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.