The Sinking City review
The works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft have inspired countless artists over the years, representing all forms of entertainment hundreds of times over. Whether in tabletop or digital format, Lovecraftian lore and specifically the Cthulhu Mythos has been a part of gaming for decades. Ukrainian developer Frogwares is the latest to utilize the author’s works for The Sinking City, a game that does an admirable job of recreating a distressing, fatalistic open world brimming with Lovecraftian nods. It’s also a satisfying piece of storytelling overall, though its non-intuitive mechanics, reliance on clumsy combat, and a runtime that begins to undermine its complex gameplay systems will require a fair bit of patience and perseverance to reach the end.
Players take on the role of Charles Reed, a private investigator who has just arrived on the isolated island of Oakmont, Massachusetts in order to investigate mysterious visions people on the mainland have had of the place. Charles himself is one of the victims of this outbreak, and has decided to seek out the cause personally before going mad from the inexplicable and horrifying sights. Strangely, sharing even this much is already more than the game itself provides right away, opting instead to begin with a random man aboard a random boat arriving at a random dock. Players are simply left to fend for themselves and spend the first hour or so putting the many pieces together, an early misstep that means you have to grapple with lots of questions during a tutorial mission that should serve to guide rather than befuddle.
In lieu of introducing new systems as they pop up in the game – and there are several to become familiar with – they are presented solely through a slew of information screens straight off the boat; thankfully these can be still accessed later via the in-game menu. All of this is to say that The Sinking City’s opening moments are far from user-friendly, either obscuring important details or dryly info-dumping extensive how-tos that may not be needed for hours. Fortunately the storytelling, even this early on, does its best to remedy the situation.
You’ll have barely reached shore before meeting Robert Throgmorton, a key character for much of the first half who acts as a catalyst to get you out into Oakmont with some purpose. The eerily ape-like Throgmorton won’t let Reed leave the harbor until he’s solved the case of his missing son. This provides an opportunity to dig into the investigative gameplay, which in itself incorporates a surprising number of elements. The most basic way to gather information is by speaking with characters and simply walking around searching for clues. Charles controls in third-person, using a keyboard and mouse or controller setup to move and interact with points of interest. Hotpots are marked with icons from several feet away, and the story cannot move forward until you have found all key evidence present at a scene.
The devil is in the details, though, and many non-essential objects can be examined – diary pages, letters and newspaper clippings, pictures, even common household items – with intriguing and possibly disturbing flavor text that helps flesh out the game’s uneasy atmosphere. Finding all possible evidence in a location even provides an experience bonus. Experience works just as it does in an RPG: when a certain amount of experience is attained, you are awarded a skill point that can be used to unlock a latent talent, making Reed more of a combat powerhouse, strengthening his mental resolve against the maddening sights of Oakmont, or become more resourceful in assembling makeshift ammo and explosives from resources picked up all over the city, among other options.
Apart from the physical act of combing a location for clues, Reed also has certain unusual mental talents, connected to his visions in a way the story slowly reveals over the course of the game. Once all vital clues have been discovered in a particular area, Charles must tap into a sort of sixth sense, called Retrocognition, letting him step into another plane of existence to catch fragmented snapshots of what happened there. You’ll have to arrange these ethereal tableaus in the correct chronological order, done by simply clicking on each one in sequence.
Oakmont also harbors many illusions, indicated by a faint ghostly blur around the edges of the screen. These illusions include phantasmal walls hiding important rooms, false objects concealing something crucial like a door key, or glimpses into an item’s past, such as seeing the moment a knife was used to kill some poor soul. Though Reed can use his Mind’s Eye power to dispel these illusions, doing so takes a toll on his sanity meter, which can cause his surroundings to turn dark and go out of focus. Other actions like being faced with horrific scenes of violence, facing down masses of enemy creatures, or spotting the faint shapes of monstrous eldritch creatures slowly floating in the distance during the occasional underwater diving sections cause a similar sanity drain, but this can be replenished through item use or naturally over time.
Once you’ve found the necessary evidence to move your investigation along, you’ll need some way of piecing it together. True to form from this developer, there are several ways this happens. Players familiar with Frogwares’ previous Sherlock Holmes series will remember the clue board, a mental projection of a blotter where clues are arranged and matched together to form logical conclusions. Here the process is rather simplified, as you can either attempt to use your noggin or simply click at random until two clues go together. Larger cases require this to be done repeatedly, sometimes even leading to multiple possible outcomes to choose from, mirroring how cynical or sympathetic your interpretations have been. Other than these and a few other superficial decisions, choice doesn’t factor heavily into the game, though there are three possible endings determined during the final moments.
A far better mental exercise, and really one of The Sinking City’s only actual puzzle elements, involves the investigation sections that see Charles visit the city archives in order to learn a name, an address, or something else vital to progressing his case. To do so, players have to triangulate the info needed by choosing three characteristics from several lists of possibilities. The police station provides info on crimes throughout the city, suspects, and witnesses; the St. Mary hospital keeps records of patients and staff dealing with medical or mental issues; and city hall keeps general tabs on Oakmont’s citizenry. These puzzles range from very simple to frustratingly vague a few times during the game’s later stages.
Packed as the experience already is with its numerous investigative systems, they are still only one side of the gameplay coin. The Sinking City is nearly split right down the middle between detective elements and action set pieces, with some of Oakmont’s locations being exclusively centered around gunplay. These moments aren’t nearly as atmospheric or entertaining as the narrative, so it’s a bit of a shame that the design team chose to go in guns blazing rather taking than a more measured approach adapted from the many popular board games based on Lovecraft’s work. Here, aiming the target reticle in real time while contending with incoming damage due to imprecise collision detection makes combat one of the game’s less enjoyable aspects. Ammo is quite scarce too, and delving into cumbersome menus between and even during firefights, hoping to have scrounged enough materials to craft just a few more bullets, is a common occurrence.
Given all the time devoted to combat, it’s underwhelming that the enemy creatures consist only of four types of varying size that you’ll face over and over again, ranging from the skittering spider-like Stygian to the intimidating mountain of flesh and flailing limbs called the Acheronian. Though they certainly resemble something from the pages of Lovecraft’s stories, they are far more interesting to read about in the game’s bestiary than to actually fight, and the weak weapons available to Charles early on will often put him at quite a disadvantage. Progressing the story along does expand your arsenal, however, and by late-game you’ll be blasting baddies away fairly efficiently, if still with a neurotic eye on your health and ammo counter. Thankfully death is forgiving, quickly restoring you back to the nearest safe zone on the map, even retaining your current case progress to that point. While I played using the default challenge settings, for less (or more) of a survival horror experience, there are separate difficulty options for investigation and combat that can be altered in the menu at any time.
If combat is one of the weaker elements, one of biggest selling points of The Sinking City is easily the connective tissue that binds all of the numerous bits and pieces together. Oakmont itself is a real achievement and feels like a central character in its own right. The designers steadfastly stuck to their vision of treating it as a real city. As such, important locations are often described through the use of actual directions, using street names and cardinal directions, leaving you to call up the map to find the next important location on your own. Though this idea at first gives the open world concept a real sense of authenticity, Oakmont is very large and there are just too many individual locations to painstakingly keep tracking on the map, particularly if you want to complete all the optional content.
Compounding the matter of getting around, due to a recent (and still ongoing) flood that coincided with the rise of all the city’s troubles, entire streets and large sections of certain neighborhoods have been completely reclaimed by the sea and are traversable now only by boat. Concessions like an optional on-screen compass, player-set map markers, and fast-travel phone booths that are unlocked little by little as you progress do help, but you’ll still spend a fair bit of time navigating and then physically wandering the city, either on foot or by boat.
As Charles quickly discovers, there is an endemic racism brewing just below the city’s surface, particularly targeting the peculiar, fish-eyed refugees who fled from nearby Innsmouth. As if that weren’t enough to set the locals’ teeth on edge, Oakmont is further divided by the controlling interests of its prominent crime families, the city’s true leaders. While puppet politicians and corrupt officials may be visible to the public eye, the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes have their own goals. Between bloodthirsty cults, ruthless academics, the KKK and religious zealots, not to mention the threat of eldritch monsters, it’s the common folk who are caught in the middle and who often fall by the wayside as unfortunate casualties.
The critical path through The Sinking City is fairly lengthy on its own but is further extended to probably thirty-plus hours with side cases added in. They don’t provide much useful reward other than experience points, and they do increase the amount of time one must spend engaged in monster combat significantly, but fans of Lovecraftian lore will absolutely not want to skip these extra investigations, as they also include some tantalizing narrative beats. For example, being asked to enter and take pictures of serial killer murder sites leads to an intriguing mini-case, and lifting the veil behind mysterious disappearances at a vacant restaurant ends in a hair-raising scene sure to turn a few stomachs. Even so, by the time the last few bonus cases roll around, the constant pinging around the map does begin to feel like little more than padding.
Visually Oakmont is also quite striking with scenic moments, fittingly tinged with fog or soaked by a dreary drizzle, occurring around nearly every street corner. Here an eviscerated shark corpse lying in the street, there a fish market with a gigantic glass tank of malignant moray eels swirling about. What at first glance appear to be alley cats roaming everywhere are soon revealed to be some sort of spidery crustaceans with feline corpses draped over themselves and are now scuttling about in assumed anonymity.
Morbid postcard views are found everywhere, from the sprawling university campus, to the partially-submerged St Botolph’s Cemetery, to the imposing city asylum overlooking Oakmont’s outskirts from atop its hill. But as twilight days give way to only slightly-darker nights, it’s the character models that have received the short end of the aesthetic stick. Though they all look realistic enough, things fall apart under the scrutiny of dialog close-ups. Lip syncing is imperfect at best, and there are an awful lot of cut-and-paste assets popping up in your travels.
More impressive is the sound design, fronted by a generally excellent voice cast. Charles himself initially comes across a bit like a doped-up blanket, but he grew on me. You’ll also hear gleefully squelchy and slimy sound effects that really convey the uneasiness of being in a city infested by cosmic horrors. Everything in Oakmont sounds as absolutely dreadful as it looks – which, of course, is exactly as it should be. That’s important, because the musical score is largely unremarkable, typically limiting itself to atmospheric ambience when it is present at all.
The Sinking City is a case of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, to varying degrees of success. As an atmospheric narrative adventure, it manages to strike closer to the center of the Lovecraftian bullseye than many others that have come before. But away from its storytelling, the game almost sinks under the weight of its own gameplay systems without even the benefit of helpful introductions. Combat feels clunky, navigation can be somewhat tedious, and even the story threads are ultimately stretched rather thin to cover its ambitious runtime. Despite some gameplay reservations stemming from a case of too much rather than too little, however, Oakmont feels like a living, breathing (if drowning) city that’s well worth exploring, and those seeking a descent into the macabre will find it a flawed but intriguing experience.
Though it muddies the waters by needlessly cramming in a boatload of gameplay mechanics that drown out some of the fun, The Sinking City delivers a believable turn-of-the-century Lovecraftian setting and infuses it with fittingly macabre story beats that would do the author proud.