My first steps into the city of Oakmont, Massachusetts set the tone for the rest of the game. A dreary affair, where carcasses line the disgusting streets, and everything is in a state of disrepair. This is a game based on the works of H.P Lovecraft. In recent years, we’ve seen interest rise in Lovecraftian work, and while most deliver a passable experience, none have yet to go above and beyond the work in which they are based. However, with The Sinking City, this is the closest we’ve come to success so far.
Developed by Frogwares who previously worked on the excellent Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments video game returns with a game based on Cthulu lore. The opening moments throw you right in and combine a pastiche of Eldritch lore into a game that often leaves you guessing.
Playing as Charles Reed, a veteran of the Great War, now turned detective, Reed makes his way to the city of Oakmont, after being invited by Johanes van der Berg, a local scientist to learn more about the visions he is having. Arriving in the water-logged city, we learn that many of the residents are also experiencing these visions.
Being new to Oakmont, the residents call you a newcomer and you quickly learn that they are not keen on people arriving in their city. Reed is an outsider and is treated as such when talking to inhabitants. In fact, as with Lovecraftian writing, the game uses similar motifs about racism and politics of the time.
One of the best things about The Sinking City is the story. Within minutes you’re already working on a missing person case which escalates almost immediately. By using the established eldritch lore, Frogwares creates a macabre atmosphere that delves into unsettling territory later. The hostile environment leads to excellent world-building, and thanks to the detective angle, spins many of the choices Reed makes in the game in some interesting ways. In one instance, Reed investigates a murder and upon learning how the incident occurred is left with the choice to either rat the suspect out or let him go. Oakmont isn’t all black and white and offers shades of gray where you least expect them.
A returning mechanic from the Sherlock Holmes series is the Mind Palace. Here, Charles Reed is able to gather clues and piece together what happened via a case book. Once you learn enough, the Mind Palace offers a way to tie together facts and deduce a conclusion, leaving it up to you to decide which is the truth.
With a heavy emphasis on narrative and mystery, the unfortunate downside is the other mechanics take a backseat. Yes, the unlucky tale of Charles Reed is excellent. As is the detective angle and emphasis on solving the mysteries of Oakmont, however, the combat leaves much to be desired.
Fighting enemies (known as wylebeasts) isn’t fun. The game even reminds you as part of the in-game tips that combat is best left alone, and conserving ammo is best practice. Charles is able to melee or use a gun but because ammo is limited and used as a currency, melee is usually the best solution. In areas known as infestation zones, the best loot is often tied to dealing with the wylebeasts.
Despite my admiration, the game has several blemishes. Reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro, severe screen tearing is a constant reminder that extra polish would benefit The Sinking City. Simply moving through one of the several Burroughs featured texture pop-in while other areas had no texture, breaking immersion at a consistent pace. When speaking, dialogue and mouth movements didn’t sync up and came across unsettling. Another issue is that the open-world ends up being tedious and is saved by fast travel later on in the game if less of the city wasn’t blocked by water, I’d enjoy exploring more.
And with all this, the game is beautiful in its own, unique way. The visuals are haunting, and the atmosphere is perpetually grim. However, as I mentioned the texture issues ruin the gloomy city of Oakmont.
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.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]