I seem to remember writing about the fact that Lovecraft inspired games don’t come along often when talking about Call of Cthulhu. I was wrong. Not much more than seven months later and we’ve got The Sinking City bobbing to the surface. Coming from Frogwares, best known for their work on the Sherlock Holmes series, and published by Big Ben Interactive, they thought they’d try their hand at a slightly different genre and tackle an open world survival detective game. Well, at least the open world and survival parts are new. With their skills in characterisation and investigation gameplay have they managed to bring a nautical themed creepy tale to life, or has it sprung a leak after setting sail and vanished beneath the waves?
Set in the town of Oakmont in Massachusetts, a place that’s suffered severe flooding and cut it off from a world that didn’t even know it existed, you take on the role of PI Charles Reed. A WWI veteran who’s experiencing traumatic visions, Charles has been called to Oakmont with the promise of help fixing his mind, so long as he lends his services to the local officials. Within seconds of stepping off the boat it’s clear that there’s many things wrong with the town, not least the monstrosities that manifest out of pools of water, the suspicious and distrustful townsfolk, and the massive stone monoliths that punctuate the skyline. Setting off to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy residents son, Charles ends up embroiled in a mystery that as it unfolds threatens to strip him of his sanity and keep him bound to the sinking city for the rest of whatever remains of his life.
Using the first case as a basic tutorial, the mechanics of the game are introduced so that the investigative tools are clear. Finding clues in the environment are essential to progressing a case, and each relevant piece of info gets logged in the casebook for reference at any time. Reed’s WWI experience and past psychiatric care have helped him develop the mind’s eye ability to see beyond the obvious and find hidden clues or reconstruct previous events. Using this supernatural power has it’s ups and downs – Charles has to balance making headway with losing his sanity. The more you use mind’s eye, the more the it depletes the sanity meter, and the harder it becomes to focus on the task at hand. The colour palette changes, nightmarish visions come at him, and gradually his grip on reality is lost ultimately resulting in death.
The psychic abilities come in a few different forms – reconstructing crime scenes, looking for the history of items, uncovering hidden objects, or removing physical barriers. Each is telegraphed clearly and the mind’s eye is employed regularly to get to the heart of the matter. Of course, being a PI means that there’s quite a bit of legwork needed and simply examining evidence and piecing together clues is key to getting to a final result. Using the Mind Palace, useful information is stored and needs to be combined to draw a conclusion, and these can then be mixed to figure what the next course of action is. It’s in these elements that Charles’ tenuous grip on reality comes into play, and there’s the ability to shape an outcome based on feeling instead of cold logic. Will he be an upstanding citizen, or a double-crossing killer?
Even though The Sinking City takes more than a few cues from the studio’s previous games, there is some action to get stuck into. Oakmont is filled with monsters that have appeared since the flood and only violence will send them back from whence the came. Armed with a shovel and a pistol to begin with, ammo is scarce and the wylebeasts tough, so picking fight or flight becomes essential. Encounters will be inevitable during the exploration of the town and some are unavoidable. Shooting is reasonable, yet it’s massively underpowered in the early stages… it’s sometimes better to use melee on the smaller creatures. Bigger foes can kill in one hit, and all will take a toll on the sanity meter the longer the battle continues. At least there are options to upgrade skills to make Reed hardier, and there’s the ability to craft ammo, health and sanity cures, even if they are costly. None of these count in the underwater sections though, and these are possibly some of the most frustratingly designed of the game with cumbersome movement and clumsy level design. Any locomotion issues from the surface are magnified tenfold, so mantling is a massive pain to make work.
There’s an interesting blend of gameplay on offer with it firmly focusing on being a detective story and occasionally throwing some light combat in, though the real selling point (building up to launch at least) has been the city itself. Using a bespoke set of tools, Frogwares have created a detailed, relatively large map with distinct stylings for various districts without the need to manually place every single item and texture. The Sinking City is a good looking game whilst out and about, with a real feel of disaster, decay and deceit in the streets. Some of the interiors convey the clash between opulence and poverty and sit nicely at both ends of the spectrum. Sadly, the vast majority of houses are the same layout and it all gets a bit confusing if the wrong door on a street is walked through. There’s also a definite difference between the level of detail inside vs out, with the latter coming off a lot better. Whilst I’m thinking of jarring elements, there are some nods to films and games squirrelled away that I can’t work out if they’re funny or off putting. It’s nice stumbling across one, though they’re completely at odds with the tone.
The letdowns don’t really end there either. There’s a lot of pop-in on display, almost as if the engine can’t render more than a few feet ahead. It’s less noticeable with structures, but the population appear and disappear far too regularly. When they end up in the scenery or floating in mid-air it breaks any illusion that might have been created. When it happens to the wylebeasts it’s less of an issue because it usually means an easy kill and not wasting any ammo. The way the NPCs look is interesting though, with a decent level of detail and facial expression, even if they all do look pale and a bit sickly (and maybe they are). Screentear was a massive distraction initially, and was mostly patched out, though expect to see it rear up every now and again. Loading screens are also something that crop up far too often, and they can be lengthy, especially if it’s one reverting to a previous save after a death. Individually, these problems can be overlooked, but together they really do impact on the pace, and it’s not a fast mover at the best of times.
Outside The Sinking City’s main story there are side cases to discover by reading articles, talking to inhabitants, or stumbling across locations, and some of these prove to be pretty interesting as they’ll send Charles to different parts of the city. Using the map, which becomes riddled with clue markers as things progress, is akin to a single page AtoZ and actually surprises at how nice it is with not having locations automatically added. There’s a connection to the city as you learn to navigate it and recognise landmarks to use for guidance. Getting oriented is useful for uncovering the fast travel points disguised as phone booths which then mean cutting out the sections of boat driving. Sailing works by the way, though the dingy is a bit sensitive and beaches far too easily, leaving only a risky swim through eel infested waters as a means of escape. Rewards come from solving the locals dilemmas, usually in the form of ammo that works as the local currency. It’s a feature that’s there to promote careful thinking about whether to save them for combat or buy something useful, but I never actually found anything to purchase, only the odd character here and there that needed a bullet for some food or drink.
Getting to the conclusion (or really I should say one of three conclusions) of the story is a bit of a chore. After the third case or so, it gets a little samey as you’re more familiar with the way a crime scene is going to unfold. I also found the ending a bit rushed as if there wasn’t enough time to finish things off properly; and despite the solid performances, I found it hard to empathise with any of the characters and as such the pay off at the end fell flat too. It’s a game that really wants you consider letting the whole world go to hell because you just don’t care, though I think they’ve pushed on to the player instead of the main character. Maybe this is because the choices that are offered to Charles throughout don’t really have a bearing on the final outcome. If you’ve played it as an uncaring drifter and lied and murdered your way to the end, you can still get an altruistic ending that’s not in keeping with his motivations. I feel there should have been some more structure around the action/consequence side.
It’s not just the story that feels unfinished, there are quite a few of the items and core mechanics that don’t seem to serve as much of the purpose as they should – like the camera that’s on the inventory radial menu for the whole game, yet only gets used two or three times; the bricks that never get explained and don’t get used; and the aforementioned currency. That said, performance and flow issues aside, there are some intriguing ideas in The Sinking City and I really feel there’s room for the open world detective genre in the market, and improvements that could be made easily. Sure, there are parts that need the barnacles scraping off, but if you’ve the patience and methodical procedural nature needed for sleuthing then there’s a good 15 hour distraction floating your way.
A PS4 review copy of The Sinking City was provided by Frogwares PR team and the game is available now for around £40 on PC, Switch, Xbox One and PS4.