Review – The Sinking City
Shortly after we reviewed Call of Cthulhu last year, I got Lovecraft fever. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed Lovecraftian horror and the dingy fishing villages of my home state of Massachusetts, but it didn’t completely scratch the itch. I began seeking out other games that might fill that cosmic void and I stumbled across The Sinking City. I had high hopes for it and came up with my dream wishlist of what we’d experience within the sinking city of Oakmont, MA. This week we finally got to dive into The Sinking City, stop dreaming, and start having horrific tentacle filled nightmares.
The story opens on protagonist Charles Reed, a former Navy man turned private investigator, who’s made his way from Boston to Oakmont, Massachusetts in search of answers. In recent months, Reed has been plagued by vivid and confusing nightmares of floods and aquatic horrors. Rumor has it that these visions are becoming more commonplace and not only have they been drawing strangers to Oakmont, but there’s someone there who has been researching their cause. But Reed’s arrival only throws him into the belly of a twisted city that has more mystery than answers.
Learning the secrets of this dark flooded city requires Reed to thoroughly explore every inch of the condemned structures and cult invested neighborhoods. Frogwares spent a lot of time creating an open city comprised of several districts to hide clues across and it’s in the player’s best interests to use the tools spread throughout.
One of the big selling points of The Sinking City is its lack of handholding. It is entirely up to the player to take the clues they’ve been provided and determine what the next steps to take are. Within the walls of Oakmont lie resources such as the police station and newspaper where Reed can browse through archives any time that he’s stuck on a case. Should Reed ever need to track down the culprit behind a string of robberies in a particular district, he could find the information he needs in the police archives, or look for reports of burglaries in the same area. Perhaps there was a witness who spotted the burglar and their identity will be revealed to you by looking in the right place.
Similarly, the HUD compass will never direct players toward a location that they didn’t input themselves. Objective waypoints simply don’t exist. The in-game map details the districts and streets of Oakmont and marks primary locations as they are uncovered. If Reed needs to find a particular landmark, he’ll need to follow a series of clues until he learns the landmark’s cross streets. Then, it’s up to the player to mark the map and explore the narrowed down area until they find what they’re looking for.
But the real work doesn’t begin until Reed arrives on the scene of an investigation. Clues can come in many forms and be hidden anywhere within the crime scene so thorough exploration of each area will be crucial if Reed is going to solve each case.
Player independence and freedom of exploration are what make The Sinking City feel more like a horror themed Sherlock Holmes than anything like what we’ve seen in previous Lovecraftian games. But for all the unique investigation components, many of the game’s biggest downfalls come from mirroring more common game mechanics which ultimately become a distraction from what makes The Sinking City good.
Real investigations take a keen and observant eye, but games that depend on investigation frequently include an additional optic mode. In Batman: Akrham Asylum, it was detective mode. In Call of Cthulhu, it was a visual reconstruction of past events. And in The Sinking City, Reed can activate his Minds Eye. Using this mode, clues are easier to spot and Reed can get glimpses of the past and visually piece together events that took place before his arrival. On the occasion, Reed will even be able to use his Minds Eye to find magically hidden rooms or follow a culprit’s day old path through Oakmont, leading him to a hideout.
Occasionally, Charles Reed might find himself accidentally wandering into an infested area where lumbering humanoid monsters and arachnid crawlies roam. These are dangerous areas that can easily get Reed killed, or drive him into madness, summoning ghostly apparitions that will leave him consumed by insanity. To defend himself, Reed can use firearms and traps to drive them back into the depths.
Ammunition isn’t easy to find, but crafting components are. As players rummage through crime scenes, they’ll find a large number of bullet casings and gunpowder that can be crafted into ammunition from the menu at any time. As the game goes on, Reed will learn how to craft more powerful items, such as explosives.
The inclusion of third person shooter combat brings a bit of variety to the experience, but it’s sloppy. Reed moves slowly while the smaller monsters move so quickly that it’s really easy for them to get right up against Reed. Combat often becomes a game of cat and mouse, firing a few shots, running to create some distance, and firing a few more until they’re gone.
Yet, it’s important to go into infested areas to resupply on ammunition and first aid kits. Crates scattered around infested areas are loaded with valuable materials. It’s important to visit from time to time for those restocks, but combat and the crafting that goes with it feels more like an attempt to include industry familiar mechanics for their audience rather than Frogwares providing added depth to their game.
As Charles Reed uncovers clues, wanders into new areas, solves cases, and determines the fate of Oakmont residents, he’ll begin earning experience which after a time will permit new skills to be unlocked. Whenever Reed has earned enough experience, he’ll gain a Knowledge Point which can be applied to a traditional skill tree unlocking the ability to carry more ammunition, locate additional resources, or improve maximum health.
All of these added features have detracted from what The Sinking City was advertised to be: something different. An open world horror L.A Noire lite experience. Instead, Frogwares focused on adding skill trees and combat squandered the potential for something truly “different”
The main problem with The Sinking City is how quickly it can become repetitive. It takes a little bit of experimenting to get the hang of how the casebook, clues, and mind palace menus interact with one another and where to go when Reed seemingly hits a dead end. But if you manage to solve that puzzle once, you’ve got it covered for the rest of your journey. There’s little to no difficulty curve and the only thing keeping me playing is my commitment to finishing games. After awhile, The Sinking City just feels like more and more of the same.
Except for when it comes to the graphics. The visuals are all over the place. Environmental textures look excellent and I love taking in the atmosphere of Oakmont as Reed explores the flooded streets. But in contrast, character animations are stiff and unnatural, reminding me of the animation from some earlier Xbox 360 games. But the worst of it are the flashes of visions Reed will get, super imposing overly geometric and artifacted figures that lurch unnaturally. Frankly, it feels a little cheesy and a bit like an old 70’s film transition.
On a more personal note, the pronunciation of a particular place drove me as insane as any Lovecraftian encounter could. There are certain geographic factors that attribute to how a word is pronounced correctly. For example, Houston, Texas is pronounced and entirely different way than Houston St. in New York City. The city is pronounced “Hugh-ston” while the street is pronounced “How-ston”. These differences aren’t the results of accents but rather refer to whom these locations were named after. Similarly, the famous Massachusetts site of Plymouth Rock where the Mayflower supposedly first landed is pronounced “Plim-muth”, not “Plim-mouth.”
If you are at all familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s tales, you might be able to guess where I’m going with this. Much of The Sinking City‘s story revolves around the cult of Dagon and some odd looking citizens from none other but Lovecraft’s famous port city of Innsmouth. Not unlike Plymouth, Innsmouth is pronounced “Inns-muth”, not “Inns-mouth”. There are two things Lovecraft and I share in common: absinthe and Massachusetts nativity. I thank Dagon that part of the experience is over.
Overall The Sinking City is a noble attempt at a Lovecraftian mystery that barely stands up beneath the weight of its own ambition. As the story grows and gets larger in scale, the plot only thins, never going as deep as the oceans it wants to explore. The Sinking City never figures out what type of game it wants to be, keeping its foot in every genre-summoning circle at once, never reaching beyond mediocrity. For diehard fans of mystery and H.P Lovecraft, The Sinking City will be worth their time once it’s on sale. In the meantime, it’s best to steer clear of this slimy mess.
Inconsistent quality becomes distracting and leaves some effects feeling incomplete.
An odd combinations of mechanics reaching for the cosmos and stretching itself too thin. Half-baked action scenes against repetitive investigations overstay their welcome.
A solid sound effect track brings back memories of dank Massachusetts piers, but the music is quite forgettable.
There are some interesting stories to uncover, but they don’t make up for repetition.
Final Verdict: 6.5
The Sinking City is available now on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of The Sinking City was provided by the publisher.