Sunless Sea Review

The wonder that exploration brings within a game is finite. Once we discover something, we can never discover it again even if we start over. A world fully revealed is suddenly a more static place than when it started. It’s at this nexus point between the potential and the static that Failbetter’s Sunless Sea finds itself in. Though it sports an immensely imaginative setting and fantastic writing, Sunless Sea’s roguelike-inspired elements don’t quite gel with the longform exploration you’re meant to embark on.

Built in the mold of such games as Sid Meier’s Pirates and Koei’s Uncharted Waters series, Sunless Sea sets you loose on The Unterzee with a simple ship, a crew, some supplies, and a blank sea chart that slowly fills in as you explore the zee. That last bit is crucial to understanding where Sunless Sea’s heart lies, as your primary instinct in this game will almost always be to sail for the black spots to see what’s there. Your reward? A cavalcade of islands and shoreline settlements, each with their own secrets and stories to tell, which takes the form of expertly-written text which occasionally lets you choose how you react to what you find. If you can imagine The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was a visual novel with resource management set in a series of twisted British colonies, you’d be in the ballpark of describing the bulk of the Sunless Sea experience.

The map in Sunless Sea slowly fills in as you explore and discover islands.

Of course, it’s the intriguing setting that makes you want to explore in the first place. The Unterzee itself is a strange, scary place that combines the unknowable dread of the works of Lovecraft with the diverse, normalized weirdness of Dungeons and Dragons’ Planescape setting. London has sunk underneath the Earth’s crust and serves as the principal port for the varied inhabitants and societies of the ocean below. Hell is real, and it just had a revolution to exile its aristocracy. Ships have the option of going to the surface, where human society still thrives, but their crews risk exposure from the sun, which can be deadly for inhabitants of the Unterzee (most of whom appear to be human themselves). Three mysterious, powerful beings are worshiped as gods of the zee–Stone, Salt, and Storm–but their influence is so vague and cryptic that you may not even know they’re acting. Indeed, should you ever find yourself stranded without food or fuel, you can pray to one of them to give you a boon to tide you over until you make port. That doesn’t mean they’ll actually answer, mind. Or if they will even be kind rather than cruel. Even positive responses can be treacherous, as praying to Stone for fuel has been known to drop stalactites of coal from the ceiling, crushing crew members in the process. The rich, nuanced backdrop that the Unterzee provides is just begging players to explore its darkest corners.

The real terror underneath this backdrop, though, is an elegant resource management game clashing against your desire to press your luck by pressing into the unknown further and further from London. Fuel and supplies are of extreme importance because if one of them depletes, it’s game over. You’ll also have to manage a third “resource”: terror. As you sail, you crew will get progressively more nervous about sailing the weird, treacherous waters. And the further you move from London, the quicker it will increase. Other actions you take in the text portions of the game will also increase or decrease this value. Should it ever hit 100, your crew will try to mutiny and will kill you if you don’t calm them down. Returning to London will reset this value to 50 if you’re already higher than that, encouraging you to return home every so often. Managing all three of these variables creates a nice tension during your voyage and really informs how far you want to venture out during each trek. And there’s nothing like realizing you planned poorly for a voyage as you quickly scurry home, barely making it before your fuel bottoms out.

An elegant HUD puts the emphasis on the zee and gives faces to your officers.

But the big payoff in Sunless Sea is in the exploration. While you’re scouring the zee and wiping out the black little by little from your sea chart, you’ll often stumble across islands with ports you can stop at. Each one treats you to several different visual novel-like scenarios, many of which are tied to quests that grant echoes (the game’s currency), fuel, supplies, or even different kinds of valuable artifacts or other assorted kinds of unknowable knowledge represented as items. The islands themselves all have their own stories to tell, and you’ll feel compelled to unravel each and every one. And though it’s thrilling to find out how all of these stories connect and intersect, the best by far are the ones that tell the stories of the societies themselves. One island, Visage, forces you to wear an animal mask and play the part it suggests while you’re in the city proper–a frog mask indicates a bumbling tourist type. Playing your part correctly is more important than being polite or not being disruptive. Frog masks who aren’t clumsy and thoughtless are immediately booted from the island. In this way, Visage speaks volumes about social interaction as performance and its role in determining identity. Another island, the Empire of Hands, is cultural appropriation taken to the extreme. It’s made up of sentient apes obsessed with obtaining souls of their own so they can “uplift” themselves and take their places as humans’ equals, even mimicking a melange of other cultures’ structures and practices. Thing is, there’s really no evidence that taking souls actually works, so it may just literally be a case of “monkey see, monkey do.” Not all of the islands offer such fleshed-out cultures, but those that do isolate different aspects of our own culture and put them under a microscope.

These transcendent moments inevitably fade, however, when you begin to grapple with the game’s recursive structure. Dying doesn’t end your journey, but rather initiates the beginning of a new captain’s. You essentially start over with a new character, though you do get to carry over a portion of your previous captain’s stats provided they were high enough as well as half of their Echoes, an officer, or their entire revealed seachart. And if you don’t accept the latter, all the islands outside of the starting area are randomized and placed in completely different positions, forcing you to find them again. In this way, your journeys form a seafaring lineage of sorts equipped with the knowledge of past triumphs and mistakes, giving the game’s structure a roguelike feel with a slight cushion whenever you bite the big one. The problem is this structure is a mismatch for Sunless Sea’s slow pace. Exploring the zee is a very methodical process as you watch your ship slowly slide along the dark green water like a slug. Many quests involve you taking one or several doodads from one island to another, further limiting feelings of progression.

Sunless Sea’s writing is its strongest feature as you encounter strange, unexpected situations on the islands.

And then there’s the game’s possible victory conditions, which crib from strategy games like Civilization without taking into account how quickly progression scales in them. You can go to zee for the joy of discovery and experience all you can so you can write your masterpiece, but you’re put in an awkward position no matter how you position your new captain. If you start with a blank map, you’ll have to spend each new start building up your resources again near home waters, which is time-consuming and monotonous. If you utilize a previous map, however, you don’t get any new fragments–essentially experience–for landmarks you already discovered, which hamstrings progress towards meeting the prerequisites for victory. You need to cash in a large amount of secrets here (which let you level up stats, but also serve as a resource), which is awkward because you get a secret every time you get a certain amount of fragments and relying on a revealed map means not getting very many in that playthrough. Rather than creating interesting tension, these two scenarios just exacerbate the game’s slow pace to intolerable levels. You can also win by acquiring a lot of money, but this victory condition sidesteps the most interesting parts of the game, instead pushing you to either care about finding the most profitable trade routes or find an exploitable, repeatable way to make some easy scratch. Finding your father’s bones, which is the other victory condition, is by far the sanest way to experience Sunless Sea, which gives you a tangible main quest while also giving you the freedom to explore the Unterzee at your leisure.

Learning to look for the best deals in trade goods can be a profitable enterprise.

Which brings us to the fatal flaw in the game’s structure: the diminishing returns inevitably associated with exploration. In roguelikes, the procedurally-generated dungeons ensure that you’ll always have a different experience each time you play through the game, but the reason for that was as an ultimate test of mastery. You play until you die, learn from your mistakes, and then try to get further based on your personal growth. Sunless Sea tries to do a similar thing by mixing up the islands every time you die. Each playthrough will feature different discoveries at different times, often mixing up the order you visited them last time in the interest of keeping the world from that inevitable state of being static. The problem is that the content of the islands themselves never changes. Sure, you can pick different options when the game lets you, but for the most part, everything that happens on the islands is the same as before. You’re not really dealing with an uncertain, dynamic ocean voyage so much as you’re living in a salty version of Groundhog Day where you have very little agency to change things. And though permadeath can be turned off in the settings, the game still encourages you to play many different captains so that you can reset all the quests and reap more rewards as you go when all you want to do is unravel the game’s secrets you haven’t yet discovered.

Sunless Sea is an ambitious work that attempts to capture the sheer kinetic thrill of discovery in a bottle without the inevitable entropy of player completion depleting it, and falls well short. The promise of lengthened replayability only makes the methodical pace a joyless grind at times. But the things you’re meant to discover truly defines the best of Sunless Sea. The stories you’ll be able to tell from your journeys–that time you helped those rat mechanics defeat a bunch of guinea pig nobles; the creepy place you found yourself after sailing off the edge of the map; your continued struggles with managing your cannibalism–truly makes Sunless Sea a voyage worth taking for those with the patience to deal with the litany of structural issues. In asking how games can tap into our desire to discover, Sunless Sea proves that what we discover matters at least as much as how much we can discover.

Mario Kart 8 Gets Free, Faster 200cc Mode

Mario Kart will get faster than ever with a free update to Mario Kart 8 that adds a 200cc mode.

Previously, Mario Kart games only had the beginners’ 50cc mode, the faster 100cc mode that requires some skill, and the fastest, challenging 150cc mode. With the 200cc mode, which will work both on the new tracks included in the game’s second DLC pack and all the previously released tracks, Mario Kart 8 will be even faster.

Nintendo also announced that Mario Kart 8’s second DLC pack will release in April 23 instead of May, as was originally planned. For $8, the DLC pack will get you three new racers (Isabelle, Villager, and Dry Bowser), four vehicles, and eight courses, including the Animal Crossing course that changes seasons each time you play it.

Alongside the new DLC, Mario Kart 8 is getting nine Amiibo compatible Mii racing suits, including one for Mega Man and Pac-Man.

You can watch the Animal Crossing course and the new customs in the videos below.

For more Nintendo news, check out GameSpot’s roundup of all the news from today’s Nintendo Direct.

Mario Kart 8 Gets Free, Faster 200cc Mode

Mario Kart will get faster than ever with a free update to Mario Kart 8 that adds a 200cc mode.

Previously, Mario Kart games only had the beginners’ 50cc mode, the faster 100cc mode that requires some skill, and the fastest, challenging 150cc mode. With the 200cc mode, which will work both on the new tracks included in the game’s second DLC pack and all the previously released tracks, Mario Kart 8 will be even faster.

Nintendo also announced that Mario Kart 8’s second DLC pack will release in April 23 instead of May, as was originally planned. For $8, the DLC pack will get you three new racers (Isabelle, Villager, and Dry Bowser), four vehicles, and eight courses, including the Animal Crossing course that changes seasons each time you play it.

Alongside the new DLC, Mario Kart 8 is getting nine Amiibo compatible Mii racing suits, including one for Mega Man and Pac-Man.

You can watch the Animal Crossing course and the new customs in the videos below.

For more Nintendo news, check out GameSpot’s roundup of all the news from today’s Nintendo Direct.

Wii U Virtual Console Getting N64 and Nintendo DS Games

During today’s April Nintendo Direct, the developer revealed that Nintendo 64 and Nintendo DS games will start making their way to the Wii U Virtual Console.

To accommodate the unique control setups of those systems, you’ll have several customization options for button layouts and (for the DS) how the game will display across the Wii U GamePad and your TV screen.

The price will be $10 to $13 for N64 games. If you’ve bought a title previously on the Wii Virtual Console, the update will only cost $2. Nintendo DS games will cost between $7 and $10.

The first set of titles available immediately following the Direct presentation are:

  • Yoshi’s Island — $10
  • Mario 64 — $10

Titles we’ll get later down the line include:

  • Donkey Kong 64 — 4/16 — $10
  • Mario Kart DS — 4/23 — $10
  • Paper Mario — 4/30 — $10
  • Yoshi Touch & Go 4/9 — $10
  • WarioWare Touched — 4/9 — $10

Wii U Virtual Console Getting N64 and Nintendo DS Games

During today’s April Nintendo Direct, the developer revealed that Nintendo 64 and Nintendo DS games will start making their way to the Wii U Virtual Console.

To accommodate the unique control setups of those systems, you’ll have several customization options for button layouts and (for the DS) how the game will display across the Wii U GamePad and your TV screen.

The price will be $10 to $13 for N64 games. If you’ve bought a title previously on the Wii Virtual Console, the update will only cost $2. Nintendo DS games will cost between $7 and $10.

The first set of titles available immediately following the Direct presentation are:

  • Yoshi’s Island — $10
  • Mario 64 — $10

Titles we’ll get later down the line include:

  • Donkey Kong 64 — 4/16 — $10
  • Mario Kart DS — 4/23 — $10
  • Paper Mario — 4/30 — $10
  • Yoshi Touch & Go 4/9 — $10
  • WarioWare Touched — 4/9 — $10

HBO Go Comes To Xbox One Sling TV in Time for Game of Thrones

You’ll be able to watch the new season of Game of Thrones on your Xbox One without having to pay a cable provider thanks to a new deal between Sling TV and HBO.

The companies today announced that Sling TV, which you can download as an app for your Xbox One, will be the first live Internet TV service to offer scheduled and Video-On-Demand (VOD) content from HBO.

Sling TV and HBO didn’t give an exact date, but said that the service will be ready before the season premieres of Silicon Valley and Game of Throns on April 12.

Sling TV, which requires no contract or extra hardware installation, features channels such as ESPN and ESPN 2, as well as TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel. It’s available for $20 a month, and getting the HBO content will cost you an extra $15 a month.

This is the same price it will cost you to subscribe to HBO’s content through Apple TV or HBONow.com, as was first revealed at an Apple media event in March.

Basically, if all you care about is HBO, paying the $20 a month for Sling TV plus the extra $15 a month for HBO is much cheaper than cable.

Sony, by comparison, is offering PlayStation Vue television streaming service for $50 to $70 depending on the bundle, and so far none of the bundles include HBO.

For lots more on Sling TV and the way it could impact traditional cable providers, be sure to read GameSpot sister site CNET’s in-depth coverage.

HBO Go Comes To Xbox One Sling TV in Time for Game of Thrones

You’ll be able to watch the new season of Game of Thrones on your Xbox One without having to pay a cable provider thanks to a new deal between Sling TV and HBO.

The companies today announced that Sling TV, which you can download as an app for your Xbox One, will be the first live Internet TV service to offer scheduled and Video-On-Demand (VOD) content from HBO.

Sling TV and HBO didn’t give an exact date, but said that the service will be ready before the season premieres of Silicon Valley and Game of Throns on April 12.

Sling TV, which requires no contract or extra hardware installation, features channels such as ESPN and ESPN 2, as well as TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel. It’s available for $20 a month, and getting the HBO content will cost you an extra $15 a month.

This is the same price it will cost you to subscribe to HBO’s content through Apple TV or HBONow.com, as was first revealed at an Apple media event in March.

Basically, if all you care about is HBO, paying the $20 a month for Sling TV plus the extra $15 a month for HBO is much cheaper than cable.

Sony, by comparison, is offering PlayStation Vue television streaming service for $50 to $70 depending on the bundle, and so far none of the bundles include HBO.

For lots more on Sling TV and the way it could impact traditional cable providers, be sure to read GameSpot sister site CNET’s in-depth coverage.

Serious Sam Narrates The Talos Principle in Free DLC

The Talos Principle has a new piece of free DLC that replaces the game’s regular narrator with the voice of Serious Sam, the hero of the first-person shooter series of the same name.

“The new Serious Sam Voice Pack DLC replaces the godlike voice of Elohim with that of Serious Sam as voiced by longtime voice actor John J. Dick and includes a new Serious Sam player model for use in The Talos Principle,” developer Croteam said.

If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, you should hurry up and grab the Serious Sam Voice Pack DLC while it’s still free. If you don’t get it before April 7, it will cost you $3.

GameSpot’s review gave The Talos Principle a rare score of 9/10, praising its excellent spatial puzzles and lonely, contemplative atmosphere.

For more on the game, check out GameSpot’s previous coverage of The Talos Principle.

If The Fast and the Furious Were an 8-Bit Game

The folks over at CineFix, who specialize in reimagining your favorite movies and television shows as 8-bit and 16-bit games, have done it again. This time, they turned their attention to The Fast and The Furious, the first movie in the street racing franchise starring Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.

As always, CineFix created something that looks like it could have been an actual game back in the day, but a little better.

If you haven’t seen their work before, make sure you check out their treatments for Scarface and The Walking Dead.

If you need more Fast and Furious in your games, you still have time to grab Forza Horizon 2 Presents Fast & Furious for free. It’s a standalone game, so it won’t require Forza Horizon 2. It will be free until April 10 in a bid to promote the release of Furious 7, the latest entry in the blockbuster movie franchise that hits theaters on April 3.

Worlds of Magic Review

After years of constant warfare, my orcish hordes were on the precipice of victory. Countless nations fell beneath the tread of their boots as they subjugated all manner of fantastical races. In their quest to conquer the unhallowed–an evil empire of the dead–the orcs had brought every mountain and every shore under their control. They had harvested every crop, mined every ore, and collected every artifact they found on their campaign. Yet, something was missing: despite being at the height of their power, these orcs had become wracked with boredom

Despite the fantastical premise, Worlds of Magic commits too many cardinal sins to count. As a game of fanciful wizards and creatures, you’d expect it to be vibrant and alluring. Instead, its landscapes wholly lack imagination. The excitement of battle is ground to excruciating tedium, buried under mindless tasks and micromanagement. Worlds of Magic can’t even claim a decent feeling of progression or power escalation–a key piece of any proper 4X strategy game–to drive engagement. The result is a tepid mélange of half-baked ideas and pointless hindrances.

These soldiers are literally fighting on tar.

Worlds of Magic begins, as these affairs so often do, with you selecting a civilization to lead to victory. The choices seem diverse enough. Standard humans, elves, orcs, and dwarves are there, as well as dragon people, insects, and the undead legions. The potential breadth of play styles should be a great platform upon which to build a game, but here it just isn’t. Except for the unhallowed, none of these races has anything unique about how it plays. No matter whom you pick, the similarities are too obvious, slashing potential replayability and depth.

After picking your race, you select a sorcerer lord to lead your armies. You may choose a pre-built one with specialized traits, or you can create your own and customize him a bit, though either way, your choices lack impact or import. I, for example, chose as my first leader R’jak, a powerful lich. By his description, he should be a powerful undead monstrosity with an abject hatred for everything living. In play, he’s like any other leader, custom or not: He has a few spells that do a little damage, and a few more with minor utility. The problem here is twofold. Firstly, leader choice is disconnected from race selection, so it’s weird but possible to have an army of normal humans led by an undead warlock. Secondly, many of the sorcerer lords have plenty of overlapping spells, again diminishing the effect of picking any one for his specific powers or abilities and robbing him of any uniqueness. Instead of playing the strengths of the undead against R’jak, they each need to be able to function independently for the sake of balance. That leaves either choice without any personality of its own.

Most of your time with Worlds of Magic is spent managing resources, building up your armies, and conquering. In an ideal world, these separate systems would work together to create new opportunities for players to flex their tactical muscles. At every conceivable turn, however, Worlds of Magic finds a way to strip every intricate layer strategy game designers have implemented over decades’ worth of genre evolution.

Because even on a world of sand, we need oceans… made out of sand.

Cities are at the heart of Worlds of Magic. They are your only means of border expansion, production, and resource generation. Cities are also the source of most of the problems. In a normal 4X game, cities are somewhat malleable. You found them, build a few structures or improvements nearby, and tailor them to what you need at any given point. Worlds of Magic doesn’t permit such flexibility, however. You still found cities wherever you please, but their borders never expand, you can’t construct any tile improvements, and you can’t micromanage any piece of them beyond how many citizens are dedicated to food, production, or research. City buildings also follow a complex unlock tree that require you to build too many structures that don’t relate to your chosen focus. It is feasible, for example, to build a city near a rare resource and then push a city towards economic output. Doing so, however, requires that you build structures that offer no benefit beyond unlocking buildings that you need, making them effective dead weight.

This also only serves to highlight another of the game’s fundamental flaws: There’s no associated cost with having dozens or even hundreds of settlements. Your citizens build up a degree of unhappiness, but it’s a local issue and not tied into a single global resource, like happiness, that you need to manage. Moreover, if you don’t maintain positive food and gold income at all times, your units begin to disband and your buildings are decommissioned. Since cities usually generate positive income, and since the number of municipalities you control is your sole production cap, the whole system forms a disastrous feedback loop. You build more cities so you can build more settlers so you can build more cities. In each of those new towns, you erect the same buildings and manage them in the same way. This is one of the only consistently viable ways to win, but it also means burdening yourself with tons of repetitive work wholly devoid of actual strategizing.

I found myself wanting to quit games not because I didn’t have the ability to win, but because it had become a chore to manage it all. What’s worse is that tedious management is so critical in the early game, it was common for me to skip 50 turns or more just waiting for my population to build up. That’s not OK: It’s grinding without any tangible reward. Most turns should somehow require your attention so that you are engaged and invested. Tellingly, I made a macro to auto-skip turns while I walked off to go make myself dinner. And again, I stress this is the most successful strategy in Worlds of Magic, by far. The other main option is to build units and construct buildings early on, but the upkeep cripples your resource production, making you decommission units you just ordered. The whole thing is an absolute mess.

After a while, the game just starts naming cities “ORCS1,” “ORCS2,” etc.

In what must have been an attempt to make these worlds seem denser and more interesting, the land is dotted with swarms of high-level monsters. They don’t spew forth and attack you, but they’re intended to be among the first things you find on any given map. They often have valuable treasure or can net you a powerful monster of your own. Because they are so well-guarded, you can’t do anything with them until the mid-to-late game, so they sit there, taking up space. Your only other opponents are AI-controlled races and countries. Given that there are at most seven of them scattered across several planes which, in turn, can only be accessed via special portals containing the same high-level monsters, there’s nothing to do in the early game. Over time, your units get stronger and you get better, but for that to be satisfying, you need an idea of your early limitations. Worlds of Magic trades that for a mad rush to the late game so you can do anything of note, and problematically, those late-game units need more gold and food for upkeep, reinforcing the city grind.

An alleged selling point of Worlds of Magic is its tactical battle system. Should two opposing units meet, you jump into a turn-based tactical mode to maneuver your troops around. Battles are functional, but together, the tactical system and strategic one kill Worlds of Magic’s pace. It’s nice to defend a city against an attack with only a handful of troops and some clever positioning, but tactical battles require you to take five or ten minutes away from a game already bogged down by the worst kind of micromanagement. There is an auto-resolve feature that helps with the monotony, but it does a poor job of actually mimicking the results you would expect to see should you manage these battles on your own. In my testing, I found that even when I had many more units of ranks far higher than my enemy’s, I would often inexplicably lose fights. Granted, choosing auto-resolve means playing the percentages, but when two basic enemy soldiers defeat five or ten veterans, there’s a problem.

Worlds of Magic doesn’t just have issues with its strategy mechanics, either. It suffers from an array of bugs, glitches, and crashes, and its frequent texture pop-in makes it an absolute eyesore. During some of the tactical sections, maps fail to load entirely. On at least four occasions, my computer locked up and I had to restart the machine. Countless tiny bugs can also cause certain attacks to miss, actions to not work, and the user interface to become completely unresponsive.

Sometimes, the map won’t even load in.

I could forgive some, though not all, of these issues if Worlds of Magic had something intriguing to show. Part of the appeal of fantasy worlds and settings is that they show you the special, the unreal. Worlds of Magic only ever offers the mundane. In Worlds of Magic, there are several magical races strewn across disparate worlds, each with its own governing element. The leaders of these races are powerful wizards that bring world-buckling sorts of magic to bear on their foes. These sorcerers are a force unto themselves, and they dominate everything. The premise plants the proper seeds for an enchanting adventure, but Worlds of Magic doesn’t cultivate them. As one of these grand wizards, your spells are feeble at best, and every plane–no matter the element–features similar mountains, oceans, and other topological features. Yes, the shadow plane uses tar pits instead of water, but that’s nothing more than a palette swap. In contrast, Warlock and Warlock 2 have the same structure and purpose as Worlds of Magic, but they are executed with far more skill. Warlock’s plane of life has tiles that heal you and weaken the undead. The plane of fire has dozens of volcanoes and lava that have real effects on how you play. Your spells, too, can reshape vast swaths of land, raising valleys or wiping away mountains. In that series, there exists a sense of agency that unfolds as you explore the bizarre settings.

Worlds of Magic has none of that mystery. Its fantasy world is undercut by bland artistic direction and a lack of conviction. Choices about your leader and civilization that should matter lack weight in favor of same-ish armies and leaders that blend together. Grand-scale strategy that should make any player feel powerful, or at the least clever, gives way to the dullest slog. Worlds of Magic tries to mimic the cleverness of its superiors, but reaches far beyond its ability to perform.