‘Sherlock Holmes in a dystopian Freudian nightmare’ was how Frogware’s The Sinking City was first pitched to me way back when. The very idea of taking all that this always-worth-keeping-an-eye-on developer has learned through their Sherlock titles The Devil’s Daughter and its predecessor Crime and Punishments and placing that polished mechanics into a hellscape of underwater beasties which now inhabit America’s most unfortunate town sounded a little too good to be true. A Lovecraftian-heavy adventure would surely fill my time in the run up to an empty summer of releases. I could get stuck into this tale.
The opening is a cracker. Before you know it your protagonist, ex-private eye Charles Reed is awakening, seemingly from a nightmare, screaming to himself with nobody around to listen. After finding your way off the ship and landing in the desolate town of Oakmont, Massachusetts. We begin to learn that Reed has been having visions that have been keeping him awake at night, fearing for his own sanity he arrives in Oakmont looking for answers, learning upon his arrival that the source of his visions very much begin and end in this broken town.
Oakmont has become victim to a horrific flood, along with which came sinister monsters and psychological torture for the residents of this sleepy fishing town. Oakmont has been torn to shreds, overrun with crime, disappearances and unanswered questions Charles is hoping to find the answers to. In exchange for information which can hopefully lead to you learning why Reed is connected to this town, you’re roped into solving mysteries that plague the town all over, learning about the huge divide in its population along the way.
So far, so great. A terrific concept and whilst the opening of the game is packed full of information you need to take in all at once – seriously, the amount of dialogue thrown your way in the first twenty minutes could sink a novella -, you’re soon straight into work attempting to solve a disappearance of the crime bosses son. It’s here The Sinking City becomes another Frogwares game.
If you’ve jumped into their previous titles (namely the aforementioned Sherlock titles) the mechanics on display shouldn’t feel too alien to you. You have to locate a crime scene, walk around until you see something shine or buzz with little to no direction. You can pick up items which mostly have something to find on them which will help the case move forward and each area has a fair amount of evidence you need to bring together in order to make some final deductions within Charles Reed’s mind palace. Yeah, this should all feel very familiar if you’ve ever let Sherlock into your life at any moment.
There’s moments during any investigation where you’ll be going in and out of a crime scene in order to talk to witnesses and you’ll find yourself going back and forth a fair bit in order to keep everything straight in your head. Fortunately there are a multitude of menus which do a fair amount of the hard work for you, it’s simply up to you to find everything that they need in order to nail the outcome. It’s very typical in a detective video game. Strolling around burnt down houses in L.A. Noire or walking around picking up everything you see in Detroit Become Human feels just as investigatory when playing The Sinking City, you don’t feel much like a detective, it’s all just a means to an end and whilst there’s a strong element of the supernatural that comes into play through each investigation, I never felt smart finally coming to a conclusion purely because I never felt like I really earned it enough.
It’s just a shame these cases are not quite as compelling as I had hoped. Without wanting to spoil anything each case more or less ends with the answer being something ‘unexplainable’ – thanks to Reed’s ‘minds eye’, allowing him to see demons which never comes to much more than just finding another clue you couldn’t see before – a being or entity not of this earth that has made its way into the burrows of Oakmont that the local police department just couldn’t figure out (even though there are demonous creatures and psychotic outbreaks all over the town). Each case has a three point scenario that Reed simply needs to find – through reconstructed vignettes – then before you know it you’re more or less done. The cases can go range from a quick half hour run around a street looking for clues to far more sprawling adventures, and some are delightfully Lovecraftian (the sheer fact that damn near every character you come across looks like a fish is reason enough to keep playing and see what on earth you’ll be meeting up with next), there never really feels like there’s a moment that truly capitalises on the fascinating setting of the game, and how nothing particularly moves the campaign forward. Rather it plods along without taking risks.
A fair amount of time I wanted to pick the physical embodiment of this game up, shake it and say ‘You could make this so much more exciting!’. It’s like the game looked around and didn’t see just how cool everything is around it and instead played it far too safe. It’s quite bizarre how generic some of the cases feel when you’re solving crimes taking place in a city that’s damn near underwater and full of sea creature people.
Then there’s the hand-holding, of which there is none unless you choose to have a little bit of direction throughout, and it does come in handy if you’re really stuck looking for clues. The game offers very little at the beginning, despite there being a full ‘How to Play’ option in the opening menu. It seems odd they wouldn’t pad this out over the initial ‘tutorial’ case, and having to keep referring back to it was cumbersome, though not a deal-breaker. Once I had one case under my belt it felt like plain-sailing.
Frogware make it clear from the start of the game before the opening titles that they’re focusing on an era of American history where racism and prejudice was part and parcel with living in the Prohibition era. In your first case you learn about the rift between the wealth of the Throgmortons and the Innsmouthers who arrived into Oakmont and taken the jobs and homes of those who lived there before, happy to work and live on a lower wage. It’s a glaringly obvious tell, Frogware don’t necessarily hold back in their depiction of how unwelcome these beings are in there town, despite them being completely harmless and are simply looking for a place to survive. Of course, the work of Lovecraft has long been derided for its somewhat questionable undertones (which is understating it a tad), and it seems that Frogware decided you couldn’t have a Prohibition based-era video game without some rather uncomfortable conversations, even if they go for shock value but ultimately feel as hollow as the cases themselves. There’s simply no reason for selective dialogue to exist in the game and it would be just as compelling without it, offering so little weight to the world they’ve created, which is far more fascinating that it would seem Frogwere were ever aware of.
Then there’s the combat. As few and far between as these moments are there’s not an awful lot to get excited about. The crawly little shits known as the Wyldbeasts are stupidly easy to kill, once again adding no weight to NPC’s sharing their own experiences with the beasties and letting me know how I’m ‘lucky to be alive’ after a confrontation with them. They’re certainly creepy, and I could very much do without meeting one in real life, but they offer very little threat. A couple of shots to the face will see them off this mortal coil. If anything they’re just a tad annoying. In the more interesting cases where we can get a little deeper into Charles as a character and learning why he sees his visions it feels like shooting beasts from the sea just gets in the way. The weird thing is? I think the game knows this. They offer an option to ‘flee’ from a combative confrontation, as that’s often the wiser decision to make. Then why offer it up at all?
You’ve also got Charles Reed, a character who you’re spending the entire game with which you want to do right by as he’s clearly suffering and certain cut scenes will want you to root for him. It’s a problem then that he’s about as exciting to hang around with as a pencil sharpener. His stoic, often just downright miserable presence doesn’t elevate the game in any real way, with the genuinely great cast of NPC’s filling a much needed charisma void. Very few characters are particularly ‘fun’, but you leave certain characters wanting to know more about them only to never return. The vocal performances are perfectly fine, and the characters are written well with a real sense of backstory between them all, they’re just not hugely compelling visually. I’m assuming there wasn’t an awful lot of motion capture filmed for the game as a fair majority of the characters have a habit of standing very still in most conversations, though the vocal/mouth syncronisation is impressive.
I’ve been reviewing The Sinking City on PS4 and after asking around and seeing Tweets in regards to the games screen-tearing issue, I can confirm it’s been a real bug bear of mine throughout my playthrough. Whilst there are little things here and there from a technical standpoint that need fixing, nothing is quite as bad as the choppy framerates, and with the game not having any kind of PS4 Pro (or One X) upgrades, I’m really hoping this can be fixed up in a patch, because otherwise the game is a real treat visually. It’s worth mentioning that no such issues have been reported on the PC version of the game.
(The above paragraph written before the press review embargo lifted, along with the launch of the game and since then, a patch has become available to download which fixed the screen tearing issue. Whilst some issues still remain, it’s now been taken into consideration post-launch).
The Cthulhu elements certainly lend themselves to the games setting, though at no point was the game inherently creepy. There were certainly jump scares at certain moments, those bastard little Wyldbeasts popping up out of nowhere is enough to give anyone sleepless nights, but the fog and the atmosphere never lives up to how unsettling it *should* be walking around Oakmont given the drastic circumstances. Reed’s descent into madness is tracked by a bar on the screen and the higher it goes, the more chance there is of something popping up on the screen that you’re not going to be particularly fond of but other than that, I was really hoping The Sinking City would create an atmosphere akin to the likes of Silent Hill and Alan Wake, unfortunately the game never quite reaches those lofty atmosphere heights. Believe me, I don’t play ‘scary’ games, and City didn’t do an awful lot to get me clenched, which is an achievement in itself.
And honestly I think that’s the overarching issue I have with The Sinking City. The game has so much potential to be something really quite special. The setting and the characters, the Lovecraft Cthulhu-inspired imagination of the world of Oakmont and Charles Reed’s search for his own sanity is really quite interesting. There’s definitely something here, it just all feels half-baked. Each critical narrative moment should have the power to knock the player on the ass falls flat, leaving you wanting more but it never arriving.
Throughout you feel like Oakmont has some intriguing, fascinating stories to tell but we never really get to hear any of them as they’re bogged down in repetitive detective work and a feeling throughout that you’re playing a concept, rather than a fully-fleshed out idea.
I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
The Sinking City is available now on Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro) and PC on the Epic Games Store (available on Switch in late 2019).
Publisher: BigBen Interactive
In order to complete this review, we received a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy please go here.
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