Though occasionally frustrating, The Sinking City stands out from its Lovecraftian peers.
Lovecraftian games are definitely on the rise in recent years (to varied success), but The Sinking City’s blend of a mysterious and cosmic plot with clunky but serviceable third-person action rises above many of the rest of this fleshed-out genre. It places you in a detailed world filled with the fantastic and unearthly horrors befitting of any Lovecraftian tale, but provides a fresh but reverent take where others may have stayed on the tracks laid nearly a century ago. That said, while developer Frogwares’ delve into Cthulhu lore has incredible moments, the tedious elements of this pulpy 1920s tale can be the wrong kind of terrifying.
The Sinking City takes steps into genre-refreshing territory in order to set it apart from its Lovecraftian peers. Where 2018’s Call of Cthulhu tries to carve out a small space to tell its own stand-alone story that tucked itself into the already existing cosmic lore, The Sinking City feels like it’s picking up eight movies into a Lovecraft cinematic Cthu-niverse, delivering a concentrated dose of its distinctive flavor. The first five minutes introduce the protagonist, Charles Reed, to Mister Robert Throgmorton, an important character who appears to be half-ape, half-human. That’s a deep-cut reference to Lovecraft’s short story, “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.” This is quickly followed up by a run-in with the Innsmouthers, who are basically fish people from another novella. It pulls from so many of Lovecraft’s plots, quotes, and themes that it reverently captures the intrigue and interest from these pulpy stories while combining them in a new way. It inspires political and criminal intrigue amidst its true-to-genre story.
It’s not free of cliche – this is far from the first Lovecraftian game to feature a private investigator with a history as a soldier who’s burdened with terrible visions and missing sleep. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at Reed after having seen tabletop games translate this mythos a seemingly endless amount of times with a much more diverse (and period-appropriate) cast of interesting characters; video games can’t seem to step away from the private dick. In the end, though, The Sinking City’s mysterious, twisting story is compelling and does a respectable job of combining well-worn plot elements in a new way.
Oakmont’s gorgeous environments enhance the story, its foggy and flooded streets reminiscent of games like BioShock and Silent Hill.
This third-person, action/adventure horror game is set in an open-world version of Oakmont, Massachusetts, a fictional island on the eastern seaboard that has suffered a huge flood. It’s here, within the city’s drowning shoes, that you discover impressive environments that find organic and gorgeous ways to enhance the storytelling. It’s reminiscent of memorable games like the original BioShock and the Silent Hill series. Its foggy streets, heavy blankets of rain, and flooded thoroughfares are great backdrops, but steering a small motor boat through a neighborhood as something stirs below the surface truly serves up that tense feeling of wanting to NOPE straight back onto dry land.
As one might expect from a Lovecraftian game, combat, discovery, monsters, macabre and otherworldly imagery, and the visions that propelled Reed down this path in the first place gradually take a toll on both his health and sanity. This results in some disturbing psychological episodes, illusions, and psychosis. It’s a real hoot.
However, Oakmont’s residents aren’t quite selling the horror atmosphere. While the city is a gorgeous eldritch wasteland, its citizens walk the streets of their mostly ruined neighborhoods seemingly unphased. There are fights and robberies that increasingly occur in the streets as the story goes on, strangely dressed folks and end-times prophets appear, and monsters literally start taking over, but most NPCs look like they’re just heading to work or to buy groceries. It’s definitely an immersion-breaking moment to see a man getting his shoes shined while, a block or two away, monsters sprout from the earth and overturned cars lay burning.
The characters you interact with, though, are interesting and well-acted, and I was pleasantly surprised by how unique and thematically appropriate each person is written and performed. From mob bosses to cult leaders to crooked politicians and more, every interaction felt unique and helped to fill out the lived-in feel of Oakmont. Unfortunately, this did shed a glaring spotlight on the shamelessly recycled character models. It’s especially noticeable that all of the black men you actually speak to have the same cartoonish face. (Non-speaking black NPCs have a few other alternatives.) I found this very distracting, especially during some of the most shocking moments that otherwise do a passable job of portraying the racial tensions of the era.
The Mechanics of Madness
While the plot remained captivating, many of the mechanics of The Sinking City left something to be desired. Combat feels clunky and reminiscent of older Resident Evil or Silent Hill games, but with characters that react to your controls at a snail’s pace. After completing nearly every sidequest and acquiring a large majority of the available skills I still felt as if my character was incompetent in combat situations, despite his supposed military history. I don’t expect to be an acrobatic crack-shot ninja in a game like The Sinking City, but maneuvering Reed felt frustratingly slow.
That said, the default difficulty is fairly well-matched to his limitations and I rarely had real trouble due to the sufficient crafting materials and items supplied. Monsters you face are interesting and appropriate, but there are only a few different types. However, optional side quests did offer some interesting alternatives you won’t see on the main path. There’s also a notable absence of boss fights, which I felt was a glaring hole in a game about overcoming epic monsters and elder gods. I would certainly have loved to have seen some of the more terrifying monsters of Lovecraft legend brought to life and to get that wonderful David & Goliath feeling of being a frail mortal bringing down some other-worldly beast in the name of… well, continuing to live.
One of the biggest enemies I faced was metaphorical, in that moving around the map is tedious and time-consuming. This is especially true in the early game, when you’re forced to tromp all over the map before you’ve unlocked fast-travel locations. Most games would have quest objectives radiate outward from a central location, but The Sinking City makes an effort to show off its diverse neighborhoods by sending you through each of them in turn. This was initially to its benefit, as I was wowed by the different cultures and neighborhoods within the island (I particularly loved the higher tech and more metropolitan area of Advent). However, this quickly turned annoying as I searched for shortcuts around the maze of flooded streets. I was more willing to sit on the long loading screens during fast travel than having to frequently plot routes that required jumping in an out of boats, avoiding infested areas, and getting around several blocked paths.
Quest information can often be cryptic, and borderline-meaningless, in the most confusing of ways.
If navigating the city was a problem, the research system reached groan-worthy tedium. Quest information is often cryptic and borderline-meaningless in the most confusing of ways. You’re forced to interpret vague information in order to uncover evidence by visiting one of four archive locations, which are each tied to a specific type of research that needs to be done. It’s my understanding that this is a carryover from Frogwares’ previous Sherlock Holmes series, but I’d rather they left it on Baker Street. Several times I had no idea what type of information I needed to get and had to resort to trial and error. For example, I was supposed to look for a suspect involved in a crime. Then, once that was determined, I was left to combine the correct quest item with a specific research location, and apply different combinations of filters in order to the discover appropriate information. While the idea certainly has thematic novelty, the execution was laborious. At one point, I was stuck for several hours trying to determine a character’s location, running back and forth between research locations to attempt every combination until finally something popped.
By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed another mechanic tied to investigation and discoveries called the Mind Palace, which is also pulled from the Sherlock games, but this one benefits from the addition of the moral dilemmas within Lovecraftian lore. This enjoyable way of interpreting information let me sort (and re-sort) my discoveries by drawing clues and conclusions from evidence, and then make decisions that determine the character’s moral perspective, such as determining a guilty party and the consequences they should face. The choices you make sway the outcome of certain events and determine your path to the endgame, sometimes meaning life or death for certain NPCs.
The Mind Palace is often fed by a Retrocognition mechanic that allows you to see the past use of a specific object, or to view ghostly apparitions of characters as they recreate a long-past scene Reed was not present for. You then place the elements of the scene in the order you believe they played out until you correctly reconstruct it, gaining imperative information in the process. For those that also played 2018’s Call of Cthulhu, there’s a very similar idea in that game as well. It’s just as interesting and effective in The Sinking City as it is there, but graphically it could use some work as it’s often difficult to get a sense of the scene, since the glowing white figures lack definition.
As The Sinking City came to its closing hours, I began to notice that every character who contributed in a large way to the story fell deep into the morally gray category, and this provided interesting moral examples for the decisions I made. It made me appreciate the attention to detail and commitment to intrigue and surprise by the developers. This dedication to moral ambiguity provided an ending with more than just a binary, good/bad decision, that I welcomed with open… tentacles.
Without spoiling anything, I admit that I found all of the endings a bit anticlimactic and in need of some fleshing out. In true Lovecraftian form, the stakes of the finale are cosmic, and it can be hard to measure up to something like that, but the delivery felt flat and unexciting in context.