A Lovecraftian Diamond in the Rough…
The Sinking City is the latest detective adventure from Frogwares, a studio mostly known for its string of Sherlock Holmes titles, a series of games I am very much a fan of. While The Sinking City has been glossed over by many due to its “Eurojank” appearance, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how engaging and addictive the game can be at times. It certainly is not without its issues, but going in with the expectations of a comparable AAA experience isn’t going to allow the game to get its hooks in you. While I fully understand why many will shun the title on its visuals alone, Frogwares has had a history of making enjoyable, decently written adventure games, and The Sinking City is no exception.
Keeping my expectations in regards to what the studio has developed before, it was a no-brainer to purchase The Sinking City. I knew exactly what to expect on both a technical and gameplay level, considering much of the systems at work here are borrowed directly from their previous efforts. This latest detective adventure feels like a combination of both Sherlock Holmes and the Devil’s Daughter, and Cyanide’s latest release, Call of Cthulhu, an equally impressive title I’ve quite enjoyed thus far.
The Sinking City is a Lovecraftian detective game, complete with analyzing clues, tracking down leads, interrogating suspects, and uncovering the barrage of supernatural mysteries. While it does many of these things well, it also injects combat amongst these concepts in a less than inspiring way. While the combat encounters are still fairly enjoyable, they are far from what I truly love about the game and simply don’t hold a candle to everything else this game has to offer.
The Sinking City sees Boston native Private Eye, Charles Reed entering the fictional town of Oakmont, Massachusetts during sometime in the 1920’s. Reed has been having a series of visions and nightmares, and has been invited to the town in an effort to make sense of them. As Reed discovers, these dreams are not his alone and that many of the townsfolk are also plagued by visions, often describing the same dreams in exact detail. In an effort to put these visions to rest, Reed will get caught up in murder, conspiracy, prophecy, and the feuding racism between the local townsfolk and a race of fish people called Innsmouthers. Being a H.P. Lovecraft inspired title, the game opens with a warning about the inherent racism found in the author’s writing and that the game would rather be faithful to his works than pretend these views didn’t happen. I found that while there are certainly some aspects of the game that do dip into this subject, it never felt like it was overpowering or the focus on the game’s story.
Six months prior to Reed coming to Oakmont, the town was heavily flooded with many of its streets and alleyways submerged underwater, forcing its inhabitants, as well as Reed himself, to use boats or rafts to traverse from one district to the other. This flood also brought with it the madness that has driven many to seek medical aid to calm their horrifying visions, only to remain in a state of mass hysteria. The flood is supernatural in origin, with several dark secrets pertaining to its appearance in the small town, many of which are connected to the ties Oakmont has with the Occult. Reed will have to contend with gangs, occult members, and even a brief encounter with the KKK, with the latter having an moment that left me laughing my ass off.
While the human element is certainly one to fear during these dark times, the flood also brought with it grotesque abominations known as Wylebeasts. These creatures vary in size and shape, with each of them having different abilities and attacks. Reed also must manage his sanity during these encounters, or fall victim to more being summoned all around him. While you are very likely to stumble upon these creatures as you investigate dark and moody homesteads or damp and claustrophobic basements, there are barricaded sections in each district that are breeding grounds for these creatures that are best to be avoided.
As I’ve previously mentioned, combat is not the titles strong suit, but is functional in its own right. You have a selection of guns and traps to use, each of which will see their replenishment handled through a basic crafting system, of which can be abused by revisiting old locations over and over again. The movement of combat just doesn’t feel fluid enough, and given that enemies are constantly trying to bridge the gap, shooting only really feels decent when enemies are farther away from you. Had the game had some sort of auto-lock targeting, then maybe close range shenanigans wouldn’t feel so poorly implemented. You do have a melee attack if enemies do get close, but it really is only functional against the smaller single-shot enemies as opposed to those that charge or fling their acidic vomit at you. The game does feature a few boss encounters, but they more or less play like any basic monster confrontation you’ll have during the game.
A few times during your stay in Oakmont, Reed will need to dive below the water’s surface in order to track down various persons, or underwater Occult activities. There is combat under the water, but you're mostly limited to just firing off a harpoon at a creature that can only be stunned momentarily. These segments are a nice way to break up the flow of the day to day detective duties, and are some of the more visually fun aspects to the title. These dives generally lead to underwater caverns filled with occult members or people you need to track down, and more often than not, you’ll have to kill a variety of things or people you’ll encounter.
As you discover new locations, solve cases, or gun down grotesque creatures, Reed will earn experience to unlock new perks and abilities across three skill trees; Combat Proficiency, Vigor, and Mind. Skills vary from boosting your health, the amount of ammo you can carry, as well ensuring Reed doesn’t dip too far into madness for too long. To get the most out of this system, I advise placing points into earning EXP faster and doubling the rewards upon completing jobs. By the time I reached the credits, I had maybe 6 or 7 skills left to purchase, and given I still had a variety of tracking missions left to complete, it seems possible you can unlock every single one of them in a single playthrough. Also, for some reason, you can purchase skill points as a microtransaction, which feels like a lame crash grab by the publisher. To that note, there is DLC available that offers a few new missions and a new costume for Reed to wear.
The story present in The Sinking City is rather good, complete with a decent amount of solid voice acting backing up a overally good script. You’ll meet a vast assortment of characters, such as the rich and uppercrust Robert Throgmorton, who happens to be an ape-man, or the once vocally talented singer Joy, who was cursed by a witch, and thus has had her mouth sewn shut as a result. There are countless other enjoyable characters to interact with, take on missions from, and even one character you can frame for murder, should you choose. While the story around solving the visions is your central task, you will be prompted quite often to stray from that path and take on favors from several key figures in town. These range from taking photo’s of crime scenes, to investigating monster sightings, to tracking down a trio of bodies that have gone missing from the local cemetery.
Completing side quests, as well as scavenging lockers and crates in each environment, will reward Reed with additional crafting resources, new guns and traps, and sometimes even a new outfit to gallivant around town in. These range from fancy suits, to police garb, to even clothes that would fit a rather famous detective of legend. While several of these quests are based around the conversations you’ll have during your main quests, many are discoverable by talking with local NPC’s as they are unlocked after certain story events have transpired. That said, there are few NPC’s that can actually interact with you, which is sadly a massive knock against the world they have tried to create here, making its world feel rather small, despite the fair size map opened up to you.
If you are familiar with the most recent Sherlock Holmes game, or even the BBC TV show, then you’ll be familiar with his Mind Palace. As was the case with The Devil’s Daughter, you’ll have access to a more simplified version of his deduction system. In fact, it is incredibly streamlined to the point where you cannot fail in any deduction. Choosing the wrong option flags it as incompatible, and you merely have to click other options to find what works given that scenario. While I do enjoy how simple they’ve made it for newcomers to grasp, it does feel a tad too easy in regards to how you come about your deductions.
Several cases also present you the choice between different outcomes that alter small aspects of the story. Since there is an overall narrative here to preserve, these outcomes usually still end up at the same place, just under different circumstances. One example is when you have the choice between killing one of two people and regardless of the outcome, the one left alive will be the contact needed for that part of the story. While these scenes will have different dialogue moments because of who you are talking to, their role in the story will be exactly the same. That said, there is a decent sense of replayability here due to how many missions can go several ways. Do you poison the old woman, or warn her of her son’s intentions, or do you side with the supernatural being instead of the man she’s trying to hunt down. Again, many of these outcomes do get swept under the single-narrative rug, but they are still enjoyable to see happen.
To track down the locations or people that Reed will need to pursue, you are only ever given location markers such as where certain streets or avenue’s intersect. While these hints are sometimes a bit too on the nose, it is an interesting way to go about providing information, at least initially. This system of marking on the map where to go after finding your destination gets tiresome fast and becomes more of a chore than true detective work. Where this system excels at is in finding those locations in the first place. Often, you’ll have a clue present that needs a bit more information to have it fully fleshed out. Once you have at least 3 leads in a clue, you can check archives all over town to turn those leads into a person or destination. This aspect of the game is yet another streamlined aspect of the archives system from The Devil’s Daughter, but one that is more set to the visiting nature of Reed, rather than a home-based encyclopedia collection for Mr Holmes.
As you discover clues around many of the environments you’ll visit, Reed has the ability to see past events play out. Each location will have anywhere from three to four of these scenes that must be placed in order of when they occurred. This allows Reed to put together what happened and how it can be placed in relation to other clues in his mind palace. These scenes trigger once you've gathered every clue in that location, which causes a blue tear in reality that allows Reed to enter, allowing him to see these past events.
I mentioned before that The Sinking City is a prime candidate for inclusion into what are called “Eurojank” games, and it certainly fits the bill. For those that are unaware of this descriptor, it is a type of European developed game that prioritizes gameplay systems, story, and mechanics over visuals or presentation. Other games that fall under this banner are Bound by Flame, Elex, Technomancer, and the upcoming Greedfall. I am a massive fan of Eurojank games as they are usually a wildly ambitious endeavor, but usually fall up short when its comes to their visuals. They also remind of an era when gaming was about gameplay and story, rather than pushing photo-realistic graphics or grade simply on their looks. While high-end visuals are always a nice treat, they often don’t gauge the quality of the gameplay itself and while pretty games are often nice to look at, a game should be fun regardless of its visuals. The Sinking City is a very atmospheric title that does look fairly decent, but those looking for the title to match what AAA studios are doing will be vastly disappointed here.
While I don’t feel that The Sinking City is an awful looking game, it certainly has several rough edges that do stand out. I’ve had several instances of pop-in, local NPC’s falling through structures in the distance, to several characters appearing out of nowhere when I’ve docked my boat at the pier. I’ve had texture not load in some basements, to various texture flickering all over town. I’ve read of the game crashing on PS4 and PC, but haven’t experienced any crashes or game breaking glitches on Xbox One. There are several environments, especially those you’ll have to dive underwater for, that are simply gorgeous and really stand out from the streets above. While it never really bothered me, at least to the point of annoyance, there are several instances of reused buildings that do stand out, especially those that have holes in the walls or ceilings that are present in other buildings, only with them being boarded up here and there. The only issue I’ve had that did cause some frustration is that none of my game captures saved at any point during my time with the title, prompting me to seek out the screenshots you see here. This was unfortunate as I had some very impressive moments saved that would have made great wallpapers for my computer or Xbox One dashboard.
The Sinking City, despite its very apparent flaws, still managed to entertain me to what I expected from the title. I enjoyed the story, the way it worked its way through its cast of characters, and the journey I had with Reed as a character. The streamlined aspects of the Sherlock Holmes games don’t always hit their mark, but they still allow you to live out the detective fantasy and let you get in there and do the research needed to track that lead. The horror aspects of the title stand out, despite the clumsy aiming system offered up in combat. Had Frogwares spent more time making combat feel a bit more intuitive and satisfying, then it could have felt more at home here, instead of feeling mostly out of place.. The Sinking City is a very hard game to recommend due to the perceived nature of Eurojank games and the obsession with AAA visuals, but if you break through the surface and dig into the meat of the game, you might just find a solid gaming experience deep within.
The Sinking City was purchased by the reviewer and played on an Xbox One X.
Screenshots were used via the Publisher’s website as captures did not save during gameplay.