The Sinking City Review

Richard Walker

Purveyor of nightmare creatures and lashing tentacles, H.P. Lovecraft has provided the source material for many a game and, regrettably, not always to great effect. The Sinking City is the latest to employ a dollop of H.P. source; its fictional city of Oakmont, Massachusetts, is a place lashed with perpetual rain, inhabited by dormant monsters and dour, dirty denizens. Into this maelstrom of misery steps private investigator Charles Reed, a soggy, sad sack of a sleuth drawn to this hideous 'borg' (as it’s colloquially referred to in Oakmont) by haunting visions.

Channeling Hugh Laurie in 'House', Reed finds himself caught between feuding 'Grand Families' the ape-like Throgmortons, the Carpenters, and down on their luck Blackwoods. Even their opulent manors aren't spared the impact of the apocalyptic flood that has engulfed much of the city, buildings encrusted with filth and barnacles, scuttling wylebeasts taking up residence in dampened basements, alongside larger beasties. Sherlock developer Frogwares does a pretty fine job of engendering an atmosphere of foreboding, the streets shrouded in oppressive greys and browns, its glitchy citizens inadvertently adding to the sense of weirdness.


Technical limitations like pervasive screen-tearing and far too many lengthy loading screens not withstanding, it's the presence of these monsters that undermines the core experience of being a detective; the game's shoddy combat muddying your role as a gumshoe whose sanity is gradually ebbing away. And despite Reed's delicate state of mind – as dictated by his sanity meter – The Sinking City isn't particularly scary, superimposed trippy images and wobbly effects failing to conjure a sense of terror.

But like the Sherlock games before it, the parts where you're being a detective are genuinely engaging, gathering clues then retreating to Reed's not remotely palatial 'Mind Palace' to make deductions an enjoyable process. The Mind Palace – a concept lifted from BBC's Sherlock TV series – is essentially a flowchart through which you can form connections, any conclusions drawn trickling down into a final binary decision at the end of each case. Ultimately, you'll choose who to side with, and these choices do at least appear to affect the course of the game's story to some degree.

Best of all, however, you're largely left to your own devices when it comes to conducting your detective work, finding evidence then looking into your 'Mind's Eye' to locate hidden truths all part and parcel of an investigation. Most cases then see Reed venturing through a glowing portal for a bout of 'Retrocognition' to determine a sequence of events and get closer to what has transpired. While none of this is particularly complicated, Frogwares resisting the need for handholding pays off, ensuring you feel some sense of achievement upon finding out something for yourself.

From something simple like figuring out a location in Oakmont when given an address (there are no numbers on the doors to help) to looking up a person or place in the city archives situated in the local hospital, police station, library, or city hall, you're made to feel like you're in charge of the procedure. This agency is unfortunately hampered by far too much legwork to get from one region of the city to another, and some rubbish deep sea diving bits. As far as open worlds go, Oakmont isn't exactly a sprawling metropolis, but it's made to feel much larger by how long its takes Reed to amble from place to place. Chugging through submerged areas in a little motorboat doesn't exactly help either.

Infected Zones that have been completely overrun by demons create annoying roadblocks you'll have to sprint through too; although if you're brave/stupid enough to spend time in one, you can scoop bags of loot for your efforts. Of course, that means engaging in gunfights with skittering abominations and the expenditure of scarce ammunition – it's not really worth it. Phone booth fast travel points alleviate the amount of cardio Reed will have to go through to traverse the city, but the amount of literal working of legs required is simply too much. Heap inconsequential, but diverting side cases on top of that and Reed will be needing new shoes in no time.


Inevitably, boredom does start to creep in a bit towards the end of The Sinking City, irritants like immersion-shattering intermissions to load the game, lacklustre combat, and Reed's world-weary delivery of dialogue soon grating. It's a shame, because there are some good ideas in here, but they're buried beneath muddy mechanics and shabby execution. Cases tend to adhere to a predictable pattern – you know you're going to end up performing some 'Retrocognition', you know that clicking on every little bit of evidence, then shooting a few wonky monsters will unavoidably occur at some point.

Nonetheless, The Sinking City is a solid attempt at taking the detective-based adventure Frogwares honed with the Sherlock series into an open world. And while the game ends up being strangled by its own ambition – like so many Lovecraftian tentacles wrapping themselves around its jugular – The Sinking City has the seed of something here; something salvageable among a shipwreck of ham-fisted systems.

The Sinking City

A solid but sadly unpolished Lovecraft-inspired detective story, The Sinking City has all of the key ingredients to be something compelling, but it's rough around the edges. Dodgy combat drowns an otherwise robust horror-tinged bout of sleuthing, drenched in intrigue.

Form widget
60%
Audio
60%

Subtle, atmospheric music fits the bill, but Reed's voice has a severe lack of consternation regarding his bizarre situation. Overall, the voice work is solid, however.

Visuals
60%

The City of Oakmont starts to look a bit samey after you've spent a substantial amount of time stalking its streets. Character models are (presumably) intentionally ugly, while screen-tearing and other technical glitches mar the game's gritty look.

Playability
70%

The process of reaching conclusions and cracking a case is really good, but the instances when you're pressed into using a gun are pretty dreadful. Thankfully, the detective bits go some way towards compensating for these shortcomings.

Delivery
50%

All too frequent and long loading screens, weird visual bugs, and slightly shabby presentation lend The Sinking City a rough and ready quality. If only Frogwares had higher production values for some extra polish, this could have been so much better.

Achievements
70%

A decent list that rewards a second playthrough with different decisions (or judicious save data), and completing side cases. This is about what you'd expect.

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