played Sunless Sea Zubmariner (the Sunless Sea expansion) and it certainly made an impression on me.
I also bought Sunless Skies Early Access and have a barrel full of thoughts on that one as well (for maybe another post).
Pearl diving in a sewage treatment vat
Travel report and voyage recommendations for a questionable choice of entertainment
Therlun’s lengthy, mostly negative thoughts on Sunless Sea; and cursory mention of a few good parts
Sunless Sea is a terrible game in most regards.
Sunless Sea game mechanics have very notably changed over the life of the game. Kickstarter, pretty long development, post release patches and changes in the Zubmariner expansion. Many things mentioned in this thread are quite different or outright didn’t apply any more to the version I played.
Yet in the end the grand picture hasn’t changed. It’s still terrible as a -game- game. Sunless Sea is fundamentally the product of a bunch of people who have no experience and no talent for game development. Even after all the alterations it still is clearly what it was at the start, an exploitative facebook grind forced into several straitjackets.
It’s hard to find a start in an ocean of salty terribleness.
The rougelike mechanics
This one is the most confusing for me. Large parts of the map are set, yet certain island locations get slightly scrambled when you switch captains (by dying or fulfilling your ambition). The actual scrambling has almost zero gameplay implications, except the added grind to “discover” everything again.
When you start a new captain you inherit some stuff. There are a few special items you can find (often with considerable work/grind behind them) that permanently provide a bonus to all future captains.
A good amount of work went into this successive captain thing. What is incomprehensible is WHY. All the storylines get reset to zero and all developments and minor decision points are as well. Parts of the game clearly are built around this idea of successive captains, yet the actual core of the game, the writing storylets, are completely separated from and don’t interact with or acknowledge the mechanic.
My guess is that at the time of the initial Kickstarter rougelike was a well selling buzzword for a certain part of the potential customers (as it is still today). Whoever was responsible for the game wrote it into the initial design document and since then the game was just stuck with it. Nobody with sense or talent had the sway to remove or even just improve that useless barnacle.
Pacing. Pacing. Pacing.
The pacing of Sunless Sea is a huge mess. In half a dozen distinct areas. This is what initially made me write this entire wall of useless text. Each one of these points is worth its own post mortem and there are a number of additional ones I won’t even mention.
Pacing William Frederick I.
The switch from player farming facebook trap to “normal” game was not easy for Sunless Sea. They didn’t need the same hard limits on the drip feed of story bits the Fallen London game relies on. They still needed some way to manage the rate and interactivity of story bits. What they decided on was to not make a decision and instead put in all the systems they could come up with randomly distributed via grapeshot.
“Progress” is tracked, triggered, influenced and blocked by an entire arsenal of approaches.
Some storylets are unlocked by play time in real word minutes/hours (and very few are made unavailable that way).
Some lines are tied to return visits to London (and then a return trip to the story location, often repeating several times) in various ways. This ranges from the need to talk to an NPC in London to getting a resource that is exclusively available in London only as a singleton. (There are also similar gates with conventional resources from other locations)
Some storylets are infinitely resettable and retryable until you reach an ending, in some every decision is deterministic for the specific captain.
Lot’s of stuff is locked behind skill checks with a wide range of difficulty.
A good amount of stuff is gated behind grinding tasks. Or chains of grinding tasks (see the Khan favour comment earlier in this thread).
Almost every single interaction with story elements is additionally and primarily gated by the so called “something awaits you” quality.
Spending 60 seconds at sea will give you this quality as a key to unlock (an attempt) at the next step of a storylet. In a good amount of cases this means progress in stories is primarily determined and constantly interrupted by mandatory pauses. Two storylets close to each other block each others progress this way as well.
Intended as a constant piecemeal drip feed of story progress (remnants of the facebook skeleton) this turns into an optimization and patience game with the most efficient solution in many cases of course being: just wait outside port for a minute doing nothing.
Pacing Augustus Frederick II.
Difficulty is tough. Even objectively great games like the new Xcoms suffer from the problem of the early game being the hardest part and the game getting easier and less of a challenge as you play a campaign. Sunless Sea manages to burst that boiler however.
Xcom’s difficulty issue stems from rewards. Getting better at the game makes the future easier. Getting promotions, technology, loot, in general getting options makes the later stages relatively easier than the very start.
Sunless Sea’s difficulty problem is the inverse, it is caused by punishment. The game punishes lack of knowledge about ingame and out of game components.
The game punishes you for not knowing its lore before you had a chance to experience and explore said lore. The game punishes you for not knowing about specific game mechanics. Many of those mechanics don’t really provide a benefit if the player knows them, they were just put into the game to punish the player if he doesn’t. Which players won’t as they aren’t explained ingame.
The game often punishes you for not knowing how storylets play out and end before you play them. Sometimes with additional grind, sometimes with simple failure.
The game punishes you for making assumptions based on conventional gaming wisdom, as it went out of its way to change and not explain the changes to those conventional game design choices.
Any person’s first session of Sunless Sea is not just hard because the problem of difficulty is tough to solve. It will be hard because a group of people with no ability in game design went out of their way to make the start of the game that way.
This was not a concious decision to make the entire game hard or dangerous. Only those first few hours without any knowledge are. As you break that threshold you will be barraged by easy, unbalanced, exploitable, farmable sources of everything and danger will vanish.
As you keep playing most of the difficulty will disappear, with some parts only remaining as annoying grind.
Pacing Henry III.
Combat is shit. Me constantly referring to the creators as lacking talent for game design is meant to sound harsh. Few things support it more than the combat system though. It is cumbersome, unbalanced, incompetent and most importantly pointless. Besides some grinding applications (because of course) it only adds annoyances.
The game switched from a turn based system to on-map real time combat early in development. The result is simplistic yet bothersome. It only detracts from the game by exclusively adding negative things. It’s easily avoidable and not dangerous at all except in cases where you are forced to fight to advance a storylet (mostly through farming something). It is utterly unrewarding in both lore or ingame rewards, with a minuscule amount of exceptions found through trial and error, and grind.
I’m not saying a turn based system would be better. I’m saying the developers are so clueless about game design they failed to grasp even the tiniest sliver of the actual problem that made them switch the systems. They replaced horse shit with pig shit for wall paint when their goal was making a window.
Interlude before the but;
Spoilers and cheats improve your enjoyment of everything. If you apply them with precision
There are a few things you can do that make Sunless Sea notably better and you won’t like them.
Cheat engine has a speedhack option which just multiplies the speed the game runs. No specific script table for this game, just the basic speedhack option. Setting a hotkey for 3x speed and another for 1x speed quickly creates your own fast forward option. The game really, really benefits from this. Exploring the map for the first time is fine -ish. Further travels (and/or future captains) however will have to put up with really slow travel speed after that exploration phase in the base game. Combat being annoying, pointless and easily avoidable the game really cries our for a fast forward mode. My guess is the developers never really played the game themselves normally and never experienced the need for such an option. Interesting tidbit: using that speedhack option on the Sunless Skies EA version not only gave me the ability to speed up the game but also its loading screens. Which extends my proposition for their lack of experience and talent from just game design to programming as well.
The second, and truly evil, suggestion is that the game gets much better by using the game’s wiki to play along with it. This is not necessarily a sign of the end times. My favourite example is heavily modified Minecraft, which depending on the mod package benefits from varying degrees of complementary wiki usage.
In Sunless Sea it’s not as straight forward of course. It is a complex balancing act. You need the precision and self control to not spoil actual story parts. You need the poise to not mind the cases where you inadvertently do spoil a little too much.
Of course you also need the initial ability to contemplate playing a game in such a way without getting a heart attack…
If you read this far I hope I made clear that this whole thing is not a defense nor a sales pitch for Sunless Sea. I’m not saying the game becomes more worth trying if you do these things.
I’m saying that if anyone does play Sunless Sea these things definitely, objectively make it better by reducing the terribleness of some bad parts.
Like a study about a specific snake venom do with this information whatever you want.
It’s a game carried by writing, only rarely narratives.
Is that brightness I see in the distance?
Sunless Sea has many storylets of different sizes. Experiencing these is the meat of the game. Not all of them are great, not all of them are inspired but on the whole they are entertaining, well written and based within a solid and extensive world background. Some are actually really good after you overcome the pacing and grinding issues inexplicably grafted onto them.
They don’t interact with mechanics and they don’t form narratives beyond the focused story they individually tell though. You are not experiencing a world, you are not experiencing a story (much less determining it). You are more of an archeologist finding out about stories that happened, observing instead of participating.
I picked the gaining immortality ambition of the expansion as my main story goal because that’s the only real ambition and the only real ambition the game offered. (Wealth or fame? Something something my father? What kind of stupid life’s ambitions are those?!)
Incidentally it is also the only selectable ambition in the game that isn’t 100% grind (wealth or fame) or 90% grind (something something my father).
There are several ambitions of different size you can unlock and attempt later in the game (you can only complete one ambition per captain). Most of them are better than stupid wealth or fame but immortality is still the best by far in all gaming aspects.
I won’t spoil immortality chain story details themselves, but I will explain some of the surrounding gameplay mechanisms and revelations.
The immortality chain has you visit the new expansion underwater locations a lot. Your goal is to find out about the failed attempt of seven people to claim immortality and how you can do better. As you go you will meet most of these seven. They all have backstories and their own storylet quests. It’s fun to explore these and the locations they ended up in.
You then assemble your own team. Some of the seven can be convinced to try again with you, some can be replaced, some have to be replaced. The game is really flexible here concerning the results of the individual quest lines for these people and possible replacements.
After a lot of interesting story and questing you have your team assembled.
Now it’s time to plan your approach to getting immortality!
Observing their backstories and their pasts, discussing their current situations -is- the ambition. Once you complete that part the game -literally- just provides three paragraphs about how you do “the thing” and are now immortal and won the game.
You get to know these people and some of their history. Never reaching say Mask of the Betrayer, Planescape Torment or Torment Numenera levels this ambition’s grand storylet still manages to be in similar flavour and occasionally can dream of reaching similar heights. But after the initial taste it’s over. You are only there to observe the past, get told about things that happened. The things you -do- happen but don’t really matter. Are apparently not really worth telling.
It’s not a narrative, it’s a museum visit. The creators of this universe want you to look at all these exhibits and read all their neat plaques.
It’s a sixteen parted novel about you observing different fish in an aquarium. And a single paragraph newspaper clipping about you killing Superman and curing cancer based on your aquarium observations and conclusions (those observations and conclusions not explained in either).
The museum visit itself is fine. It was fun. The sixteen parts about observing fish are interesting. But you were promised Superman’s heart and a way to save your testicles from abnormal cell growth and those parts were skipped for some reason.
There is Sunlight, even down here!
Sunless Sea is not a great game. It even is a pretty bad one.
It has some very enjoyable parts as an experience. The atmosphere, the world building (I fucking love world building), sound, some mechanics (unmentioned because drowned in terribleness) all occasionally are great. But even those just as occasionally crash like an airliner into an orphanage.
Yet in the end I not only was interested enough to try the Sunless Skies EA I also cannot say that I regret my time with Sunless Sea.
If I dislike something I have no problem ignoring it.
If I think something has some super bad components yet is still worth playing/watching I have no problem doing that and never expending much energy thinking about it, attacking or defending it.
Sunless Sea was neither of those for me. Despite all… this (points upwards) and more.
As the one true King said: "A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good."
I definitely do not recommend Sunless Sea.
But if you don’t care about endings. If you can ignore or circumvent scores of terrible game design choices. If you enjoy background and a big world. Then despite its many, many weaknesses and flaws Sunless Sea provides some very nourishing entertainment.
Nobody -should- play it for that. I’d say it’s tough to find a player where all the effort is worth it.
But if you do play it, for whatever reason, you -can- reap that.
disclaimer: Ages past in high school I did a scientific internship at a sewage treatment plant. There wasn’t any bad smell because all the areas for the smelly parts to be removed were covered/closed systems. It smelled a lot like soap and detergent though, because those areas weren’t covered.
Not directly related in any way to Sunless Sea. The random headline I chose just made me remember it.
If you read everything (or even a good part :P) of this, thanks! and congratulations.
Besides game related responses I would also appreciate comments and (harsh!) criticism on how readable it was. Did it turn into boring rambling? Was it impossible to follow? Was it boring to follow?