Thursday, 3 July 2014

Sunless Sea - Early Access Analysis

We're going to be doing things a little different today, as this is a look into a game that's not finished. There's still a great deal of work to be done to it, many problems or minor errors to remove, but it still has a great deal of potential. More than enough to warrant giving it a look now and playing through the locations already established. That game would be Sunless Sea.

Set in the same universe as Failbetter Games' excellent Fallen London, the game sees you captaining a ship and attempting to make a life for yourself in the monster infested underground zee. That's really it, from there on you make your own choices and the world is your oyster with any decisions, actions or plot threads arising thanks to your actions. In almost every respect it emulates what made the likes of Wing Commander: Privateer and Freelancer such fantastic titles, but goes a few steps further.

Now, the game's biggest strengths are its freedom of choice and setting. The former is ultimately down to the player, as the game does not hold your hand in any way. While there are minor tutorials, you are not railroaded into an easy quest or given any kind of safety net as you start off. You just choose the background of your captain, from his/her history to ambitions, and then sail off into the unknown. 

What happens from there is up to you, and it's extremely easy to make the wrong mistake. Pilot your cutter right into the jaws of oblivion or be forced into a situation you cannot hope to win? Tough luck, you'll need to start over. The underground sea surrounding Fallen London is one brimming with ancient monsters, pirates and the unquiet dead. It's the sort of world you would get if the Discworld books were handed over to Alan Moore if he'd been on a Cthulhu Mythos binge: Surreal, insane, nightmarish and with a very good chance of ending in babbling insanity. It rewards caution and careful preparation, and will only reward daring risks at the right time. Given this is a title with FTL: Faster Than Light as one of its big inspirations, that should really come as no surprise.

Much like the aforementioned Privateer, the major system in place is that you need to make a life for yourself however you can. Hunting pirates and sea monsters will bring you glory, but not nearly as much gold as trading between the various island nations. Each one has different needs and will pay varying costs for whatever you offer, so keeping track of what the buying cost of each one's needs are essential to making a successful venture. An easy one right from the outset is ferrying the bandaged dead men of London to the northern tomb colony of Venderblight. Doing these allows you to build up cash, experience and fight a few smaller pirate ships and zee-bat swarms along the way, the latter helpfully reducing either your crew's hunger or their terror levels.

Speaking of the crew, while much of Sunless Sea comes down to the adventure and trade side of things, there are significant RPG elements. The most obvious of these are the management of fuel, supplies and equipping your ship with bigger and better systems, but then there's the crew themselves. You can hire up to eight officers and even have certain crewmen join you with their own personal stories to tell. These range from eccentric gunners to exiled squidmen and former magicians with a grudge against old monsters of the zee. Right clicking on them periodically will allow you to speak with them and converse, driving their story on a little further under the right circumstances. This adds another edge to the game and helps seriously flesh out the experience of being on the zee, making your crew feel like more than just equipment.

Each island in question offers more than just a series of shops to visit and look at, with their own artwork, descriptions and notes helping to flesh them out. Along with the brilliantly atmospheric music for each one (seriously, the composer deserves at least enough credit as the writers on this one), the random quests add additional flavour to each visit. Stumbling into Venderblight for example can result in you recruiting a man frantic to escape the city, only to learn he has created a shrine to an old god on the lower decks later on. Preventing his prayer or allowing it will actually influence how the god views you, as will playing to the various superstitions of the crew in random encounters.

Another RPG element actually comes in the form of the combat. Rather than more traditional shooting, Failbetter Games opted for a turn-based system to fight enemies one at a time. As you are trapped in a vast underground cave, precision is extremely difficult and you need to light up the enemy before you can fire. Using eyesight, mirrors, flares and other devices, you must light up the enemy to a certain point where you can start shooting. All the while you need to dodge out of their own search lights, lowering your own visibility bar to help avoid attacks. 

As each attack comes with its own countdown time until it comes into effect, the game rewards quick planning and adapting to each enemy. Some can light you up faster requiring a more defensive approach, while others will much more easily shrug off your attacks. You can only chain a few moves at a time on your bar, so frequently pausing to consider your options is a must. While not quite what some people wanted, it none the less remains a surprisingly engaging system which prevents you from being swamped by foes.

Now, all this is good but there are some definite problems which still plague the game at the moment. It's nothing staggeringly bad or some massive critical flaw, but certain points which require definite tweaking. Foremost among these is the sustainability and options early on. 

Now, travelling back and forth between the closest islands is fine, but you only have so many options. There are no profitable trade routes which can be made between the nearby Mutton Island and London, and little can really be sold in Venderblight beyond Tomb Colonists. What's more is that even sticking to the safer routes barely earns you enough to maintain your ship, let alone build towards anything more, as so many things seem to be of so little value. 

Even going further away and risking more is a problem thanks to the terror meter the game adds. The longer you are at sea, or horrifying sights you witness, the more this meter goes up. Fine, it's a great risk rewards system, but the chief issue is that there's no way to deal with it. It costs an arm and a leg to remove even a handful of terror points, and trying to get more cash to lower it will just keep racking it up higher. There's seemingly no reliable way to maintain it and it really creates a big problem for the game. Even making bigger risks such as sailing about collecting reports on the islands barely earns you anything. Brave sea monsters, madness and nightmares to bring back a report on another civilization on the other side of the zee? You're given less cash than bringing back the damage hull of a small pirate ship which spawns near London.

Things honestly got so bad that I had to personally resort to using a bug in the Admiral's office to create infinite cash to get it down, because there was no other way. Then of course, because i'm not one to let such a failing go un-exploited, used the same cheat to make Captain Jonah Taugis, living in a small rented room and owning a small cutter, into Lord Commander Taugis. Owner of his personal estate and legendary figure who hunted down giant angler crabs from with dreadnought the Terminus Est. Even this came with its problems however, as the programmers had yet to scale the acceptable crew size between ships, meaning the dreadnought had ten crewmen rather than the required forty.

Finally, the really big issue was that beyond basic stats the officers seemed to offer little to help traverse the zee. Their stats boosts and individual quests were all fine and good, but there's few limitations or bonuses beyond that for not having a full compliment. For example, getting a cook gives you certain modifiers, but it does not affect your crew's level of consumption in any way or avoid certain food related issues.

However, what makes this more acceptable, and is the primary reason I personally recommend this game over other Early Access titles, is thanks to their road map. As seen here, the developers outline exactly what still needs to be fixed and better developed before the game is finished along with personal notes and dates. It offers far more reliability and transparency than with other games and better displays how things are progressing.

The game definitely needs work and suffers from many problems, but for all the criticisms made it's still one which you can happily sink many hours into if you're in the right mindset. If you're willing to accept that certain bugs and flaws will be hammered out as time goes by and love the setting, definitely give Sunless Sea a look. That said, I would still personally suggest looking at Fallen London first to get a better idea of the setting and its appeal.

Also, because I don't get to do this enough in reviews:

Come monster, face your ruin before our guns!
Terminus Est thirsts for your blood!

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