Adventure Gamers Awards
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.Continued on the next page...