A good game, dampened by technical issues.
- Developer: Frogwares
- Publisher: Bigben Interactive
- Release date: 27th June 2019
- Genre: Action Adventure / Survival Horror
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
- Reviewed on: Xbox One X
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
The Sinking City is heavily inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, though to be honest, my knowledge is limited to a passing familiarity with his works, and those episodes of South Park in which Cartman befriends Cthulhu. I am, however, a fan of the sleuthing style of Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games, and after seeing the trailer for The Sinking City, I was excited to see what the developers had created, melding the investigative style of Holmes, and the dark, supernatural horror of the Lovecraftian influences.
Set in an alternate reality, in prohibition era America, you play the role of Charles Reed, a former navy veteran turned Private Investigator. He, along with many others across the nation, has been suffering from terrible nightmares and visions of a grotesque, tentacled monster. Your quest to trace the cause of these hallucinations leads you to the fictional fishing town of Oakmont, Massachusetts. The town has, for some as yet unexplained reason, become flooded, literally sinking into the sea, and many of the residents are suffering from psychosis and mental torment
It doesn’t take long for you to meet the first of the town’s more unusual inhabitants, Robert Throgmorton, a simian featured man (who wouldn’t look out of place in Planet of the Apes), who is head of one of the ruling families of Oakmont. He tasks you with finding out what happened to his son, who had been on an expedition for him. The dialogue is well written, and you encounter a myriad of characters, ranging from the fish faced Innsmouthers, to occult practitioners and the desperate denizens of the town. Straight away, I found the narrative interesting, with the developers doing a good job of building intrigue.
This case starts as soon as you begin the game, with the first investigation being quite straightforward, and serving as a tutorial for the various systems. You must search the crime scenes for clues, either from conversations with the many characters, or in the form of letters, newspaper clippings or other items you may find during exploration. You can choose to combine some of these clues, which will in turn allow you to make deductions to help you solve the case. The way you have interpreted the evidence will lead you to make a decision, which can influence the consequences characters will endure, and that same decision can have repercussions later in the game.
It’s a fairly intuitive way of doing things, and it makes a change to just finding clues and having your character announce what they mean. They have made it so that the outcome often involves your being confronted with some kind of moral dilemma, and it’s not always as clear cut as you might expect. Some choices can appear morally ambiguous: It’s rarely as simple as deciding if someone is guilty or innocent, and your decisions will depend on how you decide your character’s moral compass is pointing. Frogwares have done an excellent job with the character building. The story is well paced, and the underlying themes of racism, societal injustice, and corruption, all help to craft a world full of lore, that kept me gripped all the way up to the finale.
What makes The Sinking City different to other investigative style games is that you receive very little guidance in terms of which order to approach the cases and what you need to do to solve them. It’s refreshing to approach these cases in an open world environment, where you can tackle the numerous side quests whenever you choose, with it being possible to work multiple side quests simultaneously with your main case, or to take time out and just have a wander around the town. Moving away from a linear style is a nice change, although by making it as open as they have, the cases can sometimes feel like basic fetch quests until you have enough clues to further your investigation, which is where The Sinking City excels.
It does require thought and careful observation to prevent getting stuck finding where to go next. Your casebook is very handy, and it does a decent job at keeping you on track, with all the clues and notes you have found compiled together. While viewing it, you can choose your current case and see which steps you need to take next. During your investigations, archive locations such as the police station and Oakmont Chronicle newspaper offices become essential to furthering your investigation. It can, however, become quite repetitive tracking back and forth to corroborate research with your clues. As you progress further, some of the clues can become quite cryptic, and you will find yourself returning to each of these archives repeatedly, as you try to find information to make sense of them.
Navigating the surprisingly large map is fun to begin with, as you explore the varied communities that comprise the town, however, some areas suffer from repetition of assets. The developers opted for a type of procedural generation when creating the game world, so apart from some bespoke main locations, many of the buildings are very similar. They have made variations to some of these buildings, but it doesn’t stop some sections of the game being devoid of any significant or memorable features. I understand it may have been necessary to make creating a world of this size feasible, but I’d have preferred a smaller map with more distinctive, feature rich design. This formulaic approach extends to the building interiors too, and you will often find rooms that have very little in the way of unique features, and even the layout of the rooms is almost identical in some cases.
As The Sinking City has eschewed the typical waypoint style of directing you where to go, you will mostly be guided towards your next objective by a simple description, telling you to go to a junction of two streets, as locations generally aren’t marked on your map. It’s a relatively effective way of doing things and is in keeping with the detective style of the game, but it can lead to frustration. Many cases require you to travel long distances to uncover your next clue or mission goal, and you are left trying to find the quickest path to your destination, only to be thwarted by the numerous blocked paths in the maze-like network of roads and flooded streets.
Exploring the town means you will be spending quite a bit of time piloting a small boat around the flooded streets. In an immersion breaking choice of game design, your Cyclops II boat will always be waiting for you at whichever point you decide to travel by water, however, it’s definitely preferable to having to remember where you left your boat or having to travel off course to get back to it. More variation in the boats would be better but it’s excusable given I imagine it’s more a limitation of the budget, rather than laziness or lack of ideas.
The enjoyment of discovering new areas can unfortunately give way to tedium though, as you backtrack around areas in an attempt to reach your destination. They have implemented smart markers that you can place on the map, with one being for a ‘blocked passage’, which is helpful, but it could have been better if your map simply added where routes were inaccessible automatically, rather than leaving it to you to remember to mark locations yourself. Traversal is improved once you’ve covered a fair portion of the map, as there are fast travel points in the form of telephone boxes that you must discover in order to use, but these aren’t always easy to find, and do come with the penalty of long loading times.
While the investigative sections are fun, and the story is enjoyable, accompanied by memorable characters and engaging dialogue, the combat is, frankly, abysmal. Melee attacks are slow moving, inaccurate swings, and aiming your various weapons feels clunky and unwieldy. When you have enemies moving around rapidly, you need to be able to target them effectively, especially when they are relatively hard to kill, and do a lot of damage to you. It’s annoying dying at the hands (tentacles?) of a creature you fell against, not because you employed inferior tactics, but because you couldn’t hit the damn thing. At least there are a few creature variations to keep combat encounters fresh, but the poor combat system makes these unforgiving and not as enjoyable as they should be.
In addition to monitoring your health level, you also have to look after your sanity. Being around enemies and certain locations, and using your powers, will all cause your sanity meter to drop. As it gets lower you will begin to see hallucinations, and the screen will warp around the edges. As it lowers further, there are further effects, but I won’t spoil it for you. You have medicine you can take to replenish your health and your sanity, and although you don’t find much in the world, you will find plenty of resources to craft more. Along with the scarcity of ammo, it should have all helped create a tense environment befitting the survival horror theme the developers wanted the game to have, but given how easy it is to find resources to craft the ammo and medicines you need to survive, the game doesn’t reach the levels of tension you get from games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill.
The town of Oakmont is well portrayed, with many areas being desolate and reduced to ruin, and along with the perpetual rain there’s a real sense of foreboding. Each area is uniquely designed, and filled with detail, like abandoned cars on the streets, and the remains of tentacled creatures strewn around by the docks. It would be preferable to have more of these things be interactive with your character, as your character merely passes over or around these objects, but the developers have done a good job of making a detailed game world.
While the graphics aren’t AAA quality, they are perfectly acceptable, and at times very good, but the frequently stuttering frame rate is not. I often experienced super smooth gameplay in some detail-intensive sections, only for it to be followed by 15 fps drops in small, plain areas. The game is plagued by a few other technical issues too, which can ruin the sense of immersion. Characters and enemies can clip through scenery, or suddenly pop into existence, and along with the constant drops in frame rate it’s very disappointing. It’s a shame, as there is a potentially great game here if you can overlook these issues.
The Sinking City is an ambitious title, and I can’t help feel that a lot of the issues are the result of a limited budget, rather than ineptitude or poor design. I would love for Frogwares to get the option to make a sequel, with a bigger budget, to see what they can achieve.
I really wanted to score the game higher, as despite the technical problems, mediocre combat and sometimes awkward navigation of the large open-world, there’s still a lot of enjoyment to be had from The Sinking City. The noir take on the Lovecraftian storyline is engaging, the voice acting is pretty good, and the detective work is difficult but rewarding. Having so little direction to solve the cases is a fresh take on the genre and does well to further the feeling of having actually solved the case, rather than just having collected enough clues to reveal the answer.
If they can patch the game to fix the bugs and stabilise the frame rate, it would be easy to recommend The Sinking City to fans of the detective genre, and even as it is, many will still get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment from the story and world-building Frogwares have created.