The Sinking City Review – A Sinking Feeling

These days it seems like you can’t go more than five minutes without tripping over a tentacle brandishing the latest Lovecraftian inspired piece of fiction. Regardless of how you feel about H.P. Lovecraft himself his work has endured, and now that it’s in the public domain it seems his world of cosmic horror and unfathomable beings will live on. Now the developers of the Sherlock Holmes games are taking a crack at the Cthulhu mythos, transplanting their detective mechanics into a world where cosmic horror threatens your sanity. Does The Sinking City float, or sink?

Tell Me A Story

Suffering from mysterious visions former Navy-diver and now private detective Charles Reed arrives in Oakmont, a strange city he believes to be the source of the visions. It’s Charles Reed that you’ll be playing as, and it doesn’t take long for it to become obvious that Oakmont has some very strange things going on indeed.

Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC (Epic Store)
Developer: Frogware
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive

Review code provided by the publisher

Based upon the work of the renowned H.P. Lovecraft The Sinking City involves strange monsters, cosmic beings and a whole lot of weirdness. As a detective Charless Reed can be a frustratingly passive protagonist who constantly bounces from doing one favor to another, the mystery of Oakmont revealing itself over the course of the game and challenging Reed’s grip on sanity.

As for Charles Reed his singular emotion appears to be a sleepy-eyed look. To be fair to the man the various visions he’s been having probably don’t constitute a good sleep routine. Still, he’s a one-note character with a personality that must have gone missing in action back in his navy days. He isn’t very emotive, either, which is a problematic when you’re dealing with cults, strange monsters, cosmic beings and horrors unimaginable. Reed’s reactions are almost always much calmer than they really should be. He takes things in his stride, which goes against the Lovecraft style of storytelling.

Thankfully everyone else proves more interesting than Reed. You typically don’t spend long with each character so like Reed depth of personality is not their strength, rather they all tend to have something unique and strange to about them to grab your attention. Take Mr. Throgmorton, for example, a rather sizable man with oddly ape-like features, which might be because his father take a trip to the jungle and…er, interacted with a local ape. Yup, that’s the kind of shit you’re getting into.

The overall story is fairly standard Lovecraft fare and is thus predictable in terms of its general beats, but executes everything quite well. I’d probably say that the side-cases feature the most interesting writing simply because they are self-contained, short stories which seem to be Frogware’s strength. Still, the narrative has enough going on to keep you engaged.

Oakmont, The Sinking City

The city of Oakmont is hardly somewhere you’d want to go on vacation, let alone live. A devastating flood hit the city prior to your arrival, leaving a lot of streets underwater. Debris is strewn across the city, there are entire boats just lying in the streets and inside of buildings look more like coral reefs. It’s unclear if Oakmont always looked sort of…rustic, of if this is all because of the flood. Either way Oakmont looks lived in with folk begging on the streets, destroyed cars and a layer of grime so thick it could drown small children.

As for the citizens that roam the streets they’re a strange bunch indeed. For whatever reason Oakmont doesn’t appear on many maps, thus newcomers are rare and viewed with suspicion. Strange cultists covered in symbols and holding staffs amble around while muggings are extremely common despite the policemen on patrol. That isn’t even to mention the Innsmouthers, a group of people with flattened, fishlike features. They’ve arrived in droves to Oakmont following a disaster in their own city, and among the Oakmont population there is considerable dislike for their fishy brethren.

Sadly the Oakmont people are also the cause of many of the illusion shattering bugs. For example, people spawning into existence before your eyes is quite common. As are folk floating a few feet in the air before suddenly dropping down to ground level as you get closer. If that wasn’t bad enough the quirky people of Oakmont will walk into walls, each other and various other bits of scenery and will even most ignore freakish monsters. I can’t tell you how many times I lured a beast onto the street and then watched bemused as it attacked a random citizen while everyone else just ignored it. Guess it’s another just another Saturday in Oakmont, eh?

Since chunks of the city are flood you often use boats to get around. It’s an idea that I really like as it makes getting around a bit more interesting, though it does lose its novelty quite quickly.

Unfortunately Oakmont is one of the most visually boring places I’ve seen in quite some time. This is because Sunken City deals predominantly in three colours: murky swamp green, mud brown and grey. While the different sections of Oakmont all have their own tone, the colour palette and lack of visually distinct buildings or locations turns Oakmont into a giant brown blur.

But to be fair to the developers the depressing colours and the lived-in feel of the city do give Oakmont a thick, heavy atmosphere. It’s a bleak place, entirely uninviting to outsiders and even to those who live there .It’s as though Oakmont itself wants you to leave, and intends on smothering you in its bleakness until you take the hint and fuck off.

A Regular Sherlock Holmes

Though the third person camera and the guns might fool you this is very much a game about being a detective. It’s not Frogware’s first rodeo, either, as the company have previously made the Sherlock Holmes games which I rather enjoy. A lot of the gameplay elements from that series have made their way over to The Sinking City with a couple of twists here and there.

Firstly, The Sinking City puts some genuine effort into making you feel like a sleuth. Rather than just tossing down a waypoint on the map the clues usually indicate a section of the city, then provide a few street names. You might be told a meeting is on Windy St, between Elm Avenue and Innsmouth Rd, for example. You can then pin that piece of evidence onto your map so that you have a rough destination before heading out to search for the exact location. Naturally this slows the pace of the game down, and the places are always quite easy to find, but it still helps solidify the idea that you’re a detective having to do some actual detecting.

A lot of the clues or things that you get told need to be researched by visiting various archives around the city. A small icon on the top of clues will let you know if you need to talk to someone or dig around the archives, but you can turn these off entirely if you want even less hand-holding. Anyway, dealing with archives is simply a matter of picking a clue, then selecting three search criteria in the archive and seeing if anything pops up. Sometimes the criteria are obvious, and other times will require a little more guesswork. Just like actual research, then.

When it comes to many crime scenes and locales you’ll visit it’s simply a case of bumbling around and clicking on everything of interest. Reed will offer up a brief comment on the item, then it’s on to the next thing. Unlike the legendary Sherlock Holmes the sleepy-eyed Charles Reed has some supernatural skills that also let him track certain clues down. It amounts to no more than following trails or staring at a wall for a few seconds to dispel an illusion, but it’s still a nice twist to the detective formula.

Reed’s supernatural skills also let him piece together past events, putting together details he could never have known otherwise. With enough of the key evidence gathered up and stuffed in Reed’s backpack you get a chance to recreate the crime-scene. This plays out by walking around the area to activate glowing blue nodes which show you a piece of the events. You then have to put these events in order. Successfully doing so plays the whole sequence for you, revealing new details and clues.

While Sherlock Holmes may not have had supernaturally powered vision, he did have the Mind Palace. It sounds cool and so Charles Reed stole it. It works identically to how it did in Frogware’s Sherlock games, letting you combine major clues to form conclusions. Sometimes you can choose between conclusions, altering the outcome of the case. Given the Lovecraftian inspiration the case conclusions are typically morally grey. For instance, do you choose a young man who wants to do good by Oakmont but is potentially being influenced by a cult behind the scenes, or do you opted for the father who is a brutal man yet won’t be affected by aforementioned creepy cult? There are a lot of these interesting situations where there’s no right or wrong answer as such.

I do wish that the conclusions I reached had more of an impact, though. Whereas the Sherlock games could at least tell you if your conclusion was right or wrong, The Sinking City doesn’t have the same privilege. The outcomes are much more ambiguous which is absolutely fine, but it would have been good to feel, see and hear the consequences. Combined with Reed’s passive role in the plot it makes you feel like you’re never making a difference.

All this snooping around, researching and clicking on stuff gives The Sinking City a slower, methodical pace that I really dug. With that said, you aren’t made to engage the ol’ grey matter. The developers pushed the idea that The Sinking City wouldn’t hold your hand and in some ways they were right, yet you’re rarely ever piecing things together or figuring them out. All that you need to do is click on some stuff and pick conclusions. What you need to do next is usually obvious.

Pew Pew

Fighting stuff has never featured heavily in the Lovecraft tales because his work dealt more with cosmic entities that the human mind simply couldn’t cope with. These were not things that could be stopped with bullets, or indeed stopped at all. Over the years, though, the work of Lovecraft has been somewhat watered down, and now we see guns and fighting playing a larger part. The Sinking City subscribes to this and thus Charles Reed packs some firepower. Sadly, Frogware haven’t made a combat system that was worth including, though.

But before we get to that the bad, let’s start off with something of a positive. Like many games The Sinking City has a crafting system, sending you scavenging in order to make bullets. I like that the game sticks to this concept, keeping ammunition relatively scarce and thus making you feel like your shots are valuable. I can’t remember the last time I actually had to worry about bullets, but in The Sinking City I actually found myself running out.

Now that the positive out of the way let’s get down to business; combat in The Sinking City is bloody terrible. During your investigations horrid creatures will pop up that require putting down. Pulling the trigger, though, rewards you with a wet-fart of a noise and an unconvincing animation from the target. Feedback is simply poor and the aiming feels awkward, especially given a few of the enemy’s penchant for dodging to the side. Getting into fights is easily the worst thing in The Sinking City.

Technically stealth is an option, but it’s a weak one. You can skulk around and pick up some clues and crafting materials, but clashing with monsters is almost a guarantee. This is especially true when the damn things literally appear in the room with you, suddenly rising up out of the ground and making all your slow sneaking about pointless.

At least the enemy designs are pretty cool. The Wyldebeasts are my favourite, being made up entirely of hands and forearms. They scuttle around like weird spiders. But ultimately none of the creatures evoke any sense of dread or terror, rather they elicit a sigh as you draw your gun. Hell, even the folk of Oakmont seem to view them as a minor nuisance. Draw a creature out onto the street and they ignore.

That also makes the prospect of the infected zones within the city all the worse. It’s promised that these areas contain potentially awesome loot, but in reality they just have an abundance of the standard crafting materials. Venture in and you’ll likely end up using as many bullets as you get back. The answer to dealing with the monsters is to do like the Oakmont residents seem to do: ignore them. Just jog through, grab some stuff and all will be fine.

And The Other Stuff

If fancy branching out a little and taking in some of the sights then there are a bunch of side cases to be taken on. Some are given to you, but many are found through exploration which gives you a nice reason to take a long around from time to time. While these side cases have you going through the exact same detective work as the main storyline they’re worth chasing down for storylines. A personal favourite was hunting down an ancient witch at the behest of Joy, a local Liberian whose mouth has been stitched together because she gossiped too much.

The other reason to take on some side cases is to earn XP. Completing investigations and gunning down random monsters nets you XP which in turn earns points you can spend. There’s just little skill trees to invest in and they do things like bump up your health, let you carry some extra ammo and stave off insanity for a tad longer.

Yup, I did mention going insane. This wouldn’t be a Lovecraftian game without the risk of losing all your mental marbles. Whenever you’re near enemies or something strange the sanity meter will slowly drain, resulting in a fuzzy screen, hallucinations and more. If you run out of sanity completely Charles Reed will commit suicide. It’s a really cool idea, but for the most part you don’t need to worry about the sanity meter, which is a shame.

The Conclusion

At this point it’s hard to say if it’s a genuine love of Lovecraft’s unique work that encourages people to build new stories based upon it or if its simply because by using Lovecraft’s work writers and developers get a pre-built world complete with lore, characters, locations and everything else you might need. Ultimately I can’t tell which The Sinking City is.

What I can tell you is that this game feels like it will be great for a small niche of people who will be willing to forgive its flaws in order to enjoy the detective work, atmosphere and horrors. In other words this is a good example of the mid-tier title, developed on a smaller budget but aimed at a specific crowd. For the average gamer, though, I think the flaws are too numerous and the general feel too janky to be of interest, at least until The Sinking City gets a price cut.

On a more personal level, though, I kind of love The Sinking City. It’s different, and a damn good example of what mid-tier games can do.

3 out of 5

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