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Sunless Sea is, to my shame, not a title I was all that familiar with. The Failbetter Games-developed indie darling has been available on various platforms since 2015, yet its compelling Lovecraftian/steampunk blend and nautical exploration has eluded me for one reason or another. The long and short of it, I think, it's that I'm an ignorant swine.
But enough excuses. I've now rectified a horrible mistake and have finally played Sunless Sea, courtesy of the brand-new Nintendo Switch port for its Zubmariner Edition. And oh boy, am I so glad I did. I'm sure most of you know this already, but for those of you who don't: Sunless Sea is brilliant. It's really, properly fantastic, and I simply cannot recommend it enough.
Let's assume that, like me, you're pretty much coming to this game completely fresh. Sunless Sea is probably best described as a text-based choose-your-own-adventure game with some neat interactive twists that only a video game could provide. Oh, and it's a survival/exploration game with roguelike elements, so you'll be managing things like fuel and hunger while exploring a massive sea littered with various points of interest. So far so good, right?
The Switch has long been my chosen console for any games that are available on more than one platform, and while Sunless Sea is also available on iOS, if you want to enjoy this adventure handheld, I strongly believe that Switch is the way to get the best experience. A larger screen makes it much easier to read and navigate menus, while the traditional joystick-and-button controls make sailing and combat a damn sight easier.
Sitting up in bed at night with my Switch in hand as I sailed to new islands in search of new stories and experiences is delightfully dangerous. There's been more than one occasion over the last week where I told myself I'd push ahead and search just one more island or talk to just one more character before realising it was already 2am.
The Nintendo Switch version of Sunless Sea is also pretty much exactly the same as the PlayStation 4 port that was released in August 2018. It includes all of the game's up-to-date content, including the substantial Zubmariner expansion that puts a whole new spin on exploration and discovery.
The first rule of Sunless Sea, or at least the first rule I learned, is that you will die a lot. The sea has always been a harsh mistress, or so I'm told, but this fictional body of water - the Unterzee - is a real sh*t. See, Sunless Sea is is set in a fictional version of 1888 where London, now known as Fallen London, has been dragged down into Hell and exists as just another island on the black and unforgiving ocean. It's a brutal, dangerous world that you'll want to learn everything you can about. Not just because it'll help you live longer, but because it's a genuinely fascinating creation.
Fallen London is your main hub. It's where all voyages begin and, if you're lucky, where they all end. As the game starts, you'll be asked to choose a captain, complete with some brilliantly fleshed-out backstories that'll provide your character with various unique perks. I remember finding it odd that the game kept telling me not to worry too much as my first captain would die anyway, but I kind of ignored that warning.
So I set out, bold as brass, in my little boat, in search of adventure. You'll explore by puttering around the inky depths via a top-down view, as if you're looking at a map. Any interactions, scenes, or big discoveries will be conveyed not by cutscene or stunningly rendered level, but through some of the most gorgeous writing I've ever seen in a video game.
For example, I arrived at one rocky little outcrop that, on my map at least, didn't resemble much more than a lumpy black shape. But as I explored the island via a number of text-based options, I had a clearer picture of it than I might have if it'd be rendered and put together by a big-budget AAA studio. The style with which Failbetter consistently delivers information to you is a real highlight of Sunless Sea, whether your adventures are going well... or have taken a turn for the worse.
Like I said, the first rule I learned in Sunless Sea was that of death. And so it was that, less than an hour into my first captain's life, I really screwed the pooch. I hadn't really taken stock of fuel or supplies, and ended up in the middle of the ocean, nowhere near a port. My boat was slowly being taken apart by one of the many sea monsters that roamed the waters while my crew revolted against me after I... gently suggested we eat the deceased first mate in lieu of any other food.
I mean, I wasn't expecting them to love the idea. I wasn't crazy about it myself.
No, captain number one didn't last long. But the beauty of Sunless Sea is that every new captain gives you the chance to learn from your mistakes and go forward in search of greater glory, even as the world rearranges itself ahead of every new attempt.
Each new captain brings new stories and adventures, while still pushing the overall story forward. It can frustrating to lose a character you've spent a substantial amount of time with (miss you, captain number three), but the brutal and unexpected nature of the world is all part of what makes Sunless Sea so engaging. Every decision is a gamble, and the deadly dangers of the Unterzee don't hesitate to punish your poor choices.
But it's not perfect, and it certainly isn't for everyone. Sailing and combat, for instance, can be a bit of a pain. These are, to be fair, supposed to feel quite clunky and laborious, but after a while the speed with which these things move along can really start to drag. Especially when the writing is good and all you really want to do is enjoy more of the text-based side of things.
There's also quite a lot to get to grips with, that I feel the game doesn't do a brilliant job of explaining. Given Sunless Sea is effectively 80% menu screens, I'd argue a few things should be a little clearer upfront. Then again, dying and failing is as much a part of the experience as succeeding, and every failure brings new lessons and a greater understanding.
If you're willing to experience death after death while getting to grips with the game's mechanics, you'll have a wonderful time. Not to mention that you'll unearth a treasure trove of beautifully written horror stories and darkly comic experiences that feel unique to each player. See aforementioned cannibalism anecdote. A real knee-slapper, that one.
That, really, is the crux of whether or not you'll enjoy Sunless Sea. This is an incredibly hostile game that would rather break your fingers than hold your hand, and your mileage with it invariably comes down to how patient you are. But sick with it, and there is so much waiting for you out in the depths. Just try not to eat your crew, eh?
Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition is out April 23rd for Nintendo Switch. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
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