Being a huge fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft I had been following the development of the inspired game, The Sinking City, for the last couple years. The game is published by Bigben Interactive and developed by Frogwares, a Ukrainian studio, and the makers of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series of games since 2002. After the mediocre Call of Cthulhu last year, my expectations were high for The Sinking City.
The Sinking City takes place in the fictional town of Oakmont, Massachusetts, during the 1920s. Players take on the role of WWI veteran-turned-private investigator Charles Reed. Charles has been invited to Oakmont by a local to help investigate horrible visions and nightmares he has suffered with for years. What he finds there is a city that is slowly flooding over the past six months, cutting it off from the mainland. The strange locals have dubbed the event “The Flood.”
The odd inhabitants will sometimes ask Charles for help with various things. In your investigations you interview characters in an awkward chat system that even though it has multiple choices always goes in the same direction. Unlike say, L.A. Noir, where your choices matter, The Sinking City seems to just drag you where it wants to.
Charles not only has strange visions but some supernatural abilities as well. Using his “Mind’s Eye” ability he can detect evidence and see things others cannot. Basically it’s the same as the Batman: Arkham games’ “Detective Mode,” but every time you use it your sanity meter will decrease. As it decreases, your vision will blur and you will start seeing all sorts of crazy creatures. If your sanity reaches zero, it is game over.
Players use Mind’s Eye to find clues and eventually open up “Retrocognition.” This ability is a portal allowing you to view past events and then you must put them in order. Once in the correct order you then refer to your “Mind Palace” menu tab and can take all these clues and connect them. Once every part of the investigation is completed sometimes Charles is given a choice on how to proceed with said evidence even though I was still taken to the same event or conclusion no matter my moral choice. I even reset a couple times to test this, picking a different option, to find the outcome did not matter as far as progression.
The Sinking City is a lofty endeavor that has many systems in place. Too many in fact. While the detective aspects are creative, I expect many are a call back to the previously mentioned Sherlock Holmes games. There is just nothing else new or creative to speak of. From hunting for materials and crafting, having to actually add your own map markers, and a rather pointless Skill Tree system, The Sinking City just throws mundane mechanics at the player that seem to serve no purpose other than to lengthen the gameplay time.
While it is bad enough having to scavenge, another complaint, though minor, is the fact you must HOLD the search button to take items out of a crate. It just makes it take that much longer! And why do I have to manually mark my own map? I get that The Sinking City is a detective game, but all this did was waste more time and irritate me. The map does nothing to help you the player out automatically, even on the easiest game settings. While normally a game will mark the map for an objective, The Sinking City tells you to go figure it out yourself.
Combat is a joke in The Sinking City. The melee attack is horrible and inaccurate. Ammo is scarce, even when scrounging for materials to make your own. As if that wasn’t bad enough, ammo is also your currency. This does create a more survival aspect to the game and forces you to avoid combat whenever possible.
After a while I just started running whenever I encountered an enemy, as most can kill you in just a couple hits even on the easiest setting. You will find enemies around almost every corner not inhabited by residents, but at least the game is nice enough to mark your map in this instance with “Infested Area” indicators.
Graphically The Sinking City disappointed me right out of the gate. Character movements are jerky, reminding me of a game made in the previous console generation. Even the way Charles runs and climbs is awkward. Character eyes look odd, like they do not fit in the person’s skull correctly. I also experienced horrible tearing, clipping, and lag until a day one patch seemed to have fixed the majority of it. But even post patch The Sinking City still runs like crap. The water and lighting effects are decent though.
While the designs of many of the town inhabitants and monsters are cool, the overall feel of the city is drab and repetitive. The open world is large, but it all seems to look the same to me so it doesn’t feel as large as it should. Many of the streets are flooded and you must use a boat to get around, something else I was looking forward to.
Unfortunately the boat controls are clunky and I found myself caught on debris often. Toss in the fact that sometimes you will have to get in a boat to literally cross the street and then disembark. Again The Sinking City unnecessarily forces a game mechanic. Also when you are trying to get to a location the path is almost always blocked by pointless fences and barriers (you then have to mark the map yourself so you remember) making me feel like I was just being herded around to lengthen the game again.
Load times are overwhelmingly frustrating, they averaged over a minute for me on both my PS4 Pro and standard PS4 console. Every time you die, expect this long load time along with between missions. There is also a stutter and short load times constantly interrupting parts of The Sinking City, like when you bring up the map, when you walk into a new area, or just running around the city as the game quickly tries to load and to catch up.
Voice work is decent for many of the characters you encounter in The Sinking City, but Charles comes off as flat most times, like the actor just did not care. The background music is nothing great but it fits the tone of the game and adds to the ambiance. The sounds the enemies make are the best part of the audio though. The slurping and skittering sounds of the enemies are creepy and I admit made me jump a couple of times.
Even without its technical issues The Sinking City would still be an over ambitious game ruined by too many poor mechanics and certainly not worth the $59.99 MSRP. I would of rather played in a smaller world with less clunky mechanics and systems and more focus on story and detective work. Of course a smaller price tag would also help make the pill that is the remaining quality issues easier to swallow.
The real mystery to me is why no developer has been able to make a good Lovecraft inspired game. Maybe it’s the universe’s way of getting back at the prick. While I love many of the ideas and stories he created, the man was a misogynistic racist.