The Sinking City begins with a bang. Charles Reed, our protagonist, awakens and finds himself disoriented and dazed. He exits his room, aboard a small ship and looks out to a desolate environment. In it, obvious influences to H.P. Lovecraft’s litter the backdrop. An unintelligible voice fills the air, coercing Reed to take a step off the boat, falling into the mouth of a creature before awaking in his room once again.
Frogwares, The Sinking City’s developer, sets the tone and atmosphere to their game in a few brief seconds. While not having any notable attachment to Lovecraft’s work, it’s easy to recognize the obvious inspiration in both imagery and themes. Lovecraftian-inspired games have been popping up more and more recently. The Sinking City opens, and you get the sense that Frogwares’ developers truly understand Lovecraft’s work and were on a mission to provide a playable translation.
Arriving in Oakmont, Massachusetts, you discover that Reed has been scourged by a series of visions and nightmares. Reed, who is a WWI vet-turned P.I., travels to Oakmont to meet with a local scientist who may have the answers to Reed’s questions. Oakmont is a small port city, struck by the disasters of a mysterious flood. Now secluded from the outside world, the civilians of Oakmont do their best to get by despite feuds between bloodlines and neighbouring residences. The Sinking City is set in the 1920s and the visuals and aesthetics of the city reflect a township from that era in turmoil. Due to the flood, many areas of the city are only accessible via motorboat and some roads have been blocked entirely by debris.
H.P. Lovecraft’s work has infamously been criticized for his views towards race and immigrants. The Sinking City touches on this with the race of fish-like humans known as “Innsmouther”—an obvious nod to Lovecraft’s fictitious city. Innsmouthers are a disparaged race of which sought refuge in Oakmont. While Frogware isn’t shy about their inspiration, The Sinking City isn’t afraid of pointing out the obvious flaws in Lovecraft’s work. In the same vein, Reed is looked at as an outsider himself. The folks in Oakmont are a reserved bunch, trusting only their neighbours. A large number of Reed’s interactions are met with a cold shoulder. However, that never stops Reed from exploring the underbelly of the city.
Frogwares, as you might know, has been developing a series of Sherlock Holmes games for quite some time. Taking a break and concentrating on a new project, The Sinking City’s core gameplay remains similar to their previous developed games. Within moments, Reed is called upon by one of the leading heads in Oakmont, Robert Throgmorton. His son, Albert, has recently gone missing and Reed obliges to find him. This begins to crack open a long string of cases for our private detective. If you’ve played any of Frogwares’ previous titles, you’ll find yourself right at home. Reed must travel to a location and begin parsing clues to progress. Clues may be found in any sort of manner. From interviewing the locals to inspecting blood spatters, each piece of evidence you find begins to fill your casebook. Reed is also able to utilize supernatural abilities to examine the scene of the crime.
A returning mechanic from Sherlock Holmes: Crime and Punishment is the Mind Palace. As the player, you’ll have to match large clues together to solve the crime. It’s a rather simple mechanic, yet serves an integral part of in Reed’s success. Once you’ve fully examined a crime scene, multiple bubbles will be available via the Mind Palace. All you’re required to do is match two together and build a bigger picture. When playing, it is impossible to boil down the facts and lead yourself to an improper conclusion––the game simply won’t let you. Instead, the ending of a case will typically lead you into the gray. You’ll be forced to make a moral choice. For instance, the game’s first mystery revolving around Albert Throgmorton, Reed must choose whether or not to turn the murderer in. While murder is still murder, the sequences of event leading to the act may sway your decision. This is perhaps The Sinking City’s strongest contribution. No conclusion is laid out as right or wrong. You’ll always be left wondering if you’ve made the correct decision. In one of the later missions, you’ll be hunting down a group of KKK members and have the opportunity to save or to stop a professor. Both choices are tangled in moral ambiguity.
Shuffling from one crime scene to another is a chore. Frogwares developed The Sinking City to be more expansive and open than their previous games. However, the city of Oakmont is barren of any reason to explore. Split into separate districts, you’ll have the opportunity to fast travel between phone booths, but that won’t stop you from having to trek through the empty streets to your next destination. Many cases will lead you back to one of the city’s archives. From there, you’ll have to examine old newspapers to pick up on a trail of clues and hit the streets again and quite often retrace your previous steps. Frogwares’ overly ambitious level design offered very little to do or see in between those case-cracking moments. When you’re not forced to walk, you’ll often have to take a motorboat from one area to another. Maneuvering the boat can lead to headaches as the steering is not as smooth as you’d expect. There have been times my boat became beached, forcing me to swim to my destination.
As you begin to flesh out the narrative, combat will become a larger aspect of the game. Creatures known as Wyldebeats will begin to surface and find themselves littered around the Oakmont streets and primary destinations. You’ll be armed with a pistol at first, but unlock additional weapons throughout the campaign. Crafting bullets and healing items are essential, so scoping out crates and lockers for components will be essential––enemies can withstand a lot of damage. The Sinking City’s combat mechanics feel outdated. Reed’s movements are clunky and the bullet-sponge enemies are frustrating to deal with. Shooting your gun, the aiming is functional when your target is standing still. However, more often than not, the game serves multiple enemies to dispatch, which adds to the frustration. If you’re defeated, you’ll be sent back to the closest phone booth and must trudge your way back to your initial location. Due to the unbalanced nature of the combat, this happens more often than it should and ends up halting any momentum. The Sinking City offers onscreen tips, one of which is to rely on stealth. Which is a good tactic since munitions are scarce, but the stealth mechanics are barely functional, often leading to another shootout or melee brawl.
Playing The Sinking City on Switch, some performance issues were experienced throughout my playtime. Framerate drops were consistent, especially during combat and exiting buildings. Playing in handheld mode, the graphical fidelity takes a substantial plunge when compared to other platforms. The details on the characters have faded, and the models have a bit of a rough edge to them. Oakmont is a dreary and rainy town, yet most of the effects from the weather can only be seen on Reed himself. There’s an unmistakable determination to inject The Sinking City with horror and a feeling of unease. While the cinematics is a stronger portrayal, none of that bleeds into the gameplay. Oakmont’s environments are void of texture and the lighting never has you reeling for what lies around the next corner.
Performance issues became a detriment to an already tedious experience. While the lore and world-building made a strong backbone to the game, frustrating combat, and a map far too large weighed down my enjoyment. The Sinking City shined when I was hot on the case, not when I was derailed and forced to walk through a barren open-world environment and maneuvering through a murky combat system. As much as I enjoyed interacting with the characters developed in The Sinking City, Frogwares decided to go bigger and be bolder. Ultimately, many of the aspects could have been left out for a tighter and more cohesive experience.
In June, Console Creatures’ Bobby Pashalidis reviewed The Sinking City on console. In his review, he said:
“With more time and polish, The Sinking City may have been better. As it is, the narrative and mystery elements are worth checking out and the excellent use of Lovecraft serves as a pulsating experience that you won’t find elsewhere. This game excels at the environment, it’s detective mechanics and the excellent characters. It’s a good game marred with technical issues, but the intriguing story is worth dealing with some bumps along the way. If you can deal with the warts of it all, this ambitious title is worth checking out.”
Many of his thoughts are echoed in my review, however, I believe the Switch release of The Sinking City left a more sour taste in my mouth.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]