Genre: RPG, Adventure
As the title implies, Sunless Sea takes place over a darkened sea where you must explore and investigate mysterious waters, battle extraordinary creatures and dock on treacherous lands to eventually meet your desired end. What your ultimate objective is, however, and where you choose to set sail is entirely up to you, as Sunless Sea supplies an enormous amount of customization and freedom of choice as an immensely replayable RPG / text adventure / top-down shooter hybrid.
Sunless Sea is mostly a role-playing game, with heavy emphasis on the role: players choose their characters, backstories, and overall objectives right from the get-go. The objectives range from attaining a lot of money to retire, completing a high number of quests to write a novel, or finding the lost remains of your long-lost father. Your selection of objective will alter the strategy of the game, and since certain character backstories provide advantageous attributes, it’s highly recommended that you design your character with an eye to the goals that you hope to attain. Once these options are set, or automatically determined if you so choose, the game begins with your ship stationed at a dock.
Whenever players find themselves stationed at a dock, the game becomes somewhat akin to a text adventure. An interactive manuscript will pop-up with a number of selectable quests and objectives, complete with written dialogue and illustrations of characters accompanying the missions. Many of these quests can only be unlocked and completed if the right objects or skill sets have been acquired. This means a lot of travelling island-to-island completing other quests, winning battles along the way, and exploring obscure locations to obtain the appropriate objects and skill-sets to complete and unlock more objectives.
To get to the core of this fetch-based gameplay, players need only to close out the manuscript and the game will then transform into a top-down boat shooter. This allows players to sail their ships across the wretched waters in full-motion WASD controls where they can explore the unknown and dock at other islands by pressing E when prompted. When the ship docks again the manuscript will re-appear with new stories and objectives based on the location. The simple back-and-forth sailing from island-to-island, however, is broken up quite well with random combat on the ocean surface. These random enemy encounters are reminiscent of RPGs like Final Fantasy or Pokemon.
Combat involves sea creatures and rogue vessels that will attack your ship on approach. Your ship’s weapons have a specific range of fire, indicated by a shade of red that projects from the bow, while an interface appears from the bottom of the screen with your available weaponry. At the start of the adventure your ship is supplied with just a basic head gun. Killing enemies provides you with money and collectibles - which can then be used to upgrade both your vessel and its weapons. It’s worth noting that your weapons take so long to reload that gameplay actually feels turn-based early on. Overall, the combat system very much resembles a leveling system one might expected from a traditional RPG.
Completing enough missions, exploring every corner of the ocean, strategically upgrading your ship, recruiting crew members and keeping morale high and hunger levels low are keys in making challenges easier and more survivable. Unfortunately, with all of the factors involved, expect to die and lose a lot. This is actually a large part of Sunless Sea’s appeal, as you’re continuously forced to restart and experiment with different characters, attributes, backstories, alternative routes of exploration and different story choices. It’s all about finding the right strategy and honing a proper execution to achieve one of the ultimate objectives.
Notably, Sunless Sea automatically updates from time-to-time to provide even more story options and missions. This makes the title resemble more of an endless sea than simply a sunless one. The huge amount of options and countless possibilities create an immensely lasting experience, which is by far the biggest appeal of the title. For hardcore RPG / text adventure fans, Sunless Sea delivers an enormous amount of narrative content with a healthy blend of gameplay elements from both genres that guarantees hours of entertainment, particularly if one ventures on every avenue of exploration.
The hearty narrative content and countless possibilities through the extensive RPG customization, unlockables, and huge game world are Sunless Sea’s primary offerings. Because of this, from a critical standpoint, it’s harder to evaluate much of anything else the title offers. The graphics are clear and crisp, but visually you’re mostly just looking at darkened water and words on a page. The character graphics are nicely done, but nothing about them jumps off the screen. The music and sound serve their purposes, but they're extremely minimal and mostly just background ambience. Furthermore, there is no voice acting. While the game mechanics are commonplace and familiar, there are no true puzzles to speak of, but merely simple object-collecting broken up by combat on the water.
That is, of course, because these things play second fiddle to the narrative content by which RPG-purists are sure to be captivated. With constant story quest updates, numerous paths of execution, countless quests and multiple characters to find - with a fairly decent top-down combat system breaking things up scene-to-scene - Sunless Sea is a perfect title I which to lose many an hour. Unfortunately, the rich content Sunless Sea provides doesn’t match a rich gameplay core; it mostly consists of an overly-elaborate fetch-quest underneath a traditional role-playing experience. Hardcore role-players will have plenty here to keep them entertained, but the rather standard core gameplay will likely turn off gamers more prone to other genres. In other words, although there are a fair amount of adventure game elements, most adventure gamers would find Sunless Sea too RPG-reliant to appreciate its text adventure qualities.
+ Endless story content
+ Many variables provide many possibilities and multiple outcomes
+ Inherent replayability
+ Nice blend of multiple game genres: RPG, text adventure, top-down shooter
- Core gameplay essentially standard fetch-questing
- Not a lot of substance outside of the narrative content
- Mostly inclined toward role-playing purists
- Expect to fail a lot