Switch version tested
Review code provided
Visit London they said. Explore the Tower of London, they said. What they didn’t say is that the majority of it is submerged underwater. No, the ice caps haven’t melted yet, for Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition is set in the Victorian era in a ‘what if?’ scenario.
To say this game is ambiguous is a massive understatement. That might put you off, but let me tell you now, Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition has a certain catnip about it that makes you want to play again and again – even if you’re not exactly getting what is going on. The year is 1888 and bats have dragged London to the lower depths of hell, with the moniker: Fallen London.
Your role in these gothic shenanigans is to take control of a ship and explore the regions based on the adventure you wish to take via a ‘life goal’. Perhaps you want to indulge in as much wealth as can be, or you’re a little more humble and want to experience life (but make a name for yourself). At the start of the game, you get to lay down these paths in what you want to achieve; create a name for your captain, how you wish to be addressed; Ma’am, Sir, Julie – if you’d prefer. You even create a little back story for yourself as to how you got to this position. All so very promising, all so very invested. Then you die, not long after creating a captain in your image. Their memory will remain, as do some perks, but that’s it. Dead – move on to the next captain.
Embracing this alternative world is like learning a new language, yet you already know the vocabulary, you’re just trying to comprehend it. Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition is an assault on your attention levels almost immediately as there’s so much to digest, so many parameters to follow that you wonder if there’s the likelihood of you ending up with some type of doctorate once/if you complete it. Usually, that would put me off, but something is hypnotising about the narrative structure, all the little nuances uttered by NPCs, or some subtle commentary you missed the first six times or so. There’s something about Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition, and I like it – aside from the pace.
Death is all part of the experience. The game truly is a hands-on experience as the outcome changes every time, and it’s just so deep. Forgive the pun. There are multiple choices available – mostly through locations and interactions with other characters, exchanging goods to upgrade your ship and stocking up on fuel as you’ll need a lot of it. Then you accidentally close the window in error to see there’s a little tugboat sitting behind all this text. Ah – the other part of the game: the exploration side.
You’d be forgiven in thinking that this was a visual novel or similar, based on the depth of the story. The screen is even separated into tabs; Story – obvious, Hold – your provisions, Journal – noteworthy information, Officers – hire and fire crew and delegate a mascot, Shops – to buy goods and Shipyard for repairs. But again, hidden behind is your boat that you have full control over using the left analogue stick to steer left and right – pushing up or down to increase the power and evident fuel consumption.
This ship section is the bit where you decide whether you want to go in the direction of an objective or do whatever you want. Be forewarned that the ship uses a large amount of fuel and once you’re out, that’s it. Through your encounters, you will meet other ships and monsters that are mostly hostile. In these battles, you have to out manoeuver them while your crew prepare your arsenal to take them out. If you win, you can loot their stuff, but lose, and you’ll most likely be dead for good, restarting the game once more and investing a bit of time into creating a new pseudonym.
This area was the downside as while the presentation is pretty good, and the score atmospheric, the speed of progression and the combat are monotonous. Other than the fuel factor, there’s not much skill involved in battling oversized crabs other than evading for a bit, then firing.
Through each death, while your captain is gone, you do get to inherit some of their spoils – from currency to perhaps an ability. It’s never in vain, but at the same time quite hard going when you invest in someone and end up dying again. Despite this, you do want to pick it up and play again as each death doesn’t feel frustrating, but more of a learning experience. Do note that the loading times between each new game is quite painful, however. A small price to pay to sail the Unterzee of Fallen London.
Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition will undoubtedly put a lot of people off as it’s slow-moving and if you’re not much of a reader, you’re going to hate it. An alternative, with similar themes would be Sea Salt. There’s wall after wall of text, and it can be quite overwhelming, but skip through it all, and you’re seriously diluting the experience as it’s incredibly well written. Before long you’ll be uttering the odd z as a zubztitute for the letter ‘s’, as zeems to be the pattern here. In fact, it’s like binging on something like the Sopranos and skipping to the action sequences. It defeats the object, and you’ll not get the experience – Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition is undoubtedly a unique experience and is a world that I want to continue to explore into the afterlife. That is, moving on to my 22nd captain and hoping that this adventure will be a little more of a legacy than the last.
Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition is undoubtedly an experience. The amount of text seems offputting, but that’s the strength of the game with so many layers and well-executed. It is perhaps let down by the combat and pace as it can make even the most patient people a little irritable when it comes to controlling your ship.
TBG Score: 7/10
Platform: Nintendo Switch, Steam, Xbox
Release Date: 23/04/2020
No. of Players: 1
Category: RPG, Sim, Strategy
Developer: Fairbetter Games
Download link: eShop