The beautifully-written survival exploration game Sunless Sea came to iPad last week. It feels right at home on mobile.
You play as a sea captain in a steampunk/Lovecraftian/fantasy version of London that’s fallen beneath the surface of the earth and onto a subterranean sea. You set out from your home port of Fallen London in pursuit of a goal—fame, exploration, finding your father’s remains. Some locations remain the same from playthrough to playthrough, while others move around. Through lush text, you travel to strange lands, trade mysterious goods, and unravel bizarre tales surrounding even more bizarre characters. You have to manage food, fuel, and sanity (heavily dependant on light) as well as fight the occasional pirate or monster that appears from the ocean’s depths. You’ll die a lot in a lot of unusual ways. I’ve been killed by living icebergs, gone mad in complex mazes, and had my crew mutiny and eat each other while at sea. The game uses permadeath, meaning that if you die you have to restart the game, though you can turn this option off.
I spent about 20 hours in Sunless Sea in 2014 during its early access period on PC and Mac, but when it finally released in 2015 I’d had my fill. I mostly liked the game, but I struggled to stay engaged over the long haul. In their thorough postmortem, Failbetter pointed out the way the game’s roleplaying and roguelike elements didn’t always mesh and how that could make fresh starts tedious. The early game is slow and grindy, as you make small jaunts up and down the coast and push into the darkness of your map, building capital to buy supplies that can send you further out into the darkness. There are compelling stories to unravel across the world: finding a crew member’s familial remains in the belly of an eel somewhere at sea, romancing a devil on a fiery mountain where the exiled legions of Hell gather, plying a leader with their favoured delicacies in the far east, and even gathering the resources to travel to the surface world. Many stories require repeat visits to ports to unlock, as well as finding particular objects or people scattered throughout the world. You want to keep pushing, but you can never go that far, and poor planning or running afoul of a too-strong enemy can send you back to the beginning.
The tension between risk and reward makes the game compelling, but replaying the opening stories was never very fun. Turning off permadeath undermines some of the stress the game needs. I badly wanted to see so many plot threads through, but the game’s slow pace and repetitive nature were never enough to feel worth the hours at my desk.
On iPad, though, Sunless Sea feels like a very different story. Sprawled across my couch on Saturday morning, a cup of coffee steaming at my side, I found that Sunless Sea was more like reading a good book than playing a game. On a smaller, more casual platform, it feels easier to pick up and put down, and its slow pace is a relaxing pleasure rather than a chore. Steering my ship by touching my screen is like playing with a bathtub toy, turning what felt like clunky, shallow combat on PC into enjoyable encounters with just the right level of difficulty for the controls.
Some mechanics have been tweaked for iPad, with great success. Your ship’s light no longer consumes fuel, so you don’t have to worry about switching it on and off. Guns can auto-fire, which frees you up to focus on navigation. On PC the game had five movement speeds, which required managing your fuel very carefully, but on iPad there are only three: forward, backward, and standing still, which makes fuel management less of a concern. There are two versions of touch controls: controlling the speed and direction with a tap anywhere on the screen, or doing so by pressing or tapping the right or left side. Both control schemes are intuitive, easy to use, and fun in a way WASD and keyboard and mouse aren’t. It’s a delight to tap away at your ship, poking through the darkness in search of adventure.
Combat’s never been the game’s strong suit, but auto-fire enables you to focus more on navigating and less on the combat minutiae that required a mouse. It makes the combat more fluid and less taxing, though I did occasionally fire on enemies unintentionally because I failed to managing my auto-fire well. The game still requires a tactical approach, but it just isn’t as punishing as it was on PC.
It was a pleasure to give Sunless Sea another chance on mobile. It would be a great game for a long trip or to dip into while waiting for someone (provided they’re late enough to allow you to get to port and save). It’s something to play in spurts wherever the mood strikes you. The mobile version features the full game except for the recent Zubmariner DLC, so you’ll likely be at it for a long time. Untethered from my desk, I can see finally finishing the game—if my crew doesn’t starve to death first.
You can get Sunless Sea for £9.99 at the App Store.