The Later Early Edition: Sunless Sea, 6 Months On

Starting an irregular series in which I revisit Early Access games a few months on from when I first tried them. Have they come along much? Does a finished game seem a realistic prospect?

Bit of a silly one to start this series with, given Sunless Sea hits 1.0 – and thus release status on February 6th, with a major update due around that time, but I’ve been yearning to revisit Sunless Sea’s mesmerisingly-written and impeccably menacing Fallen London for some time, so let’s do this anyway.

Sunless Sea, for the uninitiated, is a sort of naval RPG with a heavy focus on exploration and a resource conservation/survival system akin to FTL and The Oregon Trail. You set off from the Steampunk-does-Cthulu dock of Fallen London, seeking riches and knowledge out on the Broad Unterzee – a flooded, subterranean world full of horrors, secrets and upgrades to your ship and crew. Expertly yet playfully written, the words are perhaps the biggest draw – it reads like a cheekier, wilder take on Gaiman.

When first I visited it, Sunless Sea was in what I deem the good category of Early Access – those games which realise their key concept right off the bat, and then move to adding features and content on the long road to a full release. The bad category, at least according to my Iron Finger Of Infinite Judgement, comprises those games which are just a blunderbuss volley of random features with little-to-no meaningful sense of what the finished offering will play or feel like. You’ll probably hear me bang on about this pet theory quite a bit in this series. Sorry about that.

What Sunless Sea needed last Summer was not more coherence, but more content – both in terms of surprises and horrors lurking out in its further-flung waters, and in terms of reasons to be heading out in the watery darkness beyond the intrinsic pleasure of its ever-widening circles of exploration. It also needed its combat to be less onerous. Shooting giant crabs, living icebergs and murderous pirates is an important piece of the Sunless Sea jigsaw, but it’s very much secondary to mood. In its initial form, it actually undermined that mood.

It was an interruption to the sombre chugging along and the excitedly fearful choose-your-own-adventure capsule risk-taking of visits to ports. While traversing the Unterzee – the submerged ocean containing Fallen London and the various island ports around and far beyond it – I did not fear the monsters and brigands themselves, but the time and mechanical grind necessary to fight them.

That was the major complaint about Sunless Sea for many, and it is improved now. Combat now happens on the main screen, in full real-time, rather than the game cutting away to a separate, stilted menu screen that was vaguely reminiscent of the original X-COM’s interception aircraft battles. It’s still by far the least interesting aspect of Sunless Sea, but it’s so much quicker and it’s now dependent on direct control of your ship – turning circles and all that – rather than waiting for timers to recharge.

There’s real tension to it, in those moments when you realise the enemy has outmanoeuvred you, or when you ascertain that a creature has an attack pattern that you can take advantage of so long as you don’t cut corners. When I avoid combat now, it’s because I’m genuinely afraid that the hulking monstrosity in the foggy distance is going to destroy my ship and end my story, not because I simply can’t be bothered with it.

Another big helping hand is the addition of storyline quests. While there’s always been an overarching goal to some degree, it was hung more about how long (or whether) you could survive rather than any narrative purpose. For a game that includes quite as many words, and primarily wonderful words at that, as Sunless Sea does, perhaps going down the Oregon Trail wasn’t the right route. Really, it wants the slow unravelling of twisted tales, macabre (yet with just enough tongue in its cheek) personal odysseys. And so now we have it. The fate of a lost father. An unfathomably ill creature in search of the strange colours that will save it from a fate worse than death. The great game.

These are longer-term objectives, involving travels to far-off places that you will need to plan your trip to exceedingly carefully. Where once I played just to see how many guns I could upgrade, locations to mark on my map or crew members I could acquire, now I have more prescribed purpose in addition to that. Were it instead of that, some of Sunless Sea’s ‘let’s see what’s out there’ charm would be lost, but that it’s a choice, that both can be explored, builds the game higher.

There are incidental improvements too. More places looming out of the dark to the accompaniment of a sudden surge in the demonic sea shanty soundtrack. Weather, more creatures, a more sophisticated system for passing on a fraction of a dead character’s spoils to a new game. All of this adds up to a more complete feeling game, and while it could never have been accused of being spartan, the Unterzee does now seem to bubble with more life and colour. The cartographic presentation remains a delight.

The question I’m asking with every piece in this series is whether this Early Access game seems as though it will feasibly become a completed game any time soon, or if it seems mired in incremental progress (or not even that). It’s a bit of a moot question for Sunless Sea, given 1.0 arrives in two and half weeks, but at least I can tell you that it seems unlikely that 1.0 will be a broken or palpably unfinished game. Right now, there are evident missing chunks – particularly further-flung locations and some dialogue or quest options – but it very much seems as though the structure is complete. Then again, it always was, almost – the difference is now that there’s a lot more to do, see and read, and for much longer. Sunless Sea was one of RPS’ favourite games of 2014, and it looks as though the same will be true of 2015.

Sunless Sea is out on Early Access now. Version 1.0 arrives on February 6th. Apparently anyone who buys into the Early Access version will get all future DLC for free.

44 Comments

  1. Halk says:

    Even more coverage on games that are not finished? How come?

    • Shadow says:

      A significant chunk of the more interesting games out there is not finished yet.

      Which finished games deserving coverage has RPS not covered, in your opinion?

      • Halk says:

        That’s kind of the point. It seems that the only reason for coverage is that there is nothing finished worth covering, which does not seem to be a good enough reason. However that might just be me, since I don’t really get why anyone would play an early access game. Buy it, sure, if you want to support it, but why play it if it’s not done? It’s not like there’s a drought of games to play. Of course, there are some eminent exceptions, but they are usually a different kind of early access, like Nuclear Throne.

        To the following answer, I don’t really think “is it worth the time and money in this incarnation?” needs answering, because in any case it will be worth it more in its final incarnation.

        • Shadow says:

          But, again, which significant finished games aren’t receiving due coverage?

          It seems you’re merely arguing against the coverage of Early Access games in general more than trying to expose a perceived disproportion in coverage of such versus finished products.

          • Halk says:

            Yes, that was exactly my intention. For example, if a news programme did not have any relevant news, I would not care for the editors to rummage up irrelevant stories to fill the void, and that does not have anything to do with disproportion in coverage. If I don’t have gourmet food and I have to eat some tasteless rubbish that’s fine, because I need to eat; but it’s not like RPS need to churn out so many articles that they need to resort to publishing more than one evaluation on the early access of the same game.

            Judging from the other comments it seems most people find it interesting though, so point taken there.

        • Moth Bones says:

          I think RPS has plenty of readers – such as me – who are interested in early access games and are very pleased they get covered. For instance, I wouldn’t have known about Salt if RPS hadn’t awarded it one of its ‘bestest’ slots, and I’ve found it to be a charming experience. It doesn’t bother me at all that it isn’t finished; in fact, I like seeing how such games change over time.

        • Durkonkell says:

          This isn’t some preview build that only Alec can play. Early access games are on the market, and people can – and will – buy and play them in this form.

          For better or worse, early access is part of the gaming landscape now. Arguing that EA* games shouldn’t be covered because they aren’t done yet seems futile and arbitrary.

          (*early access games too, I suppose)

          • Halk says:

            Arbitrary? Maybe. Futile? Possibly. I’d still like it though.

            If those games had any chance to be finished, anyway.

        • Smoky_the_Bear says:

          Vicious circle though. More and more devs not caring about actually finishing their games because they are getting coverage and people are buying them regardless. I really wish early access would go away soon.

    • Geebs says:

      Actually I think this is exactly the sort of Early Access coverage that’s been needed; “is it worth the time and money in this incarnation?” has often not really been addressed in previews, resulting in a lot of excited punters who got upset with what they actually got for their cash.

      Looking forward to more in this series.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        “is it worth the time and money in this incarnation?”

        My answer to that would be “Is this incarnation a finished release?”
        If no, leave it alone.

    • kwyjibo says:

      Sunless Sea is going to be finished in a few weeks. Weird to start the column off with this when a WIT is just about due.

    • Arathain says:

      The fundamental answer to questions like this on a site like this is “because Alec took the time to play it, and thought it was interesting”. RPS only works as RPS if the writers follow the things that interested them.

      More specifically, early access is one of the most important trends in how games are created, marketed, sold and then played. Perhaps the most important in years. There are many games, declared unfinished, that you can pay money for. Some of these are worth your money now. Some of them never will be.

      Failing to write about this stuff would be a huge omission. The ongoing development over early access is a very big part of the character of this process. So I can only see it as useful and appropriate to revisit interesting titles.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        I disagree, I think the industry as a whole should be doing everything they can to remove the blight that is the practice of selling unfinished products. Giving these games coverage in the gaming press does the opposite of this.
        As the guy below me points out, previews, essentially what this is, used to be 1/4 of a gaming magazine, the difference being that people, due to sheer impatience and lack of self control couldn’t go out and spend their money on the preview version.

        • airmikee says:

          Has Early Access really done that much damage to the industry? PC hardware sales were up 20% for 2014, online video game sales were up 11% last year. The only segment of the market that decreased last year was games on disc, down 14%. I don’t want to pay for an unfinished game so I’ve never backed a KS or bought into EA, but if other people want to do so, more power to them, because it doesn’t affect me in any negative way. Aside from a couple of notable exceptions, Earth Year:2066 and DF:9, Early Access has been fairly successful in getting some games completed and finished that might not otherwise have been.

          If you bought an unfinished game and you’re unhappy with it, that’s your own fault for not understanding the program before you dropped money on it. If you haven’t bought an unfinished game, how has Early Access affected you? You’re upset that previews in gaming magazines aren’t as featured anymore? You’re upset that other people spend their money on things you don’t like?

          If you don’t like the EA program, great. But if other people get a game funded, the only way it could possibly affect you is the chance there will be another game on the market that you might want to play. Is that a bad thing? Really?

          • ikbenbeter says:

            I feel Early Access and KS are very different things, though. With KS you pay to fund the production of a product and (usually) get the product. It’s true many KS campaigns include EA since it’s a great way to stay in contact with backers, but they are very different.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Ever heard of previews? Mainstay of gaming press for decades. Only difference here is that everyone can pay to play the current build, so it’s easier to deliver info/opinions. Right?

    • jrodman says:

      I’m torn. I sort of want the early-access genie to go back into the bottle, myself. Comparably, I’d love to see more focus on games that have been shipped. Personally I enjoy picking up and digging into titles that are years old, but I recognize that the current is more popular.

      The timing is a little odd, but I don’t think important. I don’t think very much will change between now and ship date so I don’t see a need to delay this a week or month or whatever. There’s no guarantee the game will become unchanging after that date.

      Personally I’ve been avoiding Sunless Sea because I’m dreading having to figure out how to get ahold of it from my Kickstarter backing. Someone should make a little centralizer download solution for Kickstarter games.

      • jonahcutter says:

        It’s not going back in the bottle. It is a new funding model that is proving wildly successful at bringing us games that otherwise likely would not of seen the light of day.

        I love that the new model exists. But even if you hate it, you might as well get used to it. It’s not going anywhere.

        • jrodman says:

          Yeah, obviously. That’s why I used that idiom.

        • Smoky_the_Bear says:

          We’ll see I guess, I can see the early access bubble bursting once a few more high profile games fail to materialise entirely. I just don’t understand why people would want to play wildly inferior versions of games just because they are not willing to wait but “monkey see, monkey want” I guess.

      • alexiskennedy says:

        Don’t worry! Literally all you need to do is bang your email address (the one you used for KS) here

        link to humblebundle.com

        and it’ll send you a download link and also an optional Steam key.

        • jrodman says:

          Thanks, but this is an example of one of the sorts of things I don’t like about the kickstarter experience. Why is my kickstarter email address being handed over to humble bundle? I gave humble bundle their own email address.

          Passing around email addresses is not best practice, and leads to spam.

          • alexiskennedy says:

            We’ve just given Humble a list of email addresses which are entitled to redeem keys. They won’t use it for any other purpose.

            But nevertheless, if this is a problem for you, drop us a line at sunlesssea@failbettergames.com (from your KS address), and we’ll provide you with a Steam key.

          • jrodman says:

            My desire is that business entities respect their customers by keeping their contact information confidential. You’ve already handed the address over to a third party, at this point I don’t have a problem typing it into their web form.

          • jrodman says:

            For what it’s worth, I should point out that humble bundle did their part by doing all the legwork to solve this problem. They offer unique-address web pages the reference a purchased item with no contact info required. You could have just mailed those out without sharing email addresses.

        • ikbenbeter says:

          wow, thanks! I had completely forgotten I had backed it, but it turns out I have. So now I have it on steam :3

    • wu wei says:

      Can’t we have just one article about an Early Access game that doesn’t instantly devolve into an argument about the program’s merits?

  2. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    I’m kind of tempted to pick this up. Is it less repetitive and grindy than Fallen London? I don’t mind a repetitive and grindy game–I preordered the Monster Hunter 4 3DS bundle–but I got tired of seeing the exact same scenarios over and over.

    • Loam says:

      Much less repetitive than Fallen London, especially since FL’s primary form of content-gatekeeping is stat levels — Sunless Sea has very, very little of that, since the hazards of the dark and merciless zee are enough of a “gate” in and of themselves. And of course, no imposed action caps.

      • Cryptoshrimp says:

        I would, of course, humbly disagree and posit that Sunless Sea is still quite grindly – not as much as opposed to Fallen London, sure, but that doesn’t say a whole lot.

        • Loam says:

          The question was, in fact, asking about it relative to Fallen London. And my answer also specifically discussed it relative to Fallen London. What exactly are you disagreeing with?

  3. Fnord73 says:

    ” Expertly yet playfully written, the words are perhaps the biggest draw – it reads like a cheekier, wilder take on Gaiman.”

    No, it reads like a ripoff from China Miéville. And thats a good thing.

    • wu wei says:

      Everybody should read The City & the City and Embassytown.

    • existentiallee says:

      Aaah! …And the edges of Bas-Lag are unexplored…

    • Lumpfish says:

      Nah, it’s more a chirpy, knowing take on fin-de-siecle grotesquery, spiced with a dash of early weird fiction and a bit of T.S. Eliot for flavour.

      That said, everyone should also read The Scar: it’s lovely. The inclusion of an avanc in Sunless Sea might cause me to squeal like a ten-year-old.

  4. Verio says:

    This is a great idea for a series, please keep it up. The last few years I’ve really begun to get exhausted with the reporting on Early Access games. So often an article (here or elseware) gets my attention, and I go “Oh cool!” and my interest is immediately deflated when I see “Early access” which can be loosely translated as “who cares for another 12 months” in most cases.

    The other issue here is that RPS, whose coverage I generally love, seems to cover Early Access releases with great gusto very often… and then never comes back to cover them at release. I often find myself looking at a game on Steam and googling to see if RPS covered it… and its disheartening to find a 12-18 month old article with lots of enthusiasm about a game’s Early Access release, and then no subsequent coverage regarding whether the final product is worth a damn.

    • Shadowcat says:

      Yes, I would dearly love to see RPS implement a policy whereby they promise to write some kind of post-release follow-up about every game they write an “early access” article about.

      Writing an “early access” article would mean that a future “to do” item would be logged, to revisit the game in some way once it gets released.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean a full review. The follow-up article could simply reconsider some of the notable points of the original article to see whether or not the game has improved, and immediately be a thousand times more useful than the tumbleweeds we frequently get instead.

  5. AngoraFish says:

    I like your pet theory very much. In my experience, if a game doesn’t have a good dollop of fun at the early, early access stage it is very unlikely indeed that it will miraculously become fun at some arbitrary point in the future.

  6. Nokturnal says:

    Ordinarily I would not get involved in a discussion like this because it’s quite clear that some people have a strong opinion and they simply don’t want to take the other side’s opinions on board (for whatever reason).
    But I foolishly am compelled to point out that many who are complaining about Early Access are ignoring the point that many EA titles are also allowing people the opportunity to help shape the game they way they would like to see it, not simply play before it’s finished because they are impatient ADHD children…

    Sure some such as DayZ are more or less just asking for a cash injection and are best off in the ‘buy if you want, but play when finished’ category. But the very often brought up title, Prison Architect is a great example of being a game you can play, help to add changes (and find bugs) and enjoy yourself for many many months before those who decide to wait it out.
    I’ve had that game for close to a year now and being that it’s a replayable game as it is, buying early is a fine idea because you can simply replay it again when a new update is delivered to check out the new changes and either enjoy them or head to the forums to debate whether they should remain in.

    In X months/years when it’s finished I guarantee there will be people complaining about this or that feature, and they will probably ignore the fact that they did have the chance to change that, but instead decided that it wasn’t important enough because they didn’t want to buy it early.
    Which is fine, it’s their choice – But I’ll be more than happy to say tough shit to them when they have complaints about features missing or existing.

    Over the last year I have probably seen and experienced just as much, if not more issues with ‘finished’ games than I have with EA games. So I don’t mind that the format remains and I am glad that RPS decides that EA games are worthy of a preview, and love the idea of a catch-up preview a few months later.

    Also I don’t see how it’s damaging the industry, pretty sure the industry is doing a fine job of that itself…Looking at you Ubi, EA and other ‘big dogs’…

    • jrodman says:

      For me personally, I’ve had quite enough “helping to shape software” experiences in both my gaming lifetime and my career in the software industry. I’m quite familiar with how frustratingly the experience is for those who care about the outcome and have relevant, well-considered input that is typically not able to be used at all for various constraining reasons.

      There may be some standout exceptions, but I’d rather skip over that in the general case.

      • Nokturnal says:

        Yeah that’s a very good point too actually. In fact it’s not just constraints or issues the devs may have but issues the other fans have which can rule out changes/fixes for a game.
        I don’t usually get myself involved in the design process because most of the time I don’t really mind how it turns out (Zomboid and PA are examples of that) and as you say it can be very frustrating when knocked back and/or ignored. Then to see the project go in the wrong (in your own eyes) direction is disheartening…

        I had a good experience with Doorkickers. My first day of playing I made a couple of suggestions for the game and within the next two updates they had been included. Not because they were ‘the best thing ever!!’ But because they were suggestions for things that others had no reason to say no to and were probably not that much work for the devs.
        In other games, myself and friends have made suggestions to (in our eyes) improve things, but as they diverted a bit from the current gameplay the fans who had been there longer shot us down very quickly, and loudly – Which is probably the case with most games that are far enough into development to have a hardcore fanbase.

        At the end of the day, if we really won’t be seeing the end of EA style releases then we need more previews/reviews based on updated versions. If a game looks fun early on, but takes a turn for the worse 6 months later then those who have been waiting but not paying close attention would probably be glad to be able to take it off the wishlist.
        Personally I have more EA games on wish/watchlists purely because they seem to be offering the greater variety. Games produced/published by the big companies seem to be focusing on sequels more and more. Or pretend new games like Dying Light from the Dead Island devs – I’m sure it’ll be a fun game, but it’s just a sequel with a new mechanic or two.

        Anyway, rant mode off – Sorry to those who actually read my posts, I’ve not been here long but already find myself typing essays as comments.
        This is why I don’t sign up to these sites…

  7. SwiftRanger says:

    These kind of early access state-of-the-game articles are helpful and necessary but I wouldn’t want them to overshadow the rest of RPS content. That is not the case currently so that’s alright. I just mean that in some cases it would be a wasted effort to cover a game because it might not be released (properly). You don’t have to look far for that (that Spacebase DF-9 game from Double Fine for example).

    A type of post-release state-of-the-game kind of article should be more prevalent on this site though. Not just words about a certain experience or a nostalgia back trip (there’s plenty of that on RPS, still not of the real niche titles in my opinion). No, what I mean is a real status update of how publishers and developers support their game once it’s out for real. There are plenty of released games which still have lingering problems or which have received very big improvements. Yet the former case is barely getting any coverage if it isn’t a big-bad-AAA title (and especially no coverage if the problems persist for a few months) and the latter only gets a newspost at best. An old game that barely functions on Steam (or GOG, still, mostly Steam versions that got troubles)? No mentions here. Free DLC? Won’t see a WIT of that. Paid DLC, of course that always needs an opinion. Articulating a thoughtful piece on a game and pointing out if it just friggin’ works or ever gets fixed at all are both necessary pieces of information. No “Have you played… ?”-article is going to make sense if you can’t signal multiple problems with trying to play these games on a modern rig through various online stores for example. Yes, it’s boring to look up and test that kind of stuff but that’s also a part of why we visit a game site: to be informed about that rather important question: whether a (retro) game isn’t (still) bugged to hell or not?

    It’s a general game media problem though. The major bummer here is that it lets us forget some real shining gems while AAA titles and favorited indie games get overexposure. There isn’t a middle ground apparently.

    Nice that you’re writing about games you like but I have the impression you should try to reach a broader spectrum, both of the new and the retro stuff.