Posted: July 3, 2014
Early Access Review
This is not a good game.
...Or at least, not yet.
I bought Sunless Sea because it reminded me of a very good comic called Leviathen and an RPG called Unhallowed Metropolis, which has some similar themes of unknowable horror in that sort of Victorian/Edwardian period.
The setting is very impressive, it is a fantastically rich world of Victorian London - spun through a dark mirror and dumped on the shores of a bleak and desolate ocean, where madness is your only companion. Which personally, sounds wicked!
I can definately see the sources it cites, the dark humour of Don't Starve, elements of the Cthulhu Mythos and it's atmosphere. All good stuff.
I've not played it, but I can see why the broswer game this is based off of, Fallen London, is such a big hit.
However. The game itself, which as I understand the progress updates is nearing completion, just isn't *fun* presently. You could perhaps argue that is the point of such a dark world, but let me point out a few things I take issue with...
1) Money making. Maybe it's the present patch, but it seems you can't trade anything with anyone. The only port I've found (Venderbight) that accepts goods in it's "shop" (all the others I have found just sell supplies and fuel for your ship and are not interested in trade goods) offer for the two goods you can sell either a paltry profit of two bucks, or 'Echos' or a loss of about 7 Echoes? At the moment, trade just doesn't seem worth it at all. Like, at all.
Even if you were to take a load of goods to Venderbight, you are coming back to London empty as there are no trade goods to buy. What the sense make?!
So the only other way of making money is doing survey missions (or hovering around the starting area capturing pirate ships for prize money), which is fine but often you'll find your profit margain getting wiped out by having to replace your fuel and crew used in the journey, as well as 'carousing' back at port.
In essence, it seems almost impossible to get any amount of money. Some two hours in and I'm still struggling to get more than a few hundred Echoes, with dreams of buying upgrades or a new boat a very, very long way off.
I appreciate it defeats the challenge if they just give you a pot of gold easily, but at the moment it's far too difficult and the grind for cash is painfully slow and not enjoyable - given the limited amount of ways you can make money.
2) Terror. What an excellent idea, as you sail the black ocean, darkness all around you, only the chug of the engine and the weak bloom of your headlamp lighting the way - the miasma of fear and paranoia starts to grip your crews minds... Bells in the distance.. Giant, squid eyes watching you from beneath the waves...
Again, all good stuff. The more terror you accure, the stranger things occur and eventually you go mad. However, given that you start at 0 and within the space of one trip (within the starting area where the terror affect is less) go up to about 50+ out of a 100! That's a big steep isn't it?! I thought these were hardened sea hands, not yellow bellied land-lubbers?!
The best way of avoiding a terror increase is planning your route so you sail through area light by bouys or remain very close to shore. Makes sense. But sometimes you have to find yourself sailing for about ten seconds in a dark area or drift a smidgen away from shore and your terror ROCKETS, I mean, it just flies up at a rate of knots!
Calm down lads, the shore is still on screen but.. - oh? Apparently that's not close enough. Even when a light ship or a bouy or land is clearly but a stone's throw from your ship your sailors still flip the f*ck out unless you are about a gnats testicle away before they calm down.
Having your own ships lights on doesn't seem to affect this very much, your terror goes up super fast regardless.
And the only ways to reduce terror are FANTASICALLY expensive. The 'best' way to reduce terror to a managble level is to return to London, where your terror is reset to 50 automatically (but you start to get nightmares), but to reduce it further you have to 'carouse' either in London or elsewhere. This costs between 40-20 echoes depending on where you are and reduces your terror from 1-5 points. Is that all?? That hardly seems cost effective given within a matter of SECONDS after leaving port you can accure those points back up again.
At the moment, you gain Terror far, far too quickly and it is much too difficult and expensive to reduce it.
3) Combat. Oh man, can you imagne! Sailing your steamer straight towards a giant Angler Crab or Lifeberg, screaming blood and thunder to your terrified crew as they struggle to bring their harpoons and deckguns to bear, shining your ships lamp straight into the beasts unblinking eye!!!!
Exciting stuff, except none of that happens here.
Combat for me so far, consists of trying to run away from an enemy I have no chance of beating (anything outside of the starting area, I am not kidding) as I have nowhere near enough money to buy better ships or equipment, fleeing into the nearest port, then having to leave port and being killed instantly by the monster who is still waiting for me. Game over.
The combat system consists of you or your opponent sailing into the other, where upon you are offerend the choice of fight or flight (or human sacrifice, neat!) and then combat consists of a picture of you, a picture of the enemy and an 'illumination' bar for each. You want to raise their bar as much as possible, whilst keeping your own bar low. Once it's high enough, you press the 'shoot' action and then hopefully they die.
But normally they don't and kill you instantly. The amount of enemies that can kill you in one hit is daft.
There's no dodging, no position, no tactics, no *skill*. Just press the 'flare' button twice, press the 'evade' button a few times, then press the 'salvo' button. And then repeat as necessary. Again, it's not... Fun.
There is an option to 'study' your foe in the midst of combat, but this has to be done several times and leaves you open to being annihilated.
Against the easier enemies, combat is a chore. Crabs, bats (who seem to swarm near Venderbight), starting pirates can all be mostly be killed in three actions which equates to 30-40 seconds of your life you'll never see again. It's not engaging, as someone who has played many a sailing combat game over the years, it's uninspired and not enjoyable. FTL did a similar system much better.
4) Death. It's a hard game, it's a slow game, it's a game with what appears to be a great deal in it. But as such, death comes fast and furious.
After 2-3 hours of not managing to get much of anywhere, I was still mighty ♥♥♥♥♥♥ when my ship glitched aground and then.. Game over. Which is fine, I mean it's a roguelike and it's not meant to be easy... But when it takes you HOURS to get much of anywhere from the start and you can die so easily by hook or by crook, it's maddening to see all that hard work thrown away.
It's almost like having to do a lap of the Binding of Isaac, without any items - and at the end of the lap you get *one* item for the next lap. But as soon as you die, that's it. Whilst some masochists would love such a challenege, Joe Muggins here thinks that doesn't sound like fun.
The 'merciful' mode helps with regards to this, as you can save on the fly. But you can either play it safe and live a long but dull life, or try the dangerous game and die fairly rapidly and see all your hard, slow, progress of upping your skills and saving your money go to waste.
At least when you die you can save a skill for your next character.
Sunless Sea is a fantastic idea for a fantastic game. However, IN THIS CURRENT VERSION it is not especially enjoyable to play IMHO.
If it does tickle your nautical fancy, my advise would be to wait until full release, as this may leave you with a sour, salty taste in your mouth.