Sunless Sea Early Access Preview: Another Dystopian Adventure

Based on the browser game Fallen London, Sunless Sea has thus far enjoyed notable popularity for an Early Access title. The scene is Victorian London, somehow now situated in a massive dank cave called the Neath. Whether it’s to build a fortune or to explore the depths, you’ve decided to gather a crew and sail the oceans. Sunless Sea seeks to appeal to adventure enthusiasts as you are encouraged to sail to distant ports each with their own traits and drama. Whether you heed the last request of the curator of the tomb colonists or agree to smuggle lost souls for profit, there’s no shortage of weird and wonderful stories to discover.

If you could sum Sunless Sea up in one word, it would be ‘slow’. To begin with, due to the nature of the narrative, you need to spend a lot of time reading in order to experience the most interesting parts of the gameplay. Additionally, you sail the sea at a snail’s pace, while combat consists of exchanging abilities that take around 5 seconds of charge-up time each. If you’re looking for a fast-paced action game, this is not it. In fact, you may often need the patience of a saint to make long trips across the map. Though, those who enjoy a more relaxed pacing will quickly find the hours pouring away.

sunless2The chilling atmosphere, arguably the element that Sunless Sea does best, has undoubtedly drawn many towards the game. Ominous sound effects create a feel of loneliness while carefully chosen music adds mystery and character. The aesthetic is also suitably dark, and while simple, effectively differentiates ports and areas from each other and gives them personality.

While adventuring and exploring are indeed exciting, it feels as though you are fighting against the game to experience it. Foremost, it’s very easy to die whether it be in battle, a mutiny, or running out of fuel or supplies. There’s no indication as to how powerful a sea creature is and it’s relatively easy to run into fights that are incredibly difficult as soon as you leave the main port. Progressing in the game can be an uphill struggle as you have to constantly spend large amounts of resources on feeding your crew, repairing your ship and reducing terror, so you can spend a lot of time farming trade routes. Thus, dying can be catastrophic to your own morale and it can be difficult to pick the game up again once you’ve lost an adventure that you poured hours into in mere minutes.

sunless1However, while Sunless Sea does have many niggling little flaws, the developers are proving to be responsive and dedicated to improving the experience. Due to player feedback, they are focusing on improving the boring combat system as well as the necessity of farming resources. Perhaps most importantly, new storylines and scenarios are constantly being added, filling the world with life and early access backers with hope.

Ultimately, though, I fear the biggest problem lies in a genre clash. Sunless Sea reminded me heavily of my first impressions of Hammerwatch – a wannabe roguelike. There’s plenty of content to explore but you die too easily and have to start from the very beginning again each time. While you’re itching to see the content that you couldn’t get to, eventually the sheer effort of having to work your way back to where you died is too much. While Sunless Sea has great potential, it needs to focus on selling its adventure content and do away with gimmicky game mechanics. Unfortunately in recent updates, the developers introduced map randomization, showing their preference towards the ‘roguelike’ game type.