The Sinking City is an entertaining-enough detective adventure set in a Lovecraftian universe, with a spark of illuminating charm here and there, but enough technical issues to sink it back beneath the depths for another thousand years.
It’s a sign of a horrifying future beyond comprehension that we live in a world where Cthulu of all things has become a hot marketing and merchandising trend. The work of H.P. Lovecraft was founded on the principle that we are as mortal humans are utterly insignificant specks of dust floating in a universe filled with beings beyond our comprehension that could drive us mad merely by coming into contact with us. How should we bring that across tonally in a video game? If you’ve guessed that we would be seeing our old friend the Sanity Meter again, you would be right.
Look, I’m not being entirely fair: The Sinking City is one of the better Lovecraftian adaptations in recent memory, (certainly better than last year’s Call of Cthulu), but I still wonder if the genre is even able to succeed outside of the written word where it was founded. Our minds fill in so much of the gaps when we are reading stories, and I’ve never seen that feeling come across any better in adapted material like films or games where the visuals become so explicit.
Regardless, there are a few stock elements to a Lovecraftian setting that I suppose must be present, and The Sinking City doesn’t innovate in that regard much. A setting between the two World Wars. A small town in New England. Themes around water and the unknown of the oceans. Issues about race-mixing. Tentacles. Cults. All these things are present, and they’ve become stock elements at this point. Nothing was especially surprising in terms of content here.
You play as Charles Reed, a WW1 veteran and freelance detective who travels to Oakmont, Massachusetts, as a result of strange and horrifying dreams about monsters in the ocean that have drawn him to the reclusive fishing town. Reed is not the only newcomer, as others have had similar dreams. However, Oakmont is small and insular, with its own culture and communities and doesn’t take kindly to newcomers. Furthering their problems, a great flood has occurred, which has collapsed or drowned a great portion of the city, driving many others into poverty and homelessness. As Reed, you set out to form connections in the city and work out the source of your dreams, and if there is a way to stop them.
Oakmont is an open-world setting, with several districts and a fast travel system that you may unlock. There is variation between districts, between rich and poor, and between more flooded and less flooded sections. Overall, I like the design of the city for how oppressive and awful it looks and it fits quite well thematically with what the game is going for. It’s a pity then that it’s so lifeless: there are NPCs walking around but you can interact with very few of them. There are buildings you can enter but again, very few of them. In the collapsed economy of Oakmont, bullets are introduced as currency early on, and their scarcity means that you have to choose between buying or having bullets, but you get about two opportunities to use bullets to buy things or pay for things. The flooded sections of the map are navigated through small boats which handle atrociously and slowly and really make it an issue when you haven’t unlocked a fast travel point yet.
Let’s talk gameplay though. It’s split into two main forms, Firstly, you are a detective, and must detect things. The difficulty options in the game allow for some variation of how this works, mostly around when key evidence is indicated to you or not. The basic loop works like this though: you are given a location you must find on the map. Once there, you find a crime scene to examine, you walk around and interact with objects and collect certain ones as evidence. You also have the ability to activate your supernatural Spooky Vision (think Batman’s detective vision – but it’s not called Spooky Vision in game, don’t worry) and learn more hidden details and see small excerpts of the past.
Once you have collected a set amount of evidence, you will see a portal spawn which will allow you to relieve the events that took place in that area with ghostly apparitions. Sometimes you must go into a menu to connect pieces of evidence to draw conclusions about where to go next. If you don’t know where to go, you might have to do research. This involves going to a relevant area (such as a library, police station, hospital, etc.) and matching different topics of relevance until you get the information you need.
When it works well, this detective loop is quite fun. Say for example you find out that a suspect was injured, and you decide to go and look at the hospital and find his records of treatments. At those times, its quite an organic feeling. However, the game over-relies on the Spooky Vision ability and therefore you often just feel like you’re clicking on things until it activates and lets you progress. And if you can’t find that one last object to click on (easy to miss with the murky textures) you may as well give up for the day.
The second aspect of gameplay is the combat. In my opinion, it should not be in the game, as it is awful. You basically get five weapons during the game at fixed points, as well as a melee attack, and also have access to bombs, molotovs and traps. There is a generic crafting mechanic to gather materials for these weapons. You mostly fight creatures known as Wylebeasts, which come in different variations, but occasionally humans too. The problem is that every aspect of the combat – from aiming to shooting to damage feedback on enemies, feels terrible in execution and extremely amateur.
There was never one moment in the game where it felt like it enhanced rather than diminished an area. The detective elements were fine without it, and as it is, it just drags the game down more. When you die, which will happen easily on even Medium difficulty, your body will ragdoll unceremoniously and you will go back about 5 minutes of gameplay. It’s not fun or challenging, nor does it add to the setting or story. The point of Lovecraftian is that these horrors are unfightable and unknowable, so don’t make me fight them.
The characters and plot are really what kept me going through the worst parts of the combat and gameplay. The game takes the route of bringing in Lovecraftian elements such as the fishy looking Innsmouthers and the ape-like Throgmortons and making them part of the society, along with all the issues of racism and classism that come with that. The Esoteric Order of Dagon, a well-known cult, presents itself as a community support group in the city. The quests and side quests have just enough mystery that you usually want to figure out what comes next. Such elements add to the world and make it feel like its worth investigating the crimes that happen. The game does well to not make every moment in the story be about the Great Old Ones, but instead to flavour other events and plot points with Lovecraftian overtones instead. Most of the time, it works. And there is a lot of fan love for hardcore enthusiasts.
The Sinking City tries to scary but doesn’t often succeed, so I wouldn’t count it as a horror game – mostly it’s just a low level of unease. I was only given an actual fright once, with an interesting visual element involving a crime scene and people turned into statues. I won’t spoil it here if you ever play this game, but it’s the kind of thing that works really well in the medium of a game. The aforementioned sanity meter is not the worst I’ve ever seen, but it functions okay I guess.
Basically, if you see things in the game that are upsetting, the sanity meter drops, and as it reaches certain thresholds, you either see strange visions displayed onscreen, including your own dead body, or the actual colour of the area around you begins to seep out and become grainy. I don’t think a sanity meter has been done better than in Eternal Darkness on the GameCube, and it doesn’t really contribute much here.
Most missions end with multiple options being possible, but you don’t really need to replay the game to see them again, as they change functionally very little. Nevertheless, it is nice to see news reports and conversations change later in the game because of the actions and choices you have made earlier. The end of The Sinking City (when it eventually comes) provides you with a very Mass Effect 3-ish set of choices, and I just saved the game before the final choice and reloaded to see all three. There’s no real need to replay the game, despite it feeling like that’s what they wanted.
All in all, I would say I enjoyed The Sinking City for the time I had it, but I understand fully that it was extremely flawed, and occasionally quite irritating. It’s an AA budget game compared to a big huge fancy AAA release, and it shows in the technical quality. However, a few design choices also let down the experience. The Sinking City hasn’t done anything to convince me about Lovecraftian games, but interestingly it did convince me to go and pick up one of the studio’s previous Sherlock Holmes detective games during the Steam Sale, because I enjoyed the detective aspects the most, for what they were worth. I suppose that’s success of assort.
The Sinking City
The Sinking City mostly nails the feeling of being a detective but stumbles due to technical issues and a frustrating combat system.
- Detective sections
- Environments are suitably creepy
- Loads of technical issues
- Combat system
- Over reliance on detective vision
- Storyline 0%
- Gameplay 0%
- Graphics 0%
- Replay Value 0%
- Sound and Music 0%