“The sea has never been friendly to man. At most, it has been an accomplice of human restlessness.” Those are the words of Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, the same words that appear when Sunless Sea loads. Considering it was originally written in 1899, they remain surprisingly fitting for a video game originally released in 2013. Sunless Sea, the second installment in Failbetter Games’ Fallen London franchise, has now been ported to the Nintendo Switch in the Zubmariner Edition, and we decided to dive in and find out how it fares.
Sunless Sea sees you play as a fill in the blanks protagonist who takes up being a sea captain (or Zee Captain, as they say on the waves) and explores the Unterzee, the underground body of water surrounding Fallen London and the numerous other cities and outposts of their underground world. As the game’s loading screen also warns you, your first Captain will probably fail and die, others may succeed, so don’t get too attached to your protagonist – or your map.
While playing Fallen London first does generally help your understanding of the world of Sunless Sea, it’s not essential. The game does a good job of explaining how the world works, so far in that the world mostly works, and some things you just have to accept as making no sense. If you can get over that, you’re good to go! And it’s not like the world works any more coherently in Fallen London, one might even say it works less so.
In terms of actual plot, the game has no one central story. You can choose to follow one of several ambitions or just spend your days sailing around the Unterzee trying not to get eaten, starting up illicit trade routes or forcing an island of guinea pigs and rats to go to war with each other. That’s the beauty though, you can choose to be whatever kind of Zee captain you want. You can rely on brute force, subtle trickery, vicious backstabbing, a strict moral code, or even descend into cannibalism. The fact that your map of the Unterzee changes with every new playthrough and every new Captain means that the world is never set up to give you the same experience twice, and the locations of ports in relation to one another can affect how you play the stories.
The game’s writing is absolutely magnificent, without a doubt is one of its strongest aspects. For those seeking a blend of the deliciously creepy Edgar Allan Poe prose, with the horrors of Lovecraft and the imagination of Greek mythology, you’ll find what you seek, all wrapped up in a twisted version of Victorian London. You’ll scream, you’ll cry, you’ll contemplate losing your lunch and you’ll laugh. At least, if you have a dark and twisted sense of humor you will. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t get past the “Lose Your Mind. Eat Your Crew” tagline in the first place.
While the writing and stories of Sunless Sea are top-notch, the game does fall down in the areas of difficulty and gameplay. The gameplay, for its part, is easy to grasp and get the hang of. All the buttons are marked on the Switch port, and there’s nothing too complicated to master. However, much like the original PC version, the game’s difficulty is absolutely brutal. Essentially, it’s very, very easy to lose the game at any point in the story, be it in the beginning or even after you’ve sunk dozens of hours into it. It’s not a game made for you to succeed, even by the standards of roguelikes.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it, and that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun challenge. However, even after you know your way around the game and know a fair bit about the world, you’ll still find yourself struggling with money, voyages, leveling up for plots, or other miscellaneous issues. To be fair, this stays true to the worldbuilding – the Unterzee itself is a harsh, unforgiving place that will drive you to madness and only the most foolhardy and brave would dare venture out from Fallen London to attempt to zail its waters. In practice, however, when you get killed by the Southern Continent’s Blue Prophet birds several times in a row, because really guys, you’re just trying to get to Port Carnelian, it’s more frustrating than immersive.
The Zubmarine expansion works to mitigate some of these issues if you’re savvy enough about how to use it. However, given that the Zubmarine and the ports unlocked by it are all found after several hours in the game, that doesn’t help when you’re just striking out and get mauled by a Lifeberg on your way to Whither or Codex. Still, being able to go under and around some particularly difficult parts of the map is a boon, though the zeefloor poses just as great a danger with some rather terrifying critters of its own – the Constant Companion comes readily to mind.
Unfortunately, while Sunless Sea still holds up as an excellent, albeit difficult, game, the port of it to the Nintendo Switch has not gone as well. Booting it up in handheld mode, I was disappointed to see that the graphics were extremely poorly optimized. All the text was too small, the pictures too big, and if you left your cursor highlighting anything for more than a second, the hovertext pops up and further obscures your view. For those who have a Switch Lite, you’ll likely find yourself squinting at the screen far more than is recommended.
Playing in docked mode was only marginally better. The text this time was at the right size, sometimes now too big, and the journal and pictures were still massive but fit better on a TV screen. Alas, the hovertext was still a big problem. And, what’s more, the controls for both docked and handheld mode were atrocious. The biggest issue I had was that the joystick you use to steer your ship only works in two directions instead of four. Pushing right to make it go up and left to steer down makes no sense, particularly when you take into account the fact this is a free-roaming exploration game and you can move your ship in any direction. There are no set paths to follow, and I was frequently confused by the controls and plowed into Wolfstack Docks before even leaving London proper.
Overall, Sunless Sea is still a gem of a game. It’s creative and creepy and is an excellent option for those looking for a challenging roguelike with lots of stories waiting to be told. Unfortunately, the difficulty isn’t suited for everyone, and the port to Switch is something of a disaster. Bottom line? Wait for a sale on PC, it’ll be worth it.
TechRaptor reviewed Sunless Sea on Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Fantastically Creepy Atmosphere
- Excellent Writing and Plots
- Wide Open Sandbox and Random Map Generation Give a Variety of Experiences
- Terrible Switch Port
- Off-Putting and Unrelenting Difficulty Levels