If there’s one subject video games love to explore, it’s death. A very popular topic, used both as positive and negative aspects within gaming. Gameplay will often use it as a mark of failure, ending or restarting the game when the central character passes away. With the rise of Dark Souls, death has had its meaning shifted. Rather than marking the end, it’s seen as a learning experience. Mechanics are built to reward success, rather than punish for failures. It’s this style of making death not mean the end, that Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition, looks to take and evolve.
The game is a fairly unique with its concept alone, as it’s primarily a visual novel. The vast majority of the gameplay involves large blocks of text. There are plenty of visuals, and the game also features some combat in the style of ship warfare, but the main focus is still on the writing.
One thing to note is that the game utilizes a vast number uncommon terms, as well as alterations of known words. For example, the body of water you explore is known as a”zee”, rather than “sea”. All this would have been par for the course, if it was introduced in the proper manner. The lack of a strong, or nearly any form of tutorial, is something that immediately creates a huge barrier of entry.
This issue expands as you realize that terms, such as ‘heart’, ‘iron’, and ‘pages’, are at the core of performing tasks. As a story-based game, you find yourself traveling to different ports, the locale of which is only described rather than shown. Certain challenges are unlocked based on a multitude of different factors, with certain events have various levels of difficulty. By having a higher score in one of your stats, the chance of success rises, which allows you to progress in the story.
The ports also showcase events that remain locked or out of reach, and I find that more off-putting than enthralling. There are vast amounts of one of a kind unlockables in both items and lore pieces, and trying to figure out the train of logic behind them all can induce headache. Rather than present possible future events, I would rather be told what I can do, regardless of the difficulty. Not only it would be more appealing that way, it could also unclutter the lists to help the flow and navigation of the text.
The locations you can visit are designed well enough, and the stories can be quite captivating. I say “can” and not “are”, because they rely on your mental investment into the world. While the stat-like terms can be just a bit off-putting, the unique linguistics of the world make or break the experience. Misunderstanding or missing a single word or phrase can alter your entire outlook on the story. There were points I felt walled off from getting fully immersed into the grim setting.
Plotwise, Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition is very much a “choose your own adventure game”. Starting in London, you travel the zee seeking adventure. The world has a Victorian horror to it, with a dash of steampunk and gothic in the mix. Designing your captain is fairly simple, as you choose their background and motivation. They alter the world, so that you can meet your personal goals. More often than not, though, your captain will eventually be heading down into the dark depths of the zee, meeting their fate.
Death is not the end in this game, at least as far as progress in concerned. When you inevitably die, the next captain is gifted with heirlooms or certain stats increases, allowing you to build off on their success. Dark Souls and Sunless Sea differ in the way they treat this experience. Dark Souls ties progression to the stats, and is designed to be punishing. Sunless Sea conversely rewards your progress upon each death, and even the smallest of assistance and shreds of personal experience can snowball you further in the game. By emphasizing playing, your familiarity is the driving force to the advancement.
There is, however, a missed opportunity to cement the ideology of the feature through a use of a tutorial. I believe the game should have opened with a hand holding-style scenario that detailed the description of all the stats, the basis of all the features, and ended in your character’s demise. It would have welcomed you into the world, set the tone quicker, and provided less frustrations. The lack of a solid and well-done introduction is something that, despite my eventual understanding, stuck with me my entire time with the game.
The traveling between areas is where Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition also fails, and was one of my biggest problems with the game. Starting with a decent, if average zee-fairing vessel, moving around takes some time to get the hang of. This isn’t too much of a problem until you notice the fuel and supply meters. Fuel in particular depletes quickly, and the majority of my captains died not due to trying to overthrow a kingdom or from terrors of the seas, but rather from running out of fuel.
Your ship moves at a snail’s pace at best, and there’s a large amount of downtime between the interesting, if flawed, story parts. With a little starting capital and quick fuel consumption, traversing almost feels counterproductive to start. While I do recognize that it’s incentive to upgrade your ship, which is a goal of the game, all it did for me was make me anxious while watching my meter drain like a beer at a frat party.
Speaking of the terrors of the seas, I found combat enjoyable. Scattered around the zee are enemies, from weak crustaceans to powerful warships. Maritime fighting has you and your enemy circle each other with your weapons running on cooldowns. You can fire them early at times to get a succession of quick shots off, but your accuracy lowers unless you wait a bit longer. The cooldowns only rise while you remain in the firing position, so if you have a bogey on your six, you won’t be able to charge your weapon back up. Getting into a groove of flanking your foe and keeping them from attacking, while chipping away at them, can be quite a good time.
Overall, the game is put together quite nicely. The aforementioned Victorian horror aesthetic creates a bleak world. It’s almost Lovecraftian at times, with strange silhouettes and terrifying monsters peering up from the ocean. The hand-drawn artwork is stunning at its best, and even at worst cohesive and consistent. The strong artistic design is let down by a lack of diversity with the music, but it stands well on its own.
When it comes down to it, Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition is an ambitious game that failed to ultimately capture me. Early on it discouraged me from continuous play, and while I eventually got into a rhythm, the barriers of entry still gated off levels of enjoyment. The lack of a tutorial is a major flaw, as a game with this much original language needs to provide a strong opening to capture attention. The spots that shine bright really stand out, and for those looking for a detailed and captivating story-based game, you could do worse. If you’re ready to read a lot, this is an adventure I can recommend you to embark on. If you aren’t, you’ll find yourself drowning in this zee of words.