App Reviewed on: iPad Air 2
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Sunless Sea is a seafaring adventure, but in almost none of the ways you'd expect. For starters, it's not even set on the high seas. Rather, it's set in a fictional world where the sea (or 'zee,' as it's called in-game) is underground. More than that though, Sunless Sea is an incredible mix of roguelike, adventure, and rpg elements set in an amazingly eerie world that is full of things to do and discover.
The world is your oyster
There's no easy way to describe exactly what kind of game Sunless Sea is. You play as the captain of a ship based out of Fallen London, one of the game's capital cities, and it's really up to you to decide what kind of captain you are and the things you're going to do in the world. When I say this, I don't just mean that you can create some head canon for your characters. You can actually choose this stuff whenever you start a new game of Sunless Sea.
The things you get to choose include your background, the way you wish to be addressed, and even your overarching objective for your playthrough. From there, it's up to you to pursue that objective, or not. Once you get into the meat of the game, you can get trade goods between ports, build up a spy network, capture exotic animals, or set out to build your ultimate ship. There's also a ton of little side-quests that pop up throughout your adventure that have their own little narrative arcs for you to pursue if you wish.
Sunless Sea employs a mixture of meters, stats, menus, and an overhead view of your ship to tell all of its stories and let you control the action. For the most part, whenever you are at port, you're in a menu. Options presented here include going to the market, creating dock reports, interacting with locals, and any number of other things. When you're done being on land, you can close whatever menu you're in to reveal an overhead view of your ship and its immediate surroundings.
When in the seafaring mode, you can tap in front of or behind your ship to control its speed, turn your lantern on and off, enter combat mode, and even make an emergency pit stop for hull repairs. This mode takes a little bit of getting used to for some of its controls, but it does reward skillful maneuvering and good decision-making, though to a limit. Some of your abilities around spotting enemies, concealing yourself, and even damaging enemies are still determined largely by your characters stats, which you can manipulate based on your starting character decisions and the way you invest “secrets” that you earn to level up while on your journey.
Life is better where it is wetter under the zee
All of Sunless Sea's interlocking systems are really neat to experiment and toy around with, but they're made even better consider the game's uniquely macabre setting. Rather than your typical swashbuckling adventure fodder, there's colonies of plague-ridden undead, marooned sailors on a giant mushroom island, bound sharks, and all sorts of other strange things to discover. Most of these things aren't just graphically represented either. Sunless Sea has some amazingly descriptive text for everything that happens which really draws you into its world.
Given this harsh setting, Sunless Sea incorporates systems that you have to manage to make sure your character doesn't go mad from it all. In addition to having to feed your crew and make sure you have enough fuel for your boat, you also have to manage your terror, which is done by regularly visiting ports and doing things to escape the horrors of the open sea. If you fail to manage these systems properly, or you find some other way to die, you have to start your adventure all over again. Whenever you do this though Sunless Sea cleverly shifts around its map, generates different events, and allows you to establish a different objective, which makes the game feel different every time you play.
The bottom line
Sunless Sea is a fascinating game because of its genre-blending and evocative writing and setting. It's also a game that provides both the freedom to let players do what they want and the structure to give players concrete goals to work toward, with both paths feeling satisfying even after several playthroughs of the game. It's truly a remarkable game. Go play it.