Sunless Sea: Zubmariner – Review!

The lower it goes, the darker it grows.

Perhaps he’d like to blame his crew’s horrible fate on mechanical failure, or even the arbitrary whim of an uncaring god, but it was Captain Felix Fiormo himself that brought about their end. When the watchman reported a dull glow in the distant murk, any captain with a lick of sense would have surfaced immediately and made for a friendly port. Almost nothing that floats, wriggles, or glides through the oily waters of the ‘Neath is benign, and if it were, it certainly would not announce its presence with light. But they pressed on, driven by curiosity and an arrogant lust for glory that damned them more completely with each breath they stole from the waves. Moments later, the light resolved itself into a coherent shape: an enormous golden orb, pulsing with enough power to illuminate the deep for kilometers in every direction. Onwards they drove. Over the objections of his first mate, Captain Fiormo mercilessly plunged the zubmarine right into the heart of the submerged star. The light burned their eyes – not with flame, but with truth. Shadows fled like bulkheads at its touch. The hum of the engines grew to a roaring chant.

“…HE SUN THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN T…”

I suppose I could have just told you, “My first attempt at Zubmariner ended prematurely when I idiotically decided to sail into the sun and everyone went nuts and died”, but the joy at the heart of Sunless Sea is found in the words. The game is elegantly summed up on its website as “agonising choices presented in beautiful prose”, which is an apt description of what my experience has been like while playing both Sunless Sea, Failbetter’s original game, and Zubmariner, its first expansion, which is scheduled to be released today on Humble, GOG and Steam.

Sunless Sea (I alwayz ztruggle not to zay Zunlezz Zea) offers players a huge game world to explore, dominated by the Unterzee, a subterranean ocean mostly cut off from the rest of the world that still thrives outside its walls. In this universe’s alternate history, London fell through the earth’s crust at some point in the 1860s, but remained largely intact and continued going about its usual business of exploring the seas, establishing colonies, and advocating independence for itself while resisting the independence movements of its constituent states drinking tea. Players take on the role of a ship’s captain in this steampunk world, and venture across the Unterzee in search of… well, actually, that part is up to you.

The game is non-linear to a fault, encouraging you to find your own paths across the zee and offering multiple routes to completion. It also has some mild roguelite features, suggesting that you disable manual saves and offering you in-universe methods to pass down your accomplishments to a successor (some might also call these features unnecessary from the perspective of game mechanics, and they’d be right, but I think they help to establish that Lovecraftian sense of hopelessness and inevitable doom that is so fundamental to the Fallen London universe). The game is split into two different forms of play: the open seas, which see you trying to balance fuel, supplies, and hull damage while venturing across a 2.5D map, and events at port, which are presented in the form of a choose-your-own-adventure novel.

We're whalers on the zee, this lady is creepy...

Zubmariner takes this formula and, respectably staying true to the meaning of the word “expansion”, adds new layers to it through the introduction of a significant new mechanic (submarines, duh) and a new zone built around that mechanic. There’s also new story content to be found at existing ports, which I’ll talk about in a bit more detail later. It’s a healthy serving of alphabet soup, too; while I can’t find any indication of how many words are in the expansion, the original contained a quarter of a million, and Zubmariner doesn’t feel that much lighter in comparison.

After I downloaded the expansion and loaded up my old game, I was greeted by a simple message directing me (the player, not the captain) to go to Port Carnelian to start the process of converting my ship into a zubmarine. To be honest, that underwhelmed me a little. There was no attempt to integrate the message into the story, which seemed like a rather obvious missed opportunity. Ultimately, I wrote it off as something that could probably be blamed on the press build I was running, rather than any sort of clumsy integration of the finished product with the base game, but I’ll be keeping an eye on what other people are saying about it when the game hits the virtual shelves.

After arriving at Port Carnelian, you are offered the opportunity to refit your ship to support underwater travel. Failbetter took the right approach here by making the modifications relatively cheap and easy to acquire: the first stage requires you to partially fund the conversion process (this being Sunless Sea, you’re expected to do it with stories; I used an Extraordinary Implication), and the second requires you to visit one of two possible locations and return. Unless you’re playing a completely fresh-faced captain with a blank map and no stories, you should be able to have your ship converted within a half-hour of gameplay. You’re also able to return to Port Carnelian with future captains to have the modifications applied to their ships for free, which is one concession of story to gameplay expediency that I’m happy to accept.

Once you sail away from port, you can transform your ship into a zubmarine by pressing “T”. The conversion process is intricately rendered, and it’s a real joy to watch the bronze, telescoping shell slowly enclose your upper decks. It’s a lengthy process, though, lasting several seconds, during which you are effectively immobile and completely vulnerable to nearby hazards (this also holds true when you attempt to surface). This means you have to pick and choose your moments, and can’t simply dive or surface every time you find yourself in trouble.

If you look closely, you can actually see my wake in front of my ship as I frantically try to back away.

I’m pleased to say that the depths of the Unterzee are gorgeous. Silt swirls in your wake and gets carried away by currents, bioluminescent creatures haunt the shadows, ruined monuments loom out of the darkness as you turn your lamp… it’s everything I could have asked for, from an aesthetic standpoint. The use of light to build atmosphere, always a particular strength of Sunless Sea, is taken up to eleven in the expansion, largely due to the all-encompassing gloom that heightens the contrast when a burst of brilliant colour suddenly glides onto the screen. I’m particular enamored with the odd orbs of concentrated colour that you can periodically find growing on the ocean floor; these will suddenly collapse as you pass, momentarily blinding you with a brilliant flash of neon light.

In terms of music, I didn’t notice any new songs playing while I was playing the expansion, but it is not without its auditory charms. The normal music is appropriately muffled while you are submerged, but is still clear enough to be enjoyed. Intermittently, something resembling whale song can be heard in the background, but it resounds with an eerie regularity that sends it across some sort of musical event horizon, making it sound like a temple chant as well. For me, it conjured up images of the underwater assembly of some leviathan cult, which is a remarkably specific and appropriate scene for a game to be able to evoke through sound.

Exploration of the depths is functionally very similar to what we’re used to from the surface, but there are a few distinctions that are worth mentioning. First and most notably, you have an oxygen meter, which is mercifully not nearly as intrusive as other games might have conditioned you to expect. You have enough oxygen for somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3-4 minutes of underwater travel, more than sufficient for most journeys between ports. You also receive ample warning when your reserves are running low, allowing you time to surface and replenish your supplies. For those who really don’t want to sit through that lengthy transformation sequence again, there are also oxygen deposits to be found on the ocean floor, so it’s possible to extend the amount of time that you can spend submerged.

Perspective changes everything.

Your zee-bat, which is used on the surface to scout for land, has been replaced with sonar, which will alert you to nearby underwater settlements (not surface ones, though, despite the fact that you can occasionally find underwater ports without being submerged), as well as highlighting points of interest that are hidden in the dark. These discoveries have to be illuminated with your lamp before they can be identified, which means sailing up close enough that they can pose a serious threat if they turn out to be hostile.

This speaks to the nature of the new zone. The depths are high-risk, high-reward. There’s plenty of fuel, supplies, and other treasure to be found amongst the sunken wrecks in the deep, but the creatures that live amongst it are some of the largest and most terrifying ever encountered in the game. I’ve been using the starter ship, so I’ve been avoiding almost all of them, and unfortunately cannot speak to how they might shake up Sunless Sea’s arguably weak combat system (though I did notice that at least one natural creature has a ranged attack).

As far as I can tell, though, the combat system is still weak. The one exception to my “avoid the giant new enemies” policy was a wreckship (it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like) with 200 health to my 75. Even armed with nothing but starter gear, I easily exploited its inability to shake a tail and sunk it. Admittedly, it did deal some significant damage to my hull, and I lost a particularly clumsy crew member while trying to loot its hold, but the point is that I took it down without too much difficulty, despite my smaller size and armament. This has always been a problem for Sunless Sea, particularly in ship versus ship combat, and doesn’t appear to have been addressed by the expansion.

Beyond zee-monsters and sunken treasure, the depths also contain a few ports, as I alluded to earlier. There aren’t very many, mind you; while I don’t think I found them all, I searched the map pretty extensively and only uncovered five or so. Still, they uphold Sunless Sea’s reputation for providing gamers with some of the most unique settings and eloquent writing that we’ve seen since Planescape: Torment, and, in my opinion, include some of the most spectacular-looking locales found in the game to date.

Nothing ominous about this whatsoever.

I mentioned searching the map, which brings me to my single biggest issue with the expansion. Despite the fact the depths are essentially their own zone, they are represented using the same map as the surface. Or, to be more accurate, they are not represented at all. The only underwater features to appear on the map are small blue circles representing the ports, with no indication made of rocks or other topographical obstacles. What’s even worse is that the fog on the map, indicating unexplored territory, is shared between both layers, completely ignoring the fact that you can easily miss an entire port if you’re not on the same level as it. Needless to say, this is all immensely frustrating.

After only a couple of hours with the expansion, I found myself desperately wishing that Failbetter had opted to include a separate chart for the depths. Ideally, this would also offer players the option to overlay the map of the surface (and vice versa) with the press of a button, letting us keep track of our travels on both levels without cluttering up the default chart. Hopefully we’ll see this issue resolved in a future update, but for now it’s an annoying blemish on an otherwise fine expansion.

My cartographical issues ensured that the majority of ports that I stopped in at were familiar ones on the surface. Fortunately, Failbetter has included a plethora of new story content in these locations as well, and I found myself caught up in all sorts of escapades, missions, and deals that kept me eager to revisit old haunts just to see what had changed. The new content is as solid as anything that came before, and the occasional spelling mistake or typo can be forgiven, considering the volume of text that went into this project.

And that, I think, is the most important consideration for any potential buyer. If you enjoyed the base game, with its blend of atmospheric exploration and phenomenal text-based gameplay, then Zubmariner is quite a catch (terrible pun defiantly and most definitely intended). It expands upon and improves the fundamental aspects of the base game, adding a thick layer of story content and a well-integrated new mechanic – one that brings a welcome new dimension to exploration without undermining the formula that made the original game work. While there definitely are a few rough edges to be found, this a true expansion, and not just DLC (and I maintain that there is a difference).

Zubmariner is being sold for $11.99 CAD, which is more than fair, in my opinion, considering the amount of lovingly-crafted new content packed into this product. Those who enjoyed the writing of the original but were put off by the slow pace of the gameplay or the limitations of the combat system might consider waiting for a sale, since neither of those aspects of the game appear to have significantly changed, but I’d still recommend picking it up when you can for the sake of the lovely (if occasionally mind-bending) prose alone.

As for Captain Felix Fiormo, his bones later washed up near the Grand Geode and were stolen by a dog. His rival, a dapper old gentleman named Cornelius Clamhole, managed to inherit his fortune and townhouse and has set out upon the HMS It’s Only a Small Leak to seek fame and fortune of his own. He has recently managed to become initiated in the mysteries of Aigul, and come to know the pain of the regretful needle. Time will only tell the manifold pressures of a life beneath the waves drive him as mad as his predecessor, or if he becomes the first in a long line of captains to survive his dalliances with the deep gods of the zee.

I don’t like his chances.

FINAL SCORE: According to the ancient and hallowed scale of Scrubs seasons (with Season 5 being the highest and Season 9 being the lowest), Zubmariner scores season 4.

Please note that the article was edited on 2016/10/12 to specify the sale price.

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