The Sinking City Treads Water in a Choppy Sea

When a friend of mine shared the cinematic trailer for Frogwares’ The Sinking City on Facebook sometime in the summer or fall of 2018, I was instantly hooked. The game had a nice, eerie sheen to it, one that Lovecraft flirted with often but attained only sometimes (in my experience; I’ve only read about half of his work). Fast forward to May 2020: In usual fashion, I saw this game on sale and, having had it on a back burner in my mind for some time, purchased it. After 69 hours (nice!) of gameplay, I don’t think I would have regretted paying full price all that much, but I’m certainly happy I didn’t.

Players take on the identity of one Charles Reed, a private investigator from Boston who is searching for the source of his nightmarish visions. We start off as his ship is docking in Oakmont, Massachusetts, a dark and dreary place that has seen much, much better days. Through some minor investigating, players discover a massive flood recently devastated the town, leaving many streets flooded and many buildings covered in barnacles. There are even the corpses of great white sharks littering the streets with huge chunks that appear to have been bitten off by some larger monstrosity. The aesthetic perfectly captures the Lovecraftian legacy it is referencing though, much like many of Lovecraft’s stories, the alluring promise of terror sometimes fizzles out before it can really set sail.

Unfortunately, the game didn’t have quite as much of that eerie veneer the trailer promised. That isn’t to say there aren’t some very good tidbits of atmospheric shivers—an unholy baby that leaves bloody handprints on the wall and ceiling or a ghostly witch that sews her victims’ mouths shut—but this game has nothing on the nerve-wracking suspense and jump scares of the likes of Dead Space despite the similarity between the necromorphs of the latter and the wylebeasts of the former. Some of this is due to the voice acting. Most of it is good enough, but some performances leave a lot to be desired, coming across as overly dramatic or too stiff.

The narrative is really where the game shines, creating something new out of something old and both drawing on while adding to the Cthulhu Mythos. One of the largest influences for the story is Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Innsmouthers filling a number of the NPC ranks. The game makes heavy allusions to the Deep Ones: The Esoteric Order of Dagon makes an appearance, you can find the Deep Ones’ gold hidden throughout the city, and you can even find a note that mentions Obed Marsh, the original founder of the EOD. Even more on the nose for Lovecraft readers (but, like, satisfyingly so): The name of the hotel Charles stays in is The Devil’s Reef Hotel!

The largest problem is the game’s inability to truly immerse the player in the dread. For instance, Charles has a sanity bar alongside his health bar. The more time he spends around wylebeasts, occult objects, or simply disturbing scenes, the less sane he becomes. As the meter dwindles, visions of eldritch horrors, varying murderous men, or even Charles himself hanging from a noose will obscure the screen. These visions operate more like an obvious game mechanic than anything truly terrifying, taking away from the feeling of madness and making it more of a contrived difficulty setting. The best executions of Charles’s fraying sanity come during cut scenes, which explains why the magic of the cinematic trailer worked so well. 

The ideas are definitely there, but they exist in a solely cinematic sense. One particularly great example is a scene in which Charles attempts to shoot an oncoming wylebeast, but each time the light flickers, both the gun in his hands and the creature disappear. There are at least two scenes involving characters Charles has killed returning (most if not all the cases have multiple conclusions), bringing with them bleeding walls and floods of blood to rival the imagination of Stanley Kubrick. The failing is that these two iterations of the same concept, the gameplay version and the cinematic, do not weave together well, making for a passable but less-than-amazing gaming experience.

And the gameplay is passable and, at times, borders on amazing. Frogwares is known for their Sherlock Holmes series of games, so it’s not terribly surprising that one of the better game mechanics is the investigative segments. They are by no means perfect, and the Sherlock series from my very limited experience—I’ve played one; there are currently eight with a ninth in production—is the better puzzler. That said, the juggling between investigating and shooting worked fairly well in my experience. Many have found the combat frustrating, which I found is true early on but becomes much less so as you progress. The gunplay pales in comparison to true shooter games, but the game couples its slight learning curve with a relative lack of a deluge of enemies. The game is also very open about telling you it is often better to run. Ammo is fairly scarce, especially early on, and your pockets are not as deep as, say, in Elder Scrolls.

The game is like an impressionist painting of sorts. If you look too closely, all you see are the brush strokes; you lose the story under all of the repetitively designed building interiors or collision detection issues (I really wanted that loot chest, but the train car just wouldn’t let me in). So if you’re looking for a pretty good Cthulhu Mythos story that plays OK, this isn’t a bad option if you can find it on sale. If you’re looking for a truly great puzzle or shooter game, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

Thanks, as always, for reading! Please consider subscribing (Home Page) or donating (below). Anything you think I should review? Drop me a comment! I can’t promise I’ll be able to get to it unless I can find it on a good sale, but I certainly will try.

Published by writingrobb

I’m a video gaming cat dad who likes to write.

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