Sinking Island review
When billionaire CEO Walter Jones is found dead on the beach of his private tropical island, it’s up to visiting police inspector Jack Norm to find the culprit amongst the ten remaining inhabitants. But can Norm sift through the evidence before the tremendous weight of Jones’ personal Xanadu, a massive art deco hotel, pushes all the evidence into the sea? Sinking Island is the latest game from creator Benoît Sokal, best known for the Syberia series. Unlike Sokal’s previous games, Sinking Island is more rooted in reality, a straight-up noir murder mystery, without any fantastical or supernatural twists, despite its rather incredible premise. Will Sokal’s fans be pleased by this change in direction, or will they be begging for the island to hurry up and sink?
With ten suspects in a finite space, it may seem like fingering the culprit is merely a matter of attrition, but the more you discover about the late Mr. Jones, the more it seems likely that just about anyone would want to kill him. He’s easily the most deplorable character in the game, far surpassing the actual murderer (or even murderers; you'll get no hints here). While no one is without their dirty little secrets—and in fact, Norm has an almost comical habit of immediately revealing the secrets of Suspect A when he goes to interrogate Suspect B—it would be hard for anyone to surpass the crimes the so-called “victim” perpetrated on the guests of his little island. As sordid as their lives are, however, there isn’t much in the story that will actually shock you, with twists and turns playing out in a fairly clichéd fashion.
You’ll converse frequently each character using a simple icon-based dialogue system, and for the most part the suspects all have unique things to say, and each has their own special part to play in the drama that unfolds. There’s the sly lawyer, the long-suffering architect, the mute island girl and her scheming father, and the victim’s three grandchildren with their significant others. While they easily fit into stereotypes (one grandchild is the clean-cut favorite son while another is a degenerate gambler), they’re different enough that by the time you’re tired of interrogating one you’ll be fresh and ready to move onto the next. Norm himself doesn’t have much in the way of a personality, except for the tendency to switch oddly between uncomfortably confrontational and unnecessarily apologetic when introducing himself. But the one startling issue is that none of the characters ever move their mouths when they speak. You’ll probably want to enable the subtitles just to distract you from the telepathic conversations playing out onscreen.
As you begin sorting through the many relevant details, fortunately you’ll have help in the form of your PPA, or Personal Police Assistant, which is a sort of super-computer that keeps track of everything for you. The first feature of the PPA provides a list of all the suspects with arguments for and against their guilt, along with their current location, which automagically updates as they move around. The primary feature is the Clues Database, which is where you’ll spend most of your time, since this is where you’ll find every piece of evidence you’ve gathered so far. This includes material evidence (like the murder weapon or a torn shirt), photographic evidence, documentary evidence, or declarative evidence based on suspect statements. A simple “compare” function further allows you to match fingerprints (and more) to develop new pieces of more conclusive evidence.
Within this database is your current mandate—in other words, what the next thing is on the agenda that needs solving. For example, who else was present on the beach when Mr. Jones met his maker? Underneath the mandate is a series of blank spaces, which indicates how many pieces of evidence you need, and of what type. So you may need four witness statements, two pictures, and one piece of material evidence. There’s also a progress bar that shows how much of the needed evidence is in your possession, so you won’t waste too much time trying to solve a mandate that is not yet solvable. While telling you exactly how much evidence you need, and in what category, may make the game seem simple, it’s certainly the most intriguing feature, and the most fun to use. There’s a large enough mountain of evidence, including a lot of red herrings, that it’s not always easy to fill in the blanks and get the right answer. The final feature of the PPA is simply a way to switch between open mandates on the evidence screen, with each mandate represented as a puzzle piece in the overall mystery.
When you’re using the PPA, the game is paused, and thank Heaven for small mercies. When you start a new game, you’re given the choice of standard adventure mode or “Race Against Time” mode. If you choose standard, then things will remain static for as long as you need to put your case together, at which time the storyline will suddenly lurch forward to the next beat. On the other hand, “Race Against Time” doesn’t care if you’ve got a handle on your investigation or not, because eventually the darn island will sink into sea and that will be that. It’s an accelerated real-time schedule tracked by an onscreen clock, with several game minutes counting for each real one, and it’s very possible to miss a vital piece of evidence one day that’s no longer going to be there the next. It definitely adds an aura of excitement and danger to the otherwise dry task of walking from place to place and chatting with people, but since many adventure game fans choose this genre to avoid that kind of anxiety, I’m not sure how many will want to make use of it. The time limits are ample enough if you can avoid any major stumbling blocks, but you do risk being forced to start over from a manual saved game or a long-previous autosave if time runs out. Fortunately, once you fulfill each day’s requirement within the allotted time, it instantly becomes night and Norm goes off to bed.
The controls are somewhat standard for a third-person point-and-click adventure. You use the mouse to direct Norm around each screen, double-clicking to run, and a smart cursor shows when you can interact with something. There’s no real “Look” function, so you can forget about listening to Norm pontificate about his surroundings; the man’s all business. You can talk to people, “interact,” take a photograph, change screens, or move in for a closer look. There are a few inventory items, but virtually every item is used only once and then vanishes. Figuring out your mandates is about all that’s “puzzling” about Sinking Island, though the most hair-pulling moments will be from the pixel hunts. Given that the majority of the screens contain zero points of interaction, finding the tiny drawer (somehow different from all the other drawers) or the spot of ground (which looks identical to ground on either side of it) you need to examine can be a chore.
At least the big empty environments are nice to look at. If you’re not playing in “Race Against Time,” you’ll surely want to stop and admire the roses. You can imagine the beaches would be a paradise if they weren’t constantly wind-swept and rained upon, and the disturbingly large tower at the center of it all has a charming art deco style that would be inviting if it weren’t so eerily desolate. The soft piano music is pleasant but rarely used, and the sound effects are effective, if a bit understated. With large, barren screens that tend to dwarf the characters, and the constant sound of pounding rain whenever you step outside, the atmosphere is one of isolation and lurking doom, and it works.
The voice acting can be good, but suffers from the usual dry line reading you find too often in adventure games these days. Peculiarly, Norm sounds like he has two different voice actors portraying him, but since the credits only list seven total actors without saying who plays who, I can’t prove it. As most of the characters are American, including Norm, you’d think the voice actors would’ve spoken up at some point to help Americanize some of the bizarre things they’re expected to say. Could no one point out that people in the States don’t say things like “Wake up, my fellow”? While occasional head-scratchers in the dialogue are one thing, some of the language in the evidence and ancillary material is mind-numbingly awful. Here’s an actual word-for-word quote from what’s supposed to be a clipping out of the Washington Post: “Rocking the dinosaur boat to avoid bad surprises, this is the first order from the candidate who believes that nothing is every really earned in politics…” If you know any French, you might want to consider trying out the original European release instead of wading through this mess.
Events take place over three days, with twelve mandates to solve, and all told it will likely take between 10 to 12 hours to play, even when you’re Racing Against Time, unless you find yourself continually replaying sections. The mandate system makes it easy to feel like you’re always busy doing something, and since you’re rarely wandering around lost, the time you spend in-game will fly by pretty quickly. Investigating can undoubtedly be a lot of fun, and the graphical style is a treat to behold, though the overall experience is dampened by a predictable story, some annoying pixel hunts, and a very poor English localization. All in all, then, Sinking Island is a solid diversion for mystery fans, though it’s got too many holes in it to stay afloat in your consciousness for long.