While I’ve only started playing both of them recently, Sunless Sea feels like a straight downgrade from Fallen London - it’s still centered around stories, except you spend 90% of your time waiting for your slow ship to get anywhere, and there’s far less of said writing. Setting aside said writing, nearly every other aspect of the game is… underwhelming.
Most notably, I think, the gameplay mechanics are quite horrible - there is no variety anywhere, all ships and equipment are direct upgrades, which do not influence the gameplay style whatsoever. One of the biggest potentials, trade, simply does not exist, meaning the only way to get money(around which, let’s not lie, the game is centered - you always need it, badly) is essentially to swim around, compile port reports, hoping to, along the way, find some more rare event(which is over in a few quick clicks and mostly based on chance than anything else) with a better payoff. Not to mention, the world itself is horribly empty. There are some islands here and there, though it takes 5-10 minutes to get to(and sometimes not even from) one, oftentimes to get one single click and a brief story.
Fallen London is the only real port in the game, with every other island being utterly lackluster. And for the only "real port", it still hardly has anything worth notice. Yes, you’ll get two or three events instead of one per visit, but in the end, aside from that, and being able to turn in whatever crap you find in for money, it’s just empty.
Speaking of mechanics, the combat is quite underwhelming as well - all ships are identical except for hp/damage, as are all beasts. Strategy for the first is to keep behind them until they die(as far as I can tell, this is an infallible strategy), which is rather boring. For the second, you can try to dodge, which is hard, so essentially it comes down to shooting at them until they die, which depends on nothing more than the linearly acquirable ship/equipment upgrades. Not too entertaining either. And the rewards for killing them? Oh, you might get 1 fuel, or maybe a commodity worth half a piece of supply. You usually burn away more fuel while fighting than you get back from it.
When you begin, the game paints a picture of an in-depth roguelike, with bazillions of mechanics and quirks within them, endless discovery, complex gameplay, and then it delivers absolutely nothing save for stories, accessible at a pace of one short paragraph per 5 minutes of gameplay roughly, which is the equivalent to reading a short chapter in a book for 16 hours. Not too amazing.
One of my favorite games that I have played in my life is Space Rangers 2, a somewhat quirky game about space trading, combat, blah blah blah, all in all, barely anything spectacular. And yet, it was amazing. Why? Because of the variety it offered. You could spend your time fighting, looting, exploring, or you could pursue and play some of the few minigames it had, or even trade and fly around, finding the text-based missions to play out. I think those were its strongest suit - there wasn’t a spectacular amount of writing in each of those, but they all had their own mechanics, be it trade-related one, a prison life simulator, a riddle or a set of them, or whatever else. The point is, each of those was different, and played like a game in its own right. The prison minigame alone could, after some expansion and audiovisuals added, be sold as a standalone game. And it didn’t even have nearly as much text as some of Sunless Sea’s stories do. What it did right was being a game within a game, not a tiny set of choices to scroll through and read 3 paragraphs thrown at you.
I think that there’s a lot that could be done to make Sunless Sea a much, much better game, some changes rather tiny, others huge. For starters, a time warp button to speed up travel would go a very, very long way towards bettering the game experience. After that, more mechanics to spend time on. Fishing? Sure, why not? Perhaps different kinds of work at the various ports? Some minigame-ish port scenarios, like mentioned SR2 missions? Be it stuff like flirting, or riddles, or said work, or anything else. Maybe something involving the mascot? The possibilities are endless. It’d be nice if the ports were more than just a place to check in and check out. Combat could be expanded, into something more reflex-based, less of a silly stay-behind-keep-shooting play with miss chance, with more variety than stronger gun vs weaker gun. Speaking of equipment variety, the game really needs sidegrades. Different ships, for different purposes - cargo ones for trade, fast scouting ships, combat vessels, other curiosities of the Zee. Cannons mounted to the sides or to the back, with narrower fire arcs, or turrets rotating around. Shorter or longer range, using different kinds of ammo, fashioned against beasts or against ships, with their own oddities and quirks. All kinds of other ship customization, just anything that isn’t a ladder of successively stronger-and-better but otherwise indifferent equipment. Oh, and looting, that’s important. If you’re putting combat in the game, make it worthwhile. As it is, it’s a waste of fuel, time, patience. And really, I’d quite like it if the world was more interactive, that would be quite wonderful. More places to dock, perhaps tiny islands, with small random meetings to be done, more shops, with trade commodities and local curiosities. More docks, with ships to be traded for, some cheaper, others more expensive. Better sell prices to facilitate some more trade. Communication with other vessels. More random stories. Well thought out and written is fun, but in the end, that’s not what births replayability. As it stands, beyond reading, the game is about collecting meaningless tokens with 5 word descriptions, while cruising to-and-fro few nearby lands. And perhaps, after you’ve got some echoes, can sail further, got more supplies, you’ll go further, to find more of essentially the same. The way it is now, Sunless Sea is good writing and worldbuilding fashioned into a sparse, slow, repetitive package with no real entertainment value to speak of.
I’m sorry if I come across as harsh, or anything, but I’m not very good at delivering criticism in a more friendly fashion(as much as I’d really prefer to). Maybe I should have just dumped my ideas, or idk. I don’t think Sunless Sea is a strictly bad game, I primarily think that it’s a stub with enormous potential to be something amazing.