Back in May, I wrote an article that opened with “Have you ever thought about what you’d get if you mixed Sherlock Holmes, H.P. Lovecraft stories, and the dark shadows that keep children up at night?” Well, I have an answer for you, and I can strongly answer that it isn’t The Sinking City. While I let out a small cry every time I saw a monster and paid close attention to every clue, I slept like a baby at night with no worries of the tentacle arms that crawled from under my bed.
Based on fiction from H.P. Lovecraft, this supernatural action-adventure game was developed by Frogwares. Their arsenal includes many Sherlock Holmes games, such as Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments and Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter. Branching out into an open-world game, they’ve created The Sinking City. Set in the 1920s within the half-submerged city of Oakmont, Massachusetts, players are Charles Reed, a U.S. Navy sailor turned private investigator. Haunted by visions that seem to be plaguing many other townsfolk, it is your job to discover the source of the visions while solving the rest of the town’s issues, as well.
The Sinking City is plagued by its own monsters, with textures not loading, buildings and people being dropped in while you stand in one area or walk to some place, and long load times. The variety in characters seems to only be with the ones you interact with, and the combat leaves a lot to be desired. Even so, the atmosphere, different areas within the city and color palette fit extremely well, and the missions touch on a variety of Lovecraft stories. From the Sherlock Holmes series comes the Mind Palace and the Mind’s Eye features, which bring different elements to the game, though they are used heavily.
One of the reasons why I was first interested in The Sinking City was the different areas you could explore and the secrets they held that tied them into the lore. There are three different types of areas in The Sinking City: the land, under the ocean, and in a boat. On land, your character can walk or run around. Running doesn’t seem much faster than walking, if by a slight margin. Here though, you have a variety of features you can use. There is a small selection of guns, traps and bombs. Rarely did I ever use the traps, and the bombs helped against the bigger, slower enemies. But going for the gun was always quicker. You can take photos of crime scenes for evidence, which took me a while to realize this was something I could actually do. First aid kits and antipsychotics help keep you alive and sane from the mysterious visions and monsters. Bullets and packs can be crafted from the menu using items you’ve collected in the infested zones, scavenged or received from completed missions. This was useful, but I found myself with more than enough bullets, having to leave the ones in the game as I already crafted too many. The skill tree offers upgrades to your combat, vigor and mind. Anything from holding more ammunition, faster reload times, and staying sane for much longer can be found there. I felt as if the skill tree was a nice addition, but didn’t offer anything fancy, over-expanding onto what Reed already had.
If you dare traverse the bottom of the ocean surrounding Oakmont, your only equipment options are a harpoon and flares, which only temporarily distract the water monsters. Walking at the bottom of the ocean is extremely slow. I found myself having a harder time avoiding monsters and ran rather than trying to distract or fight them. For those who’d rather stay dry, you can take the boat around the flooded streets of the city. While swimming short distances might look promising, eels lurk below the waters and will feast on you. The boat is slow to maneuver through the waters. Sharp turns aren’t existent, and I found myself floating into the buildings or constantly hitting things. Even so, it was made clear that being in the boat was only put in the game to get from point A to point B, as you can’t use weapons while maneuvering the boat.
Combat seems to only happen while on a mission or in an infested area. The melee weapon does the job to get out of close situations, but it isn’t the means to an end. It’s a short shovel that seems odd and even random, but it works against smaller monsters. A variety of guns help with the larger enemies, though taking them down can take several shots if not aimed properly. Wylebeasts, the collective name for the monsters, vary in different sizes and shape. The larger the enemy, the higher damage they can do to your health. Most often, you’ll encounter a small, skinny multi-legged monster that hops side to side, but rarely there might be a larger multi-armed and legged creature that can damage you considerably. Some even spit acid and leap into the air, so timing and dodging is key when trying to survive. Underwater, there are tentacles and alien-looking fish to stun, which, as I stated before, is the only thing you can do to them while in the ocean. All of the monsters have weak points, which can be easy to hit as none of the areas have combat in close quarters. Charles’ movement is somewhat slow, and aiming can be a pain if you aren’t used to it.
Investigating the source of the source of the visions, as well as the reason of why Oakmont is flooded, is the whole purpose of the game. Clues can be very cryptic and hard to understand. Utilizing the city hall, police records, library, local newspaper and other archives is a refreshing way to gather clues, but understanding which way to go to can get confusing. If you don’t understand what each clue is asking for, selecting the right subject and sub-subject within the archives becomes a guessing game. With the “Mind’s Eye,” Charles can piece together the sequence of events from beginning to end. It allows you to review the order of events within that area, thoroughly. Brought over from the Sherlock Holmes games, the “Mind Palace” is where you piece together your deductions into clues, which form into larger pieces of the story until you arrive at one of two conclusions for the end of the mission.
The dialogue and end-of-quest choices are very black and white. For example, I could either side with a non-profit that, while it looked helpful on the outside, was secretly trying to gather followers for some super shady activities. On the other hand, I could help a man on the hunt for revenge, trying to show everyone that the non-profit was far from what it was trying to portray on the outside. Throughout the dialogue, Charles is faced with similar choices. He could either get a guard in trouble for not doing his job, or vouch for him and say that he did his best. These are small choices, which have minor impacts on the overall mission, and don’t change the end-of-the-quest choices that you receive.
Oakmont is a city that has a lot of different qualities to offer that make it somewhat rememberable. The atmosphere within the town shows the disarray and struggles that everyone is going through. NPCs mope around, sit on benches or cry in the middle of the street. More often than not, I would watch them as they did nothing more than walk in circles. Even so, the characters you do meet are exotic, with the different hybrids roaming the town. Innsmouthers are a monster-fish and human hybrids, and the Throgmortons, a high-class family, are apes and human. While the voice acting is impressive, the dialogue can turn into a one-sided speech at times. There is rarely a change in tone, especially for Charles, which makes everyone seem flat and lacking emotions for the situation they are in.
Now, my biggest concerns with The Sinking City are the load times, missing textures and sudden drops of people and buildings. Trying to fast travel across the map took a minute or two to actually happen. I’d say it felt like forever, but that’s what happens while you sit there and wait for the game to load slowly. Fast traveling was still worth the wait though, as it was easier than running half way across the map, hopping from boat to boat and opening my map every other street to make sure I was going the correct direction.
While running across the map, I’d realize that textures wouldn’t load on my PS4. During one mission, I was running to a university, and when I arrived at the stairs, it was just a gray ramp. I tried to run up it, but the game wouldn’t let me, so I stood around for a minute or two until the game realized what was going on. It happened another time while I was standing at a dock. Buildings further from me didn’t have their textures, and there was no water in front of them. At times, I thought I was seeing things, but as I wandered around, I realized how slowly the world seemed to generate. Also, the townsfolk and buildings seemed to drop from the sky. Citizens would visibly spawn in and proceed to walk in circles or into walls. Nothing about their movement seemed fluid, and it was easy to tell that they weren’t very smart. Buildings just appeared, and if you looked closely, a lot of the buildings where identical copies of each other. Ones that you could actually enter had, almost, the same layout as every other building you could enter. While minor furnishing details set them apart, it gets old entering the buildings and it basically being an exact copy of the last.
Lastly, I found my game would frequently freeze while trying to open the map via the PS4 controller’s touch pad. Clicking the center touch pad would stop Charles in his tracks with any ambient noise still going on, then the map would open, but it would be blank. After a few seconds, the map would load the street names and any markers placed onto it. This was the bane of my gameplay experience. As frequently as I used the map, it took extremely long to get anywhere. There is a bar at the top of the screen, which shows the direction of the next marker you are heading towards, but gives no actual numerical value as to how far away you are.
Overall, The Sinking City feels like a rushed video game with a somewhat unique story. The setting, atmosphere and different detective skills are the reasons why I kept on sleuthing. The “Mind’s Eye” and “Mind Palace” were the features I enjoyed the most and would have rather focused on over combat. The combat is rigid and stiff, feeling tossed in as a way to work in the different types of monsters. It feels unfinished as textures don’t load correctly or at all, and NPCs seem to drop from the sky. Voice acting and the different characters save the game a little, but there is only so much it can do for a game that seems to be barely finished.
Haley reviewed The Sinking City on the PlayStation 4 with a review code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC and Xbox One, and it’s coming to Nintendo Switch.