[Review] Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition – Nintendo Switch

Written by Richard Strachan
  • Developer: Failbetter Games
  • Publisher: Digerati
  • Release date: 23/4/2020
  • Price: £17.99/$19.99
  • Review code provided by Digerati

Introducing: Sunless Sea Switch Review

Travelling by boat has often been a central theme to many of my most cherished childhood memories. Family holidays were generally spent on the Isle of Arran in Scotland rather than jetting off to the Costa Del Sol or some other sunny paradise. I have many memories of fishing trips around the Scotland on various rickety boats, generally in horrific weather.

Over the years as I’ve grown older I’ve also developed a real fear of open water. It’s probably due to some of the near misses when travelling the wrong way against the wind across Scottish Lochs!

It was with some excitement, and trepidation, that I approached the opportunity to look at Sunless Sea: Submariner Edition. A game where the entire gameplay loop centres around travelling by boat and Submarine (or rather Zubmarine) across a dark underground sea filled with Lovecraftian horrors was always going to appeal to both my childhood memories and also my newly found fear of the deep! Sunless Sea manages to capture that magical feeling of being out on the open water, as well as the creeping dread of what lurks beneath!

The night is dark and full of terrors

The game is set in the Unterzee, an immense underground sea set inside a giant sinkhole. London, or Fallen London as it is now called, has been swallowed up by the hole and is now a port on the dark and dangerous Zee.

The game the plays out like a choose your own adventure book, with you choosing your backstory and ultimate goal. My initial playthrough started with me as a Philosopher, attracted to Fallen London in an effort to find his deceased Father’s bones and discover his fate. My next run saw me take up the mantle of a Street Urchin from the city who got lucky on his last score and managed to snag a boat and the means to take his nefarious schemes onto the wide open Zee.

There are a number of backstories and motivations to choose from, each of them drastically affecting how the game plays out. Throughout your travels on the Zee you encounter a vivid cast of characters and some truly unique places. At each turn you are faced with a huge range of options that affect everything from local politics right up to your own fate. The decisions you make have a genuine impact on the world and ensure each playthrough is truly unique.

Heart of Darkness

Sunless Sea plays out as a cross between a choose your own adventure book and a top down Zeefaring survival exploration game. A huge amount of your time is spent reading over fantastically well-written prose describing the islands you encounter and the scenarios you find yourself in. Upon landing on an island you are usually presented with a number of options such as exploring, speaking with locals or other unusual activities like carving up a ghastly looking beached sea creature before being presented with the option to eat it or carry it on board your ship for some unknown later endeavour.

Every action you take causes some kind of reaction and often simple tasks, like the aforementioned hacking up said creature, can end up having significant repercussions much later in the game.

As you progress through the game you encounter various scenarios which you can’t yet activate within the text menus, but the qualifying criteria are listed, which helps provide some impetus to guide your adventure as you decide what kinds of things you would like to work towards.

I found myself intervening in a civil war on an island between a faction of human sized bipedal rats and their militaristic oppressors who just happened to be giant guinea pigs!

Outwith the text heavy interactions you find yourself sailing the deep dark Zee in search of whatever treasures or mysteries you wish. You can choose to pursue your main goal as selected at the start of the game, or simply explore and gather treasure and upgrade your ship.

The exploration sections play out from a top-down 2D perspective with beautifully drawn environments. You control your ship’s movement and the speed at which it travels as well as controlling a headlight and your ship’s weapons when you inevitably encounter pirates and hideous creatures of the deep. 

Combat scenarios play out in a fairly simple and perfunctory manner, but manage to create enough tension to make them feel meaningful as well as scary when you encounter something far more powerful than you can handle. Combat essentially involves getting enemies in your firing cone and allowing a meter to fill which represents your aim. The meter fills over time and the higher it goes the better chance of a successful hit you have. When your ship is badly damaged combat can become a stressful gamble between waiting for a clear shot or firing early in the hope you land the final blow. Given that the game has permadeath and each run can last many hours, you will often find yourself weighing up the merits of combat against simply hightailing it out of there.

Thankfully your ship allows you to fire the engines into overdrive to escape danger, but this also carries its own risks as you then have the random chance that your engine explodes or catches fire. Nothing in Sunless Sea happens without a little bit of risk involved!

Port to Port

As your travel across the various interesting locales in the game you gather port reports which can be sold to the Fallen London Admiralty in exchange for cash, supplies and fuel, which can then be reinvested to upgrade your ship, sign on more skilled shipmates and explore further into the Zee. You find yourself falling into a nice rhythm of exploring various islands, collecting information and completing various side quests as you go. These range from delivering contraband to distant ports or taking out various creatures. Those who choose the life of a smuggler face additional stress in the form of random spot checks from the London Port Authority.

As you explore the vast cavern of the Unterzee you can send off a bat to explore the local area and report back on any nearby islands. This can be really helpful when hunting for locations that you only know the rough location of based on the intel of some shady character you met down by the docks!

The Zubmariner Edition of the game includes an expansion pack which allows you to turn your ship into a Zubmarine and explore the depths beneath. The gameplay is broadly the same, however your Zee Bat is replaced by a sonar tool which automatically pings at regular intervals. You get a notification of any objects the sonar finds but need to approach them before they are revealed. There’s always a moment of tension as you wait to see whether you’ve discovered a massive Eel which will smash your Zumbarine, or a sunken ship full of loot to plunder.

I will note that unlocking the Zubmarine is no mean feat. You need to complete a fairly long and difficult quest line before gaining access, but initial completion then lowers the bar for entry on subsequent runs, making obtaining it much easier. Obtaining this is definitely worth the effort as it allows you to see previously familiar sections of the map in a completely new light.

Sunless Sea plays out as a Rogue-like, but runs take much longer than those in some of your more traditional games in that genre. It can be quite easy to forget the lineage of the game until your ship runs out of fuel and you are given one last option to fire off a flare as a last dash prayer to the RNG gods. Death allows you to choose some elements to keep for your run, including the map layout and a copy of your map, or some money or weapons to make your next run ever so slightly easier.

As well as managing your fuel, supplies and cash you also need to juggle a Terror meter which fills pretty much constantly whilst at sea, but can jump up when you engage in risky or frightening scenarios. You can lower the meter by returning to your digs in London and by completing certain quests. If your meter manages to fill, you suffer a mutiny and are killed by your crew!

Dark Arts

Sunless Sea is an absolutely gorgeous game. The environments are hand-drawn and have a fantastic amount of detail. You’ll come across a sunken church, a city made of tethered fishing boats and some truly horrific characters and scenarios. The team have done a fantastic job with the visuals, but this is elevated by the amazing writing. The text in the game manages to give a feel for the sights, sounds and smells your character comes across on their adventures through an extremely dark land.

The game manages to sustain a sense of creeping dread as you sense that something is constantly watching you from the darkness waiting to strike. As it turns out, you’re usually right!

The audio in the game is fantastic with some truly creepy, atmospheric music tracks. The way the music changes as you submerge your ship adds a horrible feeling of claustrophobia and the heartbeat-like thump of your sonar makes you feel extremely vulnerable as you scuttle along the Zeebed!

The sinking ship

I did encounter a few stumbles in the frame rate throughout my time with the game. Despite the fairly simple graphical style and slow paced combat and exploration, the game would regularly skip a few frames. This wouldn’t have an impact on the gameplay as everything moves at a glacial pace, but it was pretty jarring, especially given the amazing audiovisual experience which the game otherwise delivers. Despite this, it wasn’t enough to hamper my enjoyment!

Final Thoughts

Sunless Sea manages to capture the wonder and dread of the open water in a way that keeps you constantly wondering what fantastical and horrific sight you’ll next encounter. The gameplay loop keeps you constantly on edge, as you can so easily lose all your hard earned progress even several hours into a run.

The writing in the game manages to convey the same undercurrent of anxiety found in some of the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft and the gameplay loop ensures that you’re often right to be feeling that anxiety. For those who are willing to put in the time to play an extremely text-heavy adventure, they’ll find an extremely deep and rewarding game with huge scope for repeat play. I do think that anyone looking to pick up the game needs to be clear that it is very text heavy, but contains some of the best writing in gaming!

Pros

  • Nothing nails that sense of dread better
  • Huge amount of content
  • Dripping with atmosphere

Cons

  • Some frame rate issues
  • Bar for entry is very high for DLC

Verdict

Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition is a fantastic example of player-driven narrative combined with solid gameplay to deliver an anxiety-inducing Lovecraftian nightmare masterpiece!

4.5/5

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