Being the captain of a sea vessel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When I signed up I imagined sun-drenched beaches, buried treasures and a parrot on my shoulder. Instead, I have a rationing problem which sees my crew needing to draw straws to see who we eat first. There is a giant sea monster about to attack us from the shadowy depths and I can’t afford any more fuel, so we are stranded, pretty much waiting to die. But thankfully, with Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition there is something that keeps me coming back; back for more misery and more time spent on the sunless ocean waves.
Before I really begin, I have a confession – I didn’t really take to Sunless Sea straight away. But slowly, surely, and after many deaths, I became completely hooked. It’s a game that will draw you in, and once it does it will very rarely let you go.
The setting is London in 1888, but not London as we know it, and we find Sunless Sea choosing to mix steampunk ideas with Lovecraftian lore, creating its own recipe that feels unique and mysterious. We find out that London has fallen, stolen and dragged underground by bats. Yes, you heard me right, bats. Due to this we are left in an underground world – The Neath – surrounded by a dark sunless ocean that is waiting to be discovered.
To start with you get to choose your ‘Zailor’. There are a number of choices, and you may choose to run as an ex-military officer, a priest or maybe a street urchin. You also get to choose your purpose for heading out across the ocean, whether it be with the sole intention of searching for the remains of your dead father or looking for divine answers. When you have chosen then you’re away on an adventure of a lifetime.
The gameplay is split up into two distinct parts, the first of which works a bit like a visual novel, all with a heavy dose of ‘choose your own adventure’ elements thrown in. When you arrive at a location you are presented with a visual drawing of where you are and choices about where you would like to explore and who you would like to talk to. The choices you make here will determine whether you gain knowledge and artifacts, or gain and lose certain attributes, or get into a lot of trouble. The writing in these sections is extremely good with some lovely prose and great world-building. The docking locations you find will also allow you the chance to buy supplies and trade as well, recruiting and befriending new crew members for your ship who will give you extra abilities while at sea.
The second bit comes about after your decision-making is decided, as you are left to launch from the dock out into the world of the sunless sea. Here your ship moves slowly along, portrayed on a top-down map as you keep a keen eye on gauges which initially measure your fuel levels. It will be up to you to keep the fuel supply up, or you will find yourself stranded in the ocean, left to contemplate the most horrid of options as you take your chance with the fates. You’ll also need to keep a beady one on the ration levels as they are used up as you travel the ocean waves. Thankfully you can top up your supplies at the ports, or by trading with other ships. Again though, should they run out you may just be left to draw straws, possibly needing to partake in a bit of cannibalism. The final gauge to look out for is that of the terror bar, that can increase due to you being attacked by creatures or making certain choices.
You see, during your journey you will meet enemy ships, sea creatures and, later on, huge bosses. It is here where a battle mode comes about, consisting of you moving around, firing cannons at enemies; praying that they reload quick enough to fire off more damage. I’ll admit, after the intrigue that the rest of Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition provides, this is my least favourite element of the gameplay, unable to pique my interest for long. Running and hiding is best, if only because repairing your ship – or upgrading it if you wish – costs precious money.
Death will occur in Sunless Sea, yet when it does the journey isn’t over as you get the opportunity to pick up the lineage from your previous captain, inheriting some of their money, crew, and knowledge. This is a pretty cool idea and it works well, allowing the chance for you to feel that you are always playing as part of a bigger story; one with many characters who contribute to the larger narrative at play.
Also included here with Sunless Sea on Xbox One is the extra Zubmariner content – I’d only really suggest you take this in after you’ve spent time with the main game. Here you travel south, picking a submarine and venturing under the water to explore new worlds, different secrets and multiple stories.
The visuals of Sunless Sea work in two parts, much like the gameplay. There are beautifully illustrated text scenes and then a glorious tabletop view of your vessel venturing out across the ocean. I love the style and the brilliant tones of all the visuals on offer – if you’re into your graphic novels and steampunk worlds then there is a lot to like here. The darkness and expanse of the world hold plenty of promise and adventure around each corner too, and this is all complemented by the soundtrack which has a very ominous feel, working great in context with the action of the screen. There is no voice-over work, but all the effects work brilliantly in creating the atmosphere of the game.
Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition on Xbox One is a game that gets better every time you die. It is this which brings a great sense of a big wide world that needs discovering, as you are constantly tempted back in with a new character and the promise of a new story. The battle system isn’t my favorite element as it takes you out of the story somewhat, and it’s certainly easy to feel overwhelmed at the beginning with a host of information pushed your way. But should you be able to keep faith with the game, then you’ll discover a fascinating piece of storytelling that you will be thinking about for months to come – all as you dream of the Sunless Sea.