I don’t know where I saw this (Reddit?), but the following is a PERFECT description of Sunless Sea and its main problem: It has the gameplay of a rogue-like (play a bit, die, replay earlier bits, get a bit further, die, repeat) and the story structure of a graphic novel (read once).
That’s… a bit of a problem, especially because gameplay-wise Sunless isn’t awesome. The ship combat is actually terrible (sit behind a dumb AI ship, shoot, win. Shoot creature, it ramps you, repeat until you or it dies), and the collecting/trading aspect is somewhat poor (there isn’t a ‘quest tracker’ so you either sail around somewhat blind, or take a ton of notes on paper). Then you have the fact that, for long stretches of time, especially further into the game, you’re just sailing with nothing to do and nothing happening other than occasionally dodging a ship/creature. Double ‘fun’ when your ship is slow due to lack of crew, or you go from a faster ship back to the starter ship/engine.
The writing and setting are very good, as is the art/sound presenting everything. The game captures the madness aspect really well, without going too far down the pure confusion or nonsense side. This is what will make you want to keep playing. To open up the next step in a quest, or finally open up a certain area of an island because you now have the required item.
However even this is spoiled somewhat by the gameplay. Multiple times I finished a great quest lore-wise only to be rewarded with less ‘stuff’ than it took to complete the quest. That’s a huge fun-drain, and tarnishes the writing and story progression. Also the game only half-works in terms of repetition. The location of certain islands will change, but others won’t, and enemy spawn locations never change, nor do quest objectives or results.
The result is that the more you play, and the more you die and repeat the early game, the more you are skipping text you have already read, leaving you only with the gameplay. And again, that gameplay isn’t great. Grinding out stats or money in Sunless is a really poor use of your gaming time, and because of the somewhat random nature of the game, a death and restart is somewhat common (to be fair, its not as random as most rogue-likes, and on the 3rd or 4th captain I was basically able to stay alive if I didn’t push things. However not pushing means you sail back to port more, which just increases the bad parts that much more).
What is funny/tragic about the whole thing is the game pushes you not to disable the ‘one save only’ system, but if there was ever a game that should be played with the reload option, its Sunless. There are enough stories and islands to visit here to get your money’s worth even with just one captain, so I highly recommend you turn off the one-save system and reload whenever you die.
All of that said, I’d still recommend Sunless, especially at a discounted price. It’s flawed in some pretty major ways, but even despite those flaws the setting and stories, as well as the sense of discovery as you sail around, are worth picking it up and spending a weekend/week with. Don’t expect greatness, but do expect to be entertained.