The Sinking City Barely Stays Afloat
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Nintendo Switch
Release Date: June 27th, 2019
Reviewed On: Xbox One X
Publisher: Bigben Interactive
Price: $59.99 USD
The Sinking City is an ode to H.P Lovecraft and Cthulhu’s world. A narrative based action adventure game with a very depressive setting, but in a good way. Developed by Frogwares and published by BigBen Interactive The Sinking City brings the dark, gritty and drenched visions of a decimated city to life. I had a very interesting journey through this hostile city. From interesting situations to morbid consequences. This is not the usual type of game I play, but what Frogwares is trying to achieve is ambitious and intriguing. Unfortunately, there are a few technical issues that bring down other great aspects of the game, like the storytelling. I’ll talk in detail more below about what goes down in Oakmont. The Sinking City takes place sometime after “The Great War” which gives it a post WWI era setting. A sunken city that is rampant with cultists, economic depression, cataclysmic flooding, fish, ape people, and a demonic squid god definitely makes for a good story.
Your character Charles Reed has a lot of issues to deal with, being haunted by violent visions in his sleep is the least of it though. You set out on a journey to a devastated city called Oakmont, destroyed by a seemingly random flood but still manages to cling to life. It’s wiped away from almost all maps, making it nearly impossible for the island to get help. Half of the streets are under water, sea life and weird little monsters are everywhere. This is not your typical island destination. The citizens walk around in constant rain, broken down buildings litter the streets. Barnacles, mussels, seaweed replace most areas where there should be grass, trees or vines. The game is called The Sinking City, but it looks more like it rose out of the ocean instead. Occult cultists openly walk the streets, preachers cry out doom, open and blatant racism relevant in the minds of the people. There is a major division among the citizens, and it plays a big role.
Oakmont is run by three major families. The Carpenters, The Blackwoods and the Throgmortons. Carpenters and Throgmortons thriving quite a bit more than the Blackwoods. There is something unusual about these families though. The Throgmortons look very Ape like. Protruding jaw, sharper teeth, flatter nose. It’s a genetic trait passed down through the family line. Carpenters seem like regular folks, but the Blackwoods? Not so much. The Throgmorton family has a superiority complex, seeing themselves as above all the rest. They especially look down upon people called “Innsmouthers” and any “Newcomers”. Ever since Oakmont was hit by the flood people have been turning into these Innsmouthers. It’s an odd thing to have just randomly appeared from the sea, did they exist before? The more you play, the more you find out about these people and it’s quite interesting. Ever since their arrival, there has been systematic oppression against them though. Blatant displays of racism to a people that just want to live peacefully.
When you first come off the boat, you run into a group of people dealing with a situation on the pier. The head of the Throgmorton family is there, and it seems his son Albert is missing. After talking to him he hires you to go find out what happened to his son. Albert was last seen on an underwater expedition to figure out why the flood happened, all funded by the Throgmortons themselves. This is what sets you out on the journey that will play some serious mind games. After all, you are here to find out why you are having crazy dreams and visions which in the end have lead you to Oakmont. There is a deep, underlying connection between you and this place. A constant aura of sadness, depression, and insanity fill this place. Your sanity actually plays as a mechanic as well, so that is something you have to watch out for. When you use your “Minds Eye” your sanity will slowly start to drop. This also happens when you are attacked by monsters. The more it drops, the more the screen starts to distort. Hallucinations of murder, suicide, and monsters flutter on the edge of your vision. Deeper down the hole you go, and you’ll encounter beasts from the shadows.
The story leads you through some crazy and morbid situations and an awful lot of monster hunting! Oh yeah, you definitely get to have some fun with monster slaying. Although it is also highly advised that you run away from an encounter if you can. They can be tough buggers. Anyways, you are eventually lead down the path to where you meet a group called the EOD. They are an organization that helps Innsmouthers, or so it is perceived to be. This organization among many others, give conflicting aspects of stories that really test your decision making. There is a substantial amount of chain of events, with a lot of the consequences relying on what you choose to do. You can choose to do good by people, or do wrong. Your character Charles Reed slowly uncovers a massive plot that has to do with the Occult. Case by case, you solve them using the information stored in your “Mind Palace”. This is where all your finalized clues are stored and deciphered. You piece everything together, helping you lead further on down this chain of events. Lo and behold, as you could probably tell from the start of the game you have a much larger role to play that you thought. The man who once was just a simple Private Eye, is now a key piece is the grand scheme. All of this, absolutely everything has to do with something called Cthygonnaar. This is something I want the player to uncover, as the story for The Sinking City is quite well done and is one of the few highlights for this game.
It’s also nice to have a bit of action to such a choice driven narrative game. Use of guns, grenades and a few other useful items become a good portion of the gameplay. You need to scavenge around in containers to keep your supply going through, so there is a crafting system as well for ammunition and supplies. There is also a Skill Tree, whereby completing cases/stories and killing monsters grant experience to level up. This grants you points to spend in the Skill Tree for things like increased ammo capacity, damage, health, and other useful skills. The Sinking City is an open world detective game, how is it exactly that you solve your cases? Earlier I mentioned something called the “Mind Palace”, a place where your solidified clues are pieced together and deduced into useful information. with your casebook in hand, you set out on your travels by having to read the information you have gathered and find its location on the map. A lot of the time it will give you a street address, making it much easier to pinpoint. This doesn’t happen all the time though, so make sure to mark the locations of characters, cases, and your objectives.
There are three major ways of gathering information for cases at a scene. One of them is the good ol’ fashioned conversation. Talking to NPCs with branching dialogue has always been the bread and butter of these types of games, and many others. The second is picking up items, examining certain spots and the crime scene. The third is by using a “Minds Eye”, this allows you to see hidden symbols and short visions of the past. Once all relevant evidence is located at a scene, a sort of scene reconstruction happens. These three different mechanics combine to create a great way to tell different perspectives of a story. The Sinking City also holds up pretty well graphically. Using Unreal Engine 4, Frogwares has been able to put on a beautiful showcase of a setting. Though along with it comes a slew of technical issues. There were quite a few times where characters wouldn’t load correctly, the audio would cut out or parts of buildings would look electrified. My assumption is that it would not render correctly, but it sure made for a neat visual!
One of the more fun aspects of the game is when you get to underwater in a diving suit. Those massive and heavy bronze suits with portholes that paved the way for the Bigdaddy in Bioshock. They are nothing extensive or incredible, but they sure reinforce exactly the kind of monsters you are dealing with. Giant tentacled beasts float just out of sight, a terrifying sight to see so deep underwater. I’ll leave more of this for the player to discover though, as it came away as one of the more intriguing aspects of the game.
The Sinking City is a good open world detective game in a setting that really should be used more often. H.P. Lovecraft is a master of psychological sea-based horror that no other has been able to master. The technical issues though are currently holding it back quite a bit. Visually it looks good, but with clunky combat mechanics and a fairly dragged out story, it was difficult to trudge forward. It is also quite little in variety of things to do. Yes, there are side cases, but in regards to the overall gameplay, there is very little that differs. If you really enjoying running around all over the place, talking to people and occasionally fight monsters you will enjoy this game. Some of the stories are good, some are not. It was difficult to enjoy most of my time playing, but the dark setting of the game kept me intrigued as to what may happen.