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Sunless Sea: How Zubmariner Lured Me In

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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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Philippa Warr

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