Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Review- Unda da zee. Unda da zee. Baby its betta down weah its wetta take it from me.
Developed by Failbetter Games
Published by Failbetter Games
Available on PS4, Steam, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), iOS
MSRP $18.99 for base game, $10.99 for expansion
Sunless Sea: Zumbariner is the expansion for the very good and cool Sunless Sea. For those who haven’t played it yet, Sunless Sea takes place in a massive ocean under the surface of the earth, known as the Underzee. You play as the captain of a steam ship (and later, a zubmarine), who you create at the beginning with various goals stats. Perhaps you want to find your lost father, or perhaps enough wealth to retire. With Zubmariner, perhaps you want to make a pact with the dark gods of the Zee and ascend to a higher state of immortal existence. The choice is yours. To accomplish these goals you must hopefully but unlikely survive the pirates, monsters, and ocean madness.
Sunless Sea is based on the universe of Fallen London. The greater lore of this universe is that decades ago a queen made a traitorous deal with some entity, and the city of London was dragged 1.5 miles (~2.4 kilometers) underground by a massive swarm of Zee bats. It is just the most recent city to arrive underground, and some others have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. This creates a world where the gothic Victorian mingles with the eldritch Lovecraftian. The setting is one of the best parts of Sunless Sea.
In fact, the setting is the main selling point for me. The writing of Sunless Sea is phenomenal. Sunless Sea is very much a tabletop style role playing game. The majority of your interactions are going to be through dialogue choices. Each of these choices gives you a glimpse into the weird and hilarious and horrific world of the Underzee. Every island and settlement is unique, and in a way, are more compelling characters than the characters themselves. You might come across a fungus logging island. You might find an island with warring factions of rodents (gophers are rodents, right?). You might find a massive coral stronghold populated by the undead. Each island is fascinating and full of interesting lore if you know how to look.
Unfortunately, a lot of the lore is really hard to find. The dialogue mechanics are a big part of Sunless Sea’s undoing. The quests are fascinating, the lore amazing. But to access it requires a lot of trial and error. Many quests require random items found in specific places, items you would otherwise not want to bring with you due to limited cargo space. Some islands have quests that require specific dialogue choices, and picking wrong either ends the quest or forces you to come back later. On top of that, many of the options are so vague or free of context that I could never figure out what I was supposed to be doing in the first place. Entire settlements unexplored and quests unfinished I had no idea how to progress. I’d say 3/4ths of the time playing was just me roaming around aimlessly, hoping things would fall into place. They rarely did.
The opaque dialogue is just one problem I had. There are some extremely glaring gameplay issues with Sunless Sea that will likely be a dealbreaker for many. The main issue is just how agonizingly slow it is. The ships are slow and the Zee is very large. You may find yourself spending ten or even twenty minutes going to a destination on the map, and if a quest requires you to go back and forth, well, you’re fucked. There is no fast travel system. While you may eventually get better ships that move marginally faster, getting the massive funds to buy one will take a long long while.
The combat in Sunless Sea is extremely slow too. Your starter ship has one gun port, which can shoot in a ~270° radius in the front. The gun takes like 5 seconds to reload and does a pitiful amount of damage. Ship combat generally boils down to staying in the blind spot behind your foe (and hoping they don’t have a stern mounted gun) and plinking away. For much of the game, the ship is far too slow and weak to take on the higher level basic enemies, like a living iceberg or giant crab. Unless you’re shooting early game pirates, fleeing is the safe option.
On its own, the slow speed in Sunless Sea might not be so bad. Not every game needs to be fast. But the problem with the incredibly slow speed is that it is matched with permanent death mechanics. If your captain dies, that’s it. The ship, your crew, your money, the quests, all gone. The next captain, the descendent of the previous, can inherit some stats, and maybe even an item. But you need to start the entire game over again. This is extremely frustrating to say the least, and in the past has caused me to put the game down for extended periods. Thankfully with the Zubmariner DLC, you only need to do the zubmarine building quest once. After that, thank god, you may go to the same spot and collect the zub for any future games.
And yet in spite of these massive problems, I still found myself engrossed in the world of Sunless Sea. The game is just so fascinating. Even after losing hours of progress and having to start from scratch, I still felt a huge drive to get out there and discover more. The slow and clunky naval combat was still thrilling, and the atmosphere was still immersing. Atmosphere pulls a lot of weight. The music, the sounds, the colors, all of it goes so well together. This is an incredible game.
The version of Sunless Sea I played was for the Switch, and for the most part it was pretty good. The controls took a bit of getting used to, as I had previously played on PC, but I figured it out pretty quick. There aren’t that many mechanics that come into active gameplay, really just steering and shooting. I’m not sure if it was because I was playing it on handheld mode, but the screen did seem a little small. The HUD would occasionally get in the way while trying to see if an enemy was engaging me from the lower part of the screen, but certainly not game breaking. My personal preference is to play Sunless Sea with mouse and keyboard, but the Switch version is just about as good.
There really isn’t much to say about the Zubmariner DLC. It’s just more Sunless Sea content, now beneath the waves. More terrifying monsters, more settlements, and even less sun. There’s a good reason zubmersibles are banned in the world of Sunless Sea, and thats because what lies below is fucking nuts. But it’s also really cool. If you like Sunless Sea, you will absolutely love Sunless Sea: Zubmariner’s content.
The extremely good writing and atmosphere is undone by the extremely bad gameplay. A game for the truly tenacious lovers of nautical horror.