The Sinking City Review
Cthulhu mythology has always been inherently creepy. Not so much the look of the beast (there are way scarier creatures out there) but more so in its method of inducing horror. Infiltrating a victim's mind and driving it to madness is pretty terrifying. The Sinking City, Developed by Frogwares, perfectly captures that feeling of dread and despair commonly associated with Lovecraft’s work. Its world is downright sickly, gross, and filled with off-kilter characters that make your skin crawl. With an almost constant barrage of rainfall, the feeling of discomfort sets in quick, and The Sinking City easily wraps its tentacles around you. Despite its obvious budgetary issues and a combat system that leaves much to be desired, Sinking City’s excellent writing, characters, and detective gameplay make it shine above its deficiencies resulting and memorable experience.
Stricken by horrific visions and relentless nightmares Charles Reed, Navy Vet turned Private Eye, finds himself in Oakmont Massachusetts where he hopes to find the meaning behind his affliction. Things quickly get weird, like very weird, and as Charles you find yourself tangled (pun intended) in local politics, ancient blood feuds between ape and fish people, and murder (mwahaha). The story unfolds through 9 cases and each case inches you closer to understanding what torments you as well as what the city of Oakmont. The narrative is engaging throughout with twists and turns to keep the game fresh. Cases get more complicated and quickly spiral into crazy territory with weirder characters and scenarios thrown into the mix.
Although Charles is driving force behind the story of the game, the city of Oakmont is the real star. The world-building developer Frogwares incorporated into the game is excellent frankly, despite some minor inconsistencies. Friendly faces are few and far between and the overwhelming rain that plagues Oakmont perfectly captures the feeling of anxiety. Oakmont is under perpetual rainfall. This place is gross. Dilapidated buildings are everywhere and these gross cat/spider/rat hybrids litter the streets Everything is wet, moldy, and smelly. How do I know it smells? I just do, OK, Oakmont is nasty. Half the city is literally underwater even to the point where you'll use little motorboats the navigate them further adding to the discomfort.
This feeling of dread only really falters in some of the game's interior locations... ok most of the interior locations. Due to the poor procedural generation building interiors are nearly identical. you will encounter samey looking apartments over and over to the point where you will know where you should be going without ever being in said building. There are some standout locations but there few and far between. The same can be said about the locals, there's like 10... total. They just walk aimlessly around the city streets, other times they clip through one another, and often get locked in identical animations. It's a little ridiculous but it didn't bother me too much. Once I accepted it as a fact it added to the super creepy nature of the game. It made it seem like the citizens of Oakmont were insane. The mission-critical characters, on the other hand, are excellent and although they share similar, stilted animations as everyone else, are exceptionally realized and almost always have something interesting to say.
The main characters you encounter are expertly written and despite their awkward animations feel very real. They feel grounded in their reality and perfectly represent the strange nature of Oakmont yet still feel relatable. Oakmontians are a prideful bunch and they'll use every minute reminding you that you don't belong.
From the start, you are introduced to two rival factions within Oakmont, The Insmouthers and Throgmortons. Their feud is integral to The Sinking City's narrative and it instantly leads way to the game's most important mechanic, choice. Almost every aspect of The Sinking City revolves around making choices. Whom will you help, whom will you let live, and whom you will let die and whom will you rat on. These are just some of the decisions you will have to make throughout your adventure. Most of the time the choices you make won't show clear consequences leaving with a gnawing feeling of uncertainty. What may seem righteous one minute can quickly turn wicked the next. All of this works due to the writing of the game. You never know where a conversation will lead and what clues will be uncovered just from asking the right questions. More times than I could count I found myself having difficulty making decisions leaving the screen to linger on the characters staring at each other while they wait for my input. Surprisingly enough these choices don't affect the games ending in any significant way. There are multiple endings but how you achieve them is more straight forward than you are led to believe.
Most of the game is compromised of talking to the residents, gathering clues, and drawing conclusions. You'll do a lot of talking, running back and forth from location to location, and using local resources to gather evidence. It sounds boring, I know, but the slower pace lends itself well to the fantasy of being a proper detective. Linking bits of information collected from the local hospital with a criminal arrest report from the local police station is oddly satisfying. When all necessary evidence is gathered Charles uses his Detective Vision to replay a crime scene. These moments play out very similar to the detective vision from the Rocksteady Batman game so if you played those you know what to expect. Charles will simply walk through the events that transpired and you'll have to put the events of the scene in the correct order to get the full picture. It's simple but effective. All the evidence gathered will enter the Mind Palace, a spider web type menu system that allows you to connect the information in hopes to come to a logical conclusion. Here is where you determine what leads to pursue and what characters to ally with.
There are multiple difficulties to play the game on and depending on what you choose to play on will determine how involved you must be when solving a case. The game is very determined to push you into working hard so even the "normal" difficulty requires some elbow grease. No matter how you play, way points are nonexistent putting all the reliance on your map. You don't even get an address, just cross streets and landmarks to help you on your way. The harder difficulties give you absolutely no clues and treat you pretty much like a real detective. The game won't tell you if you gathered enough evidence or if an area has been fully explored. It won't log information for you making you rely on your camera to take pictures of evidence for later assessment. It's intense and those looking for a real challenge have there work cut out for them.
The game does have combat but serves as nothing more but a distraction from the excellent detective gameplay. Combat encounters are downright frustrating at times with some of the lamest gunplay I have experienced recently. All the weapons feel under powered and lack any sort of punch. The shotgun feels like the revolver and the revolver feels like the rifle and so on. Human enemies are thankfully very easy to take down but the monsters are another story. They're stronger than you, faster than you, and gang up on you like your a bag of Oreo's. The enemies don't react to your gunfire so there is no clear indication that you're doing damage the enemies just ignore you bullets relentlessly. The enemy variety is also lacking with little more than color swaps to differentiate them. You'll have to scavenge resources to craft more bullets, grenades, traps, and health but the system is no more than a hindrance. Thankfully you can change the difficulty of the combat separately from the rest of the game making it so that it never becomes too much of a nuisance. Yet, despite the lack of polish to the combat, I was happy it was there since it gave the game more of a survival horror feel similar to the classic Resident Evil games.
Playing The Sinking City is very reminiscent of the days where the gaming industry wasn't all about AAA looter shooters and games as a service. It's a risky undertaking, tackling such a niche genre, but there is a lot to love about The Sinking City despite its obvious shortcomings. Yes combat is borderline broken and the games over-reliance on procedural generation is repetitive but the core detective gameplay is excellent. Unraveling the mystery of Oakmont and navigating its ramshackle streets is often bone-chilling. The dialog is engaging and each case challenges you in ways that make you question the morality of your choices.