Sunless Sea: How Zubmariner Lured Me In

I’ve just jettisoned a wounded zailor while underwater. It was to free up a last gasp of oxygen for the rest of my crew as I frantically try to ascend from the depths of the Zee in Sunless Sea’s [official site] Zubmariner update. As the screen fades to black (to resurface, not to die horribly) I wonder whether to imagine the departed comrade as being the same zailor I pulled from a wreckage on the zeebed moments ago and thus add a rather tragic tale of fleeting hope and cutthroat practicality to my expedition.

My other option is to imagine that the wreck survivor is safe aboard while some loyal minion with a few cuts and bruises has been consigned to the abyss like in that episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race where Trixie Mattel gets to rejoin the competition after being eliminated once already and Jaidynn Diore Fierce must sashay away despite having survived far longer in the process.

Some DLC feels designed to lure newcomers, to expand the experience but to do so without mandating much knowledge of the base game. Other DLC skews towards rewarding the faithful, giving you a new challenge to sink your teeth into once you’ve mined out the original content. Zubmariner feels very much like the latter, but I’m coming to it as a newcomer. The lure has worked and now I’m hooked, but it has also been a slightly wonky process of getting into the game.

To explain a bit more, I came to Sunless Sea for the Zubmariner content. The timing of the DLC coincides with a period where I’m seeking out storytelling games, dipping into interactive fiction, and luxuriating in curious uses of language. Sunless Sea fits the bill nicely in those respects. I previously tried the game but didn’t get far because the parts I enjoyed – the stories – were tempered by all of these other bits I couldn’t cultivate any love for.

There were the monster fights which felt clunky, and snippets of resource trading or repetition to grind out enough of the game’s currency – echoes – to make the process a bit less grindy. I earmarked it as something to come back to, or perhaps to play with a partner somehow, letting them deal with the monsters and the money while dripfeeding me snatches of story. That was a long time ago now, and so I’m not sure how much my current experience reflects a change in me and how much it reflects tweaks to the game itself. Regardless, I’m having a far better time now, sinking (no pun intended) hours into it over the weekend and yearning to return to the Zee when work concludes for the day.

I came to my current playthrough in a rather circuitous way. I needed to take a peek at the Zubmariner stuff for RPS and report back, but I’d say it’s definitely not the sort of thing where you can just decide “I’m a Zubmariner now” and make that your primary goal. The location where you start working on getting your Zubmarine is beyond your reach in the super early game and thus I found myself getting there but then not being able to get back. Nor did I have any of the resources needed to continue down that quest line.

In order to report back to Graham and Adam I borrowed a save file which dropped me into the game just after acquiring said Zubmarine, and proceeded to potter around the Unterzee. I found that same evocative prose and lovely atmospheric touch that I knew from the base game, but by scooting forward so far, all I could do was observe – the place names had no personal meaning at this point and I had no sense of who my captain was, or their relationship with the world. I had small adventures like the one at the start of the article, but it felt unmoored from my sense of being a participant in this world. So, as with the rhythm of providing port reports to the Admiralty in Sunless Sea, I delivered a basic summary of Zubmarining to Adam and Graham, then set sail again, hoping to find out more.

But I didn’t boot up that souped-up save file again. Instead, I used the experience to impel me through my initial frustrations with Sunless Sea’s base game. Seeing too much too soon taught me to have patience with the game instead of forcing my way through to reach particular goals. With my “real” file – the one I’m playing now and have a proper emotional attachment to – I’ve been exploring far more on the terms which make Sunless Sea a delight.

I repeat trade routes and missions as a kind of comfy income source, sometimes pottering off course to munch at the remaining fog of war. Occasionally I’m in the mood for the unknown and I load up on fuel so as to strike out in an unfamiliar direction. Stretches of the Zee suddenly became pond-like, spattered with lilypads. A mushroom loomed over my boat and I learned I could trade honey there for a strange new element of questing. These places are my places in a way that encountering them via a different save could never replicate.

That’s not to say it’s all peachy. The combat is still an irritant, for one thing. I’m also a bit vague on whether I’m supposed to be trading the resources like wine or honey outside of the story-ish stuff. I mean you could gradually grind out some echoes that way (although it might not be a good trade off in terms of profit-to-fuel) but the interfaces don’t keep track of prices at various ports that I can see so that would be a bit of a slog.

I also found myself a bit flummoxed at points because how the game played was at odds with how I read it as playing. To illustrate that point, you can make port reports everywhere you dock and bring those snippets back to the Admiralty in London. I thought this was one-time intel because they wanted to map the world and so I didn’t twig that you’re supposed to visit places over and over again. That’s why I overreached a lot at first, assuming I had to keep exploring further and further to make money.

On discovering I could repeat myself, gathering info each time I landed and have that still net me some cash I started running routes far more often to increase my cash. Some of these will actually change over time, your visits/observations changing the world. But it was hard to get a feel for that because often particular text repeats itself and you don’t have a sense that it’s building towards a change until the change happens abruptly. Or at least, that was how it played out the first time I noticed it. It was like a branch suddenly breaking under the weight of snow or something, but if I’d been less inclined to be okay with repetition I don’t think I would have stuck with it long enough to be rewarded by the change.

One other thing I noticed, and which came up when I was chatting to Adam, is that Sunless Sea has these periods of quiet while you’re travelling around. I think they’re necessary in that they space out the story bits, letting you digest them, but you can also find your attention drifting far too easily. It’s a game that occupies that uncomfortable spot on the concentration spectrum where it doesn’t require 100% of your brain so you find yourself thinking you might listen to a podcast or something in the background, but then it also demands slightly too much of you to let you actually pay attention to that other thing.

Sometimes I’m happy to just spend time with the waves lapping and the zee music playing, but other times I find myself a bit anxious, unable to really engage with the game because it’s in that strange territory when it comes to the attention it requires.

In case you wanted a bit of a Zubmarine report, the things that I noticed in my brief Unter-Unterzee voyages were: that the locations were more sparse, but you get a closer look at things you can see from the surface. There are new creatures and your bat reconnaisance tool turns into a sonar device in order to highlight things that might be worth poking. I’m not sure if this was because of how far I zoomed ahead without experience, but I did struggle to tell which bits of the map would let me go underwater sometimes. At one point I was just pressing T to dive every so often until I hit a spot where I could go underwater. I’ll be interested to see if that’s a UI thing or whether it’s me having missed a cue you get familiar with over time.

In terms of how my current meanderings towards a Zubmarine are going, I’ve explored maybe a quarter of the map in total, uncovering strange places and becoming far more financially secure. It’s been over the course of maybe eight or nine hours play time as I let the world unfold. I will say that I still haven’t uncovered the port I need to start the Zubmarine chain of events BUT I’ve also not been forcing myself down that particular pathway. I want to let it happen as slowly or naturally as it needs to in order to feel more like the Zeebed and the Unterzee knit together meaningfully. I’m also hoping that by the time I get below the waves with this save I’ll be able to park the damn ship without scraping it all up the sides of the underwater parking bays!

We’ll have further insights into the Zubmariner expansion, which is out today, soon.

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  1. Tiax says:

    And it’s free for anyone who purchased Sunless Sea during its early access phase!

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Huh, I just picked up Sunless Sea because it was on sale, assuming that the submarines were bundled as part of that, turns out I was wrong.

  2. Lord Byte says:

    I never could get into Sunless sea, while I kind of liked Fallen London. But to much it felt as Philippa describes, a slog. A struggle even, as my resources kept getting lower and lower without me actually gaining anything until I was lost at sea.
    I didn’t know you could keep doing those admirality missions so that might help but I hope there’s more to it than just seeing your cash grow, the storylines never really seemed to go anywhere, which they did in Fallen London.

    • shrieki says:

      this game left me sooo divided. the writing and the surreal world is very cool but the fact that i have to restart when i die means that i have to read the same texts again and again. i found that very annoying.

      the legacy system is awesome but it doesnt help that it gets extremely repetitive.
      also that i have always to return to the same port – fallen london – is poetically nice but game-play wise its a drag. makes exploring the map really hard and in many attempts i never got to see much of it.

      combat isnt very good either but tooting the horn is awesome.
      there is so much awesomeness in the game – it´s a shame that i never got to see much of it. maybe i give it another chance- zubmariner looks very cool.

    • newc0253 says:

      Look, I get the ambience that the devs were aiming for in making the game so fucking slow – the sense of trepidation of heading out into the endless depths, etc – but the truth is that shit gets real old, real fucking fast.

      The reality is that it was a giant fat mistake to make this game a roguelike. The legacy system is a nice stab at continuity but it is hopelessly perverse: the only way to keep the same map as before is to give up pretty much everything else. The alternative is to put you to enormous effort working out the new locations for all the places you’ve already visited.

      As fascinating as the setting is and the sense of discovery, I quickly tired of its glacial pace. This game would flourish as a CRPG, but as a roguelike its tedium eventually overpowers everything else.

      • malkav11 says:

        FWIW, you don’t generally want to keep your map because one of the primary sources of experience is exploring new map sectors, and you don’t get that exp if the map is already filled in.

        • newc0253 says:

          Yes, except then it becomes even more tedious to search out the place that you’ve already visited. It’s not like you get any additional sense of discovery from that. It’s more like, “Oh, so that’s where the Lions are this time.”

          I don’t get any additional challenge or suspense from that, just additional frustration.

      • itsbenderingtime says:

        You know you can turn off the roguelike-ness, right? Set it to “Merciful Mode” (swallow your pride, it’s fine) and it will let you save and load games when you want.

        • newc0253 says:

          Yep, I did that. It made the game a little more playable, the difficulty spikes somewhat easier but not a lot. It allowed me to discover most of the key locations but I got so tired of the prospect of criss-crossing the map at such a snail’s pace in order to complete the various storylines that I soon uninstalled the game.

      • MikoSquiz says:

        The writing is stellar, the visuals and music and overall design are great, the ambience is chilling, eerie, and charming; as a game, it’s a shit-show.

        It would’ve made a fine novel or short story collection, an even better illustrated audiobook (slideshow of concept art, narration, background ambient noises), it could’ve been a radio play series like Welcome To Night Vale – god, if it was a radio play with illustrations I would eat it up with a spoon. Great ideas in completely the wrong medium for them.

        • Sekraan says:

          The early game slog is a hurdle. Margins for trade are so thin it takes forever to build up any sort of fortune or get decent equipment.

          Solution: edit the save game file. There are guides on Steam. I didn’t change a whole lot, just gave myself enough echoes to buy good ship, engine, weapons, and not have to worry about running out of fuel or food.

          This does undercut some of the fundamental tension in the game, the uncertainty whether you can make it back to port. But I played the traditional way and found it got old fast due to the unbelievable grindiness.

          Not having to worry about money I can explore and enjoy all the fantastic story elements without wasting so much of my limited free time.

  3. Synesthesia says:

    damn, this sounds good. I’d be willing to go back to it, if I could use to fix the movement slog. Is there a fuel consumption rate i can fumble with, or a mod of some sorts?

    • stuw23 says:

      Not that I’m aware of, but if you get some of the more powerful engines – especially those granted by storylines – movement becomes rather quick indeed. It is a bit frustrating in those early hours, for sure, but I appreciate what the game does in terms of atmosphere by giving you little option but to sail slowly.

      • Synesthesia says:

        But doesn’t the roguelike nature of it makes it obligatory to trudge through that early slog?

        • skalpadda says:

          With progress and reaching certain milestones you’ll be able to leave all your money (and other stuff) to your next captain, which lets you get back into the action much quicker. Once you get a handle on what you can take on and what is worth fighting (combat is best avoided in the early game altogether) there also isn’t much risk of dying.

          It’s been a while since I played so I don’t remember the names of everything, but there is also an auxiliary item which lets you run the engines at max as much as you like without risk of blowing them up – a very worthwhile investment for anyone who finds the travelling too slow.

    • Drinking with Skeletons says:

      There are mods available for the game. Just do some googling and you’ll find them.

  4. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    The recent update prior to the DLC has radically improved the UI experience for my 4K screen so much love to Failbetter for that.

    Also, I will almost definitely be picking this up.

  5. A Wanderer says:

    Well, you just made me want to play again.
    I strongly recommend the use of some mods to make the game easier, though. Not that it’s too hard. More like I don’t think these kind of games really benefit from their roguelike nature. I am all for permadeath in a narrative-driven game like this. But I want to die because I insulted an Eldritch god by accident or landed on an island inhabited by cannibales. Not because I randomly ran out of fuel.

  6. Author X says:

    I actually didn’t mind the slog of travelling so much, as I enjoyed the calm-yet-tense moodiness of the sea. However, I did get sick of dying and having to repeat the same hour or so of initial trading and ferrying to get back to the more open content and stories. Maybe I’ll try again and make a point to abuse the manual save instead of trying to play it “right”.

    I’m not sure I’ll get the Unterzee pack, though, since it always seemed like there was so much content I wasn’t seeing anyway as I drifted to death without fuel. Roguelike DLC always had that problem for me.

    • A Wanderer says:

      Abuse manual save, and don’t be ashamed of it.

      • stuw23 says:

        Seconding this. I had fun with my permadeath save for the achievement, but that was only after I’d spent some time on a manual save file, getting a proper feel for the game and its mechanisms. I do not recommend permadeath mode until you feel confident and comfortable with what the game has to offer.

    • Sekraan says:

      You can give yourself a leg up early on by doing certain tasks and purposefully killing yourself to build up wealth. Exploiting the game mechanics, but still playing by the rules.

      But I would instead recommend using Notepad++ to edit the save file and give yourself enough money to get decent equipment and minimize risk of starvation. There are guides online. My enjoyment of the game increased considerably after doing this. I usually don’t like “cheating” in games. With Sunless Sea I rationalize it as sidestepping the tedious boring part of the game so I can get to the stuff that I actually want to play (story interactions).

  7. stuw23 says:

    Hugely excited for the release of this DLC. Sunless Sea is one of my favourite games despite its many flaws, and it’s fun how early attempts went from “oh god the zee is horrific and each time I return to London it’s a miracle”, to “oh god the zee is horrific but I am the captain of my soul and I can conquer it.” I’m hoping it will have more of that strange, other-worldly feel and subtle, creeping horror that I so adore in this game, plus that sense of humour to balance things out. I won’t get to play it until Friday, but my weekend plans have all pretty much been replaced with “underzee explorations.”

  8. racccoon says:

    I have sunless sea and played it a long long while ago, I see no point in jumping back in, especially for paying up for a DLC, as it found it way too slow and not of the greatness of what was expected of it to be.
    Fallen London on the other hand is a game I play everyday which is nicely made and very well written. I have not stopped playing this now for some years. GG

  9. Zeroebbasta says:

    “It’s a game that occupies that uncomfortable spot on the concentration spectrum where it doesn’t require 100% of your brain so you find yourself thinking you might listen to a podcast or something in the background, but then it also demands slightly too much of you to let you actually pay attention to that other thing.”

    Can relate so much. I usually play while roomies watch TV, so I can chat and absent-mindedly watch something while I sail. It kinda misses the point about the loneliness of the zee, but makes long voyages much more bearable.

    Anyway, there’s a speed mod called Sunless Speed! Just waiting for an update for Zubmariner.

    Also, to anyone lamenting about early-game repetition: savestates, folks. You can use them, there’s no obligatory permadeath.

  10. Mutak says:

    If you want to experience some of that ambiance without actually playing, the soundtrack is awesome.
    link to

  11. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Well yes. This will suit me nicely on a long cold winter evening or three.

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