Skip to main content

What is The Sinking City?

The Sinking City is an adventure and investigation game set in an open world inspired by the universe of H.P. Lovecraft, the master of horror. The game is being developed by Frogwares, a studio that has won many awards for the Sherlock Holmes series. Half-submerged, Oakmont is in the grips of supernatural forces. As a detective, you have to uncover the truth about what is possessing the city… and the minds of its inhabitants. The limited Day One Edition includes The Investigator Pack which gives you an exclusive private investigator outfit, permanent access to a first aid kit and antipsychotics as well as an initial supply of crafting resources; A map of Oakmont.

Review

The Sinking City is a study in contradictions and one that I have many thoughts on both good and bad. The closest game I can think of to it is Silent Hill, which is to say it has achieved something truly magnificent in terms of its setting as well as storytelling but plays like ass. It’s a difficult statement because I want to like The Sinking City and it has many wonderful qualities but it also took me more than a few hours to figure out how its counterintuitive systems.

The game is an investigative action RPG in the Cthulhu Mythos. In the fictional city of Oakmont, Massachusetts, Charles Reed is a private investigator following up on a bunch of missing person’s cases as well as the strange visions he’s having of the town. Oakmont is apparently very isolated and was so even before it was hit by a devastating flood that leaves half of the city underwater.

The developers make an interesting stylistic choice in that Oakmont is mostly aware of the Cthulhu Mythos. The Innsmouthers, refugees from their destroyed hometown, are openly worshiping Dagon as well as looking every bit their fish-monster selves. There’s an ape-human hybrid in charge of one of the city’s oldest families. Also, there’s monsters wandering around the town that the citizens are trying to stay alive fighting. This takes some getting used to but actually adds to the weird and unsettling feeling of Oakmont.

There are some interesting contradictions in the storytelling that are worth mentioning as well. The developers are broadly sympathetic to issues like refugees and virulently anti-racism. However, that kind of makes it awkward that you can call out characters that are viciously racist against the Innsmouthers only to reveal the latter are engaged in plots to end the world with Cthulhu as well as murdering people left and right. Perhaps it’s simply a Discworld acknowledgement that true tolerance acknowledges that persecuted people can be evil bastards too.

Charles Reed is a character I wish we had either more control over his responses or less. He’s unnaturally subdued and I feel a more animated character would benefit the story. As a grizzled Mythos investigating private eye, he doesn’t have quite the same acting range as Edward Pierce from Call of Cthulhu (2018) or Jack Walters from Dark Corners of the Earth. Jack didn’t emote much either but I believed he was genuinely devastated when he failed to save one particular little girl.

The majority of the game consists of traveling around Oakmont solving mysteries. Reed is told to do something by someone, and they have to investigate locations, check archives, interview people, and put together the clues until they have answers. It takes a while to get the hang of this because the game doesn’t explain how the system works very well. I suspect fans of the publisher’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries will have an easier time of it. Also, Reed is apparently psychic and can see visions when he touches objects or a violent crime takes place somewhere.

The problem with the game is the fact that it’s consistently frustrating in its gameplay. It’s structured like a survival horror game so that even on the easiest difficulty with the Aim assist on high, you are better off running from the monsters than trying to kill them. I wish I’d figured this out sooner as some of the earliest sidequests were damn near impossible until I found the grenade. Even then, there’s a lot of quests where you can’t really investigate an area until you’ve cleared it out of bad guys.

The awkward combat is something I could forgive, though, if not for the objective and mapping systems. In simple terms, a large chunk of gameplay is about reading clues and then looking at the map to find out where places are instead of simply pointing out where the next location should be. I don’t know who thought this would be fun but unless you’re right next to your screen, this makes it much harder to reach destinations and artificially lengthens the game. You can add markers on the map yourself, but this just adds to the confusion.

The survival horror elements are also somewhat muted once you realize that crafting bullets, first aid kits, and other necessities aren’t a matter of resource management. All of the lockers and storage containers you encounter on your way through the game respawn their contents while the monsters do not. It was a good feature for dialing down my issues with the game’s difficulty but makes me wonder why bother with the crafting system at all versus leaving behind ammo or other objects like other games.

I give credit to the developers for creating a fantastic looking open world in Oakmont. The place is a post-apocalypse 1920s sort of Venice with rotting whale carcasses, overturned trolleys, and decaying coral-covered houses. There’s nothing in the way of collectibles but you’ll eventually explore everything if you play out all the side plots and main quest.

In conclusion, The Sinking City is a flawed but fun game. If you can get past the first few hours of not knowing what the hell you’re doing until you get some better weapons, then the game becomes much-much better. The story, the atmosphere, and the writing are extremely well done. It’s not traditional HP Lovecraft but there’s a few magical moments like the time you’re in a cave formation surrounded by seemingly normal rock, only to stand in just the right place with a camera as part of the mission quest: which shows you Cthulhu’s statue has been there the entire time.

Available here (PS4)

Available here (Xbox)

Leave a Reply