Sunless Sea for iPad is a mobile port of the hugely successful Indy title of the same name. It has garnered thousands of positive user reviews on Steam and GOG, and has been very well-received by the gaming press as well. It is essentially an open-world nautical Steampunk fantasy roguelike. Yes, it really is all of those things, and, in more or less, equal parts. Set in Failbetter Games' Fallen London universe, you are captain of a ship. Surprisingly, that's the whole plot. It doesn't get any more open world than this, and that is a wonderful thing.
Fallen London is a game world where London has been somehow relocated to an eternally dark and deeply sinister place. It is surrounded by a deadly and sunless sea where sailors try to eke out a living by traveling from port to port, trading, exploring, and fighting for their lives. You are the captain of one of these ships, and your goal is simply to survive as long as possible. Death, in this game as in real life, is inevitable. However, when this occurs, much of your progress will be transferred to the new captain, who may get just a bit farther than the previous one did. Each new captain will regenerate the world, keeping the game fresh and engaging. Sunless Sea is a game that suits mobile gaming's touch interface perfectly. Tap in front of your ship to move forward (or accelerate), tap behind to achieve the opposite, and touch/hold on either side of your ship to steer. Things get a bit more hectic in combat, but because the controls are so intuitive, failure will almost always be due to your tactics and equipment, not your unfamiliarity with the controls. There is no single story to tell here, but this actually works in the game's favor, keeping things feeling fresh through multiple playthroughs. This isn't to say that Sunless Sea is short on lore, however. In fact, storytelling is what actually elevates it above the pack. Every human interaction is handled through descriptive text, and there are a lot of humans to interact with. These pages are fantastically immersive thanks both to the game's unique premise and the quality of the writing. They are also absolutely necessary to your success as they will give quests, convey vital information, and unlock bonuses.
Sunless Sea reminds me a bit of the iOS classic: I Dig It Expeditions due to the way it constantly teases you with the promise of riches just beyond where you know you can safely go. It also feels somewhat like other strategic roguelikes in that there are stats to raise, equipment to upgrade, and permanent death waiting around every rocky outcropping. Unlike most of these, however, Sunless Sea never pushes you to move at a certain pace, or to move in a certain direction. Instead, it expertly lures you out into the abyss, risking starvation, fuel depletion, and insanity. Lastly, Sunless Sea is a dark and menacing game, but it is also a beautiful one thanks to its alternatingly dreamlike and nightmarish world. Success won't come easily in Sunless Sea thanks to it's many ways to die, as well as it's permadeath design. The game is automatically saved each time you enter or leave port. However, this save file is deleted when your captain dies. I can easily understand designing a game this way in order to give you a real sense of urgency, and to prevent you from using a backup save as a safety net while you take unreasonable risks. On mobile, however, where our gaming sessions are often interrupted by the world around us, this means that you may lose quite a bit of progress because you had to quit while you were away from port. Fortunately, the designers have given us the ability to enable manual saves. Doing so will cause your progress to be tracked differently than a permadeath game (remember: it can be used as an exploit) but it's there if you need it.
As previously noted, Sunless Sea is port of a very successful desktop game, and a good one. Other than the implementation of a touch-interface, it has not been redesigned for mobile (e.g. not a free-to-play conversion). To put it another way, Sunless Sea is NOT a mobile game; it's a desktop game that you can play on your iPad. If you're a PC gamer who owns an iPad, this is a must-buy. However, I can also easily recommend this to anybody who enjoy RPGs, roguelikes, story-driven adventure games, and/or open world games.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
Graphics: - 5 - Haunting, menacing, but beautiful nonetheless. Sound: - 5 - The soundtrack is fantastic, and the sound effects are just right. Controls: - 4 - Dead simple controls, although the interface can be a bit overwhelming at first. Currently, does not support screen rotation, which can be a big problem for some. Gameplay: - 5 - Open world exploration, stats to raise, equipment to upgrade, beasts to slay, and secrets to discover. Count me in.
Playing Hints and Tips:
Don't worry about making mistakes your first few games. You will die early and often, and with nothing really at stake at the early stage, that is no problem. If you really don't like to die, however, turn on merciful mode, which allows you to manually save your game. Stay close to shore as you explore to keep your crew sane. Always visit the admiralty office in every port. Read everything and talk to everybody, especially your officers.