Ukrainian developers, Frogwares invite players to investigate macabre goings on in a tormented sinking city.
Developers continue to mine the esoteric works of H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos, and understandably so. Lovecraft’s tales offer gamers weird and surreal gaming experiences with peculiar and unique narratives, compared to the usual fayre. It’s an opportunity to play with an established brand for what is probably isn’t a very steep licencing price. Unfortunately, like many of Lovecraft’s stories, these games usually come across as dated.
Thankfully, The Sinking City is an exception. Whilst lacking in a bit of polish, there is, for those that persevere, a very entertaining game lurking beneath the so-so visuals and clunky combat mechanics.
The game is set in the 1920s, in keeping with H.P Lovecraft’s stores, and centres on Charles Reed, a private investigator. He is looking into the nightmarish visions that are drawing people to the mysterious flooded town of Oakmont. The isolated town isn’t marked on maps and seems full of secrets and occult goings on.
Shortly after his arrival, Charles is hired by influential local, Robert Throgmorton to investigate the disappearance of a team that he sent out to investigate the possible origin of the visions. Players familiar with Lovecraft’s short story, The Call of Cthulhu with will note the references. In Lovecraft’s tale it was an oceanic upheaval that revealed the ruins of the Elder Gods and for a short time released Cthulhu unleashing strange visions upon artists and poets around the world.
The Sinking City keeps its cards close to its chest and does little to invite new players into the game. Instead of supplying a map full of handy icons pointing to the next location, players have to piece together clues and find locations themselves.
For the first couple of hours I did not enjoy the game at all. The slightly more involved game mechanics, took some getting used to, but I was already jarred by the game’s rough presentation. If I wasn’t reviewing the game, I’d have likely put it down before things really got started. And I imagine, many players will do just that.
But, if you put the game down before Charles dons a deep-sea diving suit and dives to the depths of the ocean, you quit too early. You’ll have missed out on a game that, despite appearances, has a lot to offer players that like a good supernatural mystery.
The game is set in a fairly large open-world city. Whilst much of Oakmont is accessible on foot, the flooded areas are reached via conveniently located motor boats. The game has a fast travel system that allows players to travel between telephone boxes, once they have been discovered.
Investigating cases involves following leads and searching locations for objects and information. Once the location has been properly searched, Charles can step into the scene, using his mind’s eye ability, observing static representations of prior events. Placing them in order unravels what happened and reveals clues. By using his mind palace Charles can combine clues to make deductions that can be used to advance the case. It’s hardly surprising that many of the developer’s previous games have been Sherlock Holmes adventures.
As well as a main case, additional optional cases are offered for investigation by the residents of the town. These range from entire sub-plots to collecting items from building in the flooded part of the city.
In all fairness, the game’s visuals aren’t bad, is just that playing the game on an Xbox One X, the console struggled to retain a decent frame rate. Whilst for a game that more about detective work, the frame-rate isn’t too much of a hindrance. On the occasions that you need to engage in combat, the game’s performance makes an already poor combat mechanic that much worse.
Bullets are used as currency in Oakmont; thus, they are very scarce. So, trying to hit a weird and very athletic monster with your few remaining bullets, using an aiming mechanic that barely works, tends to become an exercise in frustration. Thankfully, there’s plenty of salvage to be found to craft better equipment and abilities to upgrade in order to even the odds.
Overall, The Sinking City has a lot to offer those with the patience to overlook its technical faults. The deduction gameplay is not going to be for everyone, but for most it should be a welcome change in an age where games usually spoon-feed players. The story is well-written and very intriguing and, of course, for Lovecraft fans the game’s a must. It does, however take a while to get going. Those all-important first few hours do little overcome the games shortcomings. But if you stick with it, The Sinking City reveals itself to be a deep and interesting, if at times unnerving, adventure game.