Early Access Previews: Sunless Sea (10.26.2014)

Last week I wrote up a piece on a pretty cool Early Access game: The Long Dark. It was a fun piece to write and I think the content and format are actually pretty practical for anybody looking for new games to play. So I figure that this week I’ll continue along that trend and write about another interesting Early Access game: Sunless Sea.

Core Concept:

2014-10-20_00005As described on the game’s Kick-starter page, Sunless Sea is a game about “exploration, survival, and loneliness”- three suits of gameplay I think it satisfies quite well. Loneliness in particular, is a critical feeling that the game drives effectively due in large part to the game’s setting, ‘Fallen London’, which was the universe of a previously created game from the same studio, Failbetter Games. From whatever exposition there is in the game, I’ve gathered that ‘Fallen London’ is an alternate fantasy-world where the Earth’s surface collapsed, forcing people to live on in these dark oceans inhabited by all kinds of fantastical curiosities.

That’s all well and good, but I guess I should explain what Sunless Sea technically is. Sunless Sea is a top-down open-world adventure RPG with rogue-lite elements- a few descriptors that grace (or burden) many indie titles out there nowadays. However I do feel like there’s more to Sunless Sea’s take on the indie-happy genres than you commonly see in the market. Failbetter Games pays some incredible attention to many details that leads me to believe there’s some genuine heart in its creation. Like the game or not, but I think its worth celebrating a development that appears to be going the extra mile in many places (as I’ll describe a bit later) that are in total service of creating a better adventure game.

So what do you do in Sunless Sea? Well within a certain (currently limited) framework, it’s really up to the player. Across all the quests you might want to take on however, one thing is uniform. You’re the captain of a ship and you’re going to set out into the dark seas of Fallen London.

Game Setup:

Upon launching a new game, the player is asked to create an avatar. Don’t cringe so quickly though, this doesn’t mean adjusting eyebrow heights or ear shapes. Firstly, you 2014-10-20_00003need to choose a background. Before you came along, was your character a street urchin, a poet, a war veteran, an ordained priest, or a philosopher? Each of these pasts holds unique statistical and story elements to them- however so far I’ve only played the poet (+ skill in trickery and knowledge) and the street urchin (+ skill in subtlety and evasion).

Next, you choose an ambition for your character. Are you looking for self-fulfillment, wealth, your father’s bones (unavailable in beta), your own kingdom (unavailable in beta), or the uttermost East (unavailable in beta). Across all of my adventures I always chose the fulfillment ambition, which is achieved by collecting 100 ‘tales’ and then returning to London and retiring. I’ve never successfully finished the ambition, but if I were to finish the game that’d be my critical objective.

After you choose your ambition you’re asked to choose your title (I chose ‘Captain’ because I’m boring), a thumbnail portrait of your character, name yourself, and finally you can start adventuring. This all can take as little as 60 seconds- but since I like reading all the details and descriptions it usually takes me around five minutes to setup my game.

Core Gameplay: Docked

In order to best explain the core mechanics of Sunless Sea, I’d first have to make clear that there’s two main ‘modes’ of mechanical play: when you’re docked, and when you’re at sea.

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Zoom in on this one to read some of the text!

Your ship can dock in various places around the ‘zee’ (the game’s word for sea). The ‘zee’ is a large archipelago consisting of islands of various shapes and sizes. You start off docked in Fallen London- a city- but there’s many different kinds of places to dock such as lone houses on tiny islands, haunted towns, and caves.

Docked portions of gameplay are entirely handled through dialogue boxes. You’re presented with a description of the location and a few options. Different dock locations present different options to you, but in places like Fallen London you can interact with things such as shops and shipyards. Generally speaking, most quests you take on will start when you’re docked somewhere- so you’re inclined to talk with people and explore points of interest. Besides from quest-critical details, these interactions also allow you to collect ‘tales’, accumulate/relieve crew ‘terror’, and replenish supplies. Collecting ‘tales’, or stories, appears to mostly be done while docked and interacting with the location.

For example, I once docked on a tiny island with a sole large house on it. Upon cautiously exploring the perimeter, its inhabitants- three sisters, invited me inside. I was asked who I wanted to have a meal with (I chose the eldest,) and over supper she recounted a horror tale to my crew. This series of events fed my crew, gave me a ‘tale’, and increased my ‘terror’ count (more on that later.)

I’m starting to get the feeling that this entire explanation is getting long-winded, so I’ll just summarize by saying you dock at hubs to do ‘stuff’, different hubs let you do different ‘stuff’, and overall there’s lots of different kinds of ‘stuff’ to do.

Core Gameplay: At ‘Zee’

When you’re at ‘zee’, you’ve got a few things to keep track of on the fly. You’re no longer interfacing through dialogues (unless you log into your Tab menus). While sailing, your ship consumes fuel, your crew consumes supplies, and, depending on your surroundings, you accumulate ‘terror’. The ‘zee’ is a dark and spooky place, and when terrified your crew is less effective and consumes more supplies. I’ve never reached full ‘terror’, so I don’t know what happens at that point- but it’s possible you might just lose the game.

At this point, I’ll note that there’s a ‘Help Me’ tab that explains everything in-depth, but while I enjoy reading about lore and quests, I generally don’t like being bothered to read extensive rule-books.

Anyways, at ‘zee’ you search for new places to dock. Sometimes you’re looking for particular places (which you might have been told at a bar someplace interesting lies 2014-10-26_00001

‘somewhere out north’) and other times you’re just roaming the deep blue. They’re equally plausible ways to explore the world, although roaming randomly is generally more terrifying for your crew. The darker and the less structures you see, the more scared your crew can get. Also, you don’t want to wander too far out without enough fuel, because getting stranded results in an instant-failure state. Oh and by the way, if you’re playing in the Unforgiving difficulty mode (the default mode), that means you can’t load into a save point- you’ve got to start a new game. Luckily there’s a ‘bat’ feature which allows you to send out a few bats from your ship in the direction of the closest docking location to lead you to possible safety.

You can also reach a failure state by dying in combat. Wow, 1000 words in and I haven’t mentioned that there’s combat. Anyways- whatever I’ve been exposed to so far in the combat system hasn’t been very deep mechanically. Sea monsters or aggressive ships approach you while you’re moving about- and while they’re in your strike periphery a shot timer counts up until you can deal a blow. Enemies can attack on the same system (more or less) or they can ram into you. Most of the time, I found myself slowing down to a stop to keep the enemy in my attack sights only to have them ram into me. I’ve yet to have a ‘good’ time in combat, I mostly either retreat or die. I guess combat isn’t a main focus for the game, but I can’t imagine this system as it is persisting until launch. Or maybe it will and I just don’t get it.

Level of Polish:

Overall, I’d have to say I think Sunless Sea is pretty close to completion. While a few features and a bunch of world content is missing, the game does exhibit quite a high level of polish in what’s currently being offered.

2014-10-26_00002The brightest aspects of Sunless Sea relate to attention to detail in text and to world-building. Settings are incredibly well imagined and beautifully created. Sound design hasn’t been particularly vast and varied, but what’s there is certainly effective in establishing a harrowed, moody, yet adventurous atmosphere. Textual descriptions of cities, conversations, and items are all so vivid that I’m able to visualize some genuinely interesting images in my mind. Hopefully some of the screenshots in this piece convey what I mean.

My favorite example of all this is exhibited in a feature I haven’t discussed yet: the Log Book. The Log Book is a little journal in the corner of the HUD that periodically displays little textual updates as you explore the ‘zee’. The journal records the things like whenever you discover a new landmark or when you feed your crew. But the part I love about the feature is that you’ll randomly get little updates that have no real mechanical purpose- but do a whole lot to world-build. When roaming about the ‘zee’ one night, the journal logged:

“Home. Warmly lit windows, company, peace. Thoughts of home come at the strangest times.”

Things like these are a nice touch to occupy the mind while exploring the seemingly empty waters. It’s a common theme in the pieces I write- but once again I love the tiny details. They mean a lot.

 Wrap-up:

I kind of touched on this earlier, but I feel I should communicate that whenever I was discovering new features about Sunless Sea a certain thought came to mind. Upon the inclusion of any mechanic, art asset, or story detail, I feel like the developers asked themselves: “Will this make for a better adventure game?”. Of course I don’t know for sure, but when playing I got the feeling that these developers had a unique and meaningful idea they were striving for and they didn’t make any concessions with respect to it. This made for a really focused and fresh take on the genre- something I think fans of the genre would be excited to have in their library.

Obviously there’s a whole other bunch of stuff I haven’t touched on, but hopefully this has been enough to expose you to what Sunless Sea is about. Do I think Sunless Sea is worth an Early Access purchase? For the adventure game fan, and for the fan of imaginative worlds- I think Sunless Sea is absolutely something you’d enjoy to play now. I haven’t elaborated on many of the rogue-lite elements, but there’s features in place that facilitate extensive play despite the limited stories and locations available to you now. However, I feel Sunless Sea is kind of geared towards a niche market. While playing it I sometimes had no idea what I was doing- and had to reread dialogues a few times to re-situate myself. So if you’re conditioned to many mass-market AAA titles that lay out objectives for you with arrows, you’d probably have a hard time with Sunless Sea.

But like I said, I think that for a fan of the genre- this is kind of a no-brainer. Additionally, as a bonus it appears Early Access adopters also get ‘lifetime’ access to some DLC content. I’m not sure what that means, but hey- it seems like a good thing!

Learn more at the Steam Store page: http://store.steampowered.com/app/304650/

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