Game name: The Sinking City
Release date: June 27, 2019
Available on: Epic Games Store
Genre: Open world action/adventure
Publisher: Bigben Interactive
H. P. Lovecraft’s works have influenced countless games in the past thirty years or so, on both the physical board game realm, and the one that matters most to us, video games. Last year we got an official Call of Cthulhu adventure title developed by Cyanide (which I enjoyed in spite of its numerous flaws), and 2019 won’t end without its own Lovecraftian detective adventure, all thanks to Frogwares‘ efforts. Why am I mentioning this? Well, The Sinking City is that Lovecraftian adventure, and today I’ll try to put my thoughts to paper (or web page, to be precise) after playing and replaying it for a bit less than a month.
Playing as Charles Reed, a Navy officer turned private dick, we’ll explore the town of Oakmont, a place that’s not entirely normal, as it has recently experienced “The Flood”, an event that sank most of it and left part of the city looking like a ragtag version of Venice. Oh, and there’s plenty of fish-people walking around, because Lovecraft.
Though The Sinking City might look like a third person action game to untrained eyes, it’s actually an adventure title through and through, with mostly optional combat sequences making an appearance from time to time in order to justify the crafting elements and light RPG skill trees that will consume some of our time with this Lovecraftian adventure. Even then, most of these sequences can be skipped if we “tank” encounters and run away from them, as we aren’t usually required to kill the things that threaten our existence. This is a good thing, because the combat aspect of the game is its weakest feature by far.
Instead of fighting the (admittedly genuinely disturbing) creatures that plague certain parts of the city, we’ll spend most of our time running around gathering clues, talking to people and choosing between different routes based on the information we’ve acquired.
When we are knee-deep in our detective work, the game shines, showcasing Frogwares‘ almost twenty years of adventure game development, and deftly hinting towards the next clue or major decision in ways that don’t feel overwhelming, and can actually make us buy the fantasy of being a 20’s hard boiled detective. Everything we find will go into our casebook, and it’s up to us to connect the dots and get to the next location we need to search (if that’s what’s needed to progress the case). An interesting search system lets us input relevant data into the archives of major institutions active in the city, outputting important clues if our search parameters were correct. I did find a few quirks within this system, but overall, I think it’s a great feature to have, and it feels “right”, as detectives would have to rummage through old archives back in the Twenties when there was no Internet or anything of the sort.
Aside from “realistic” detective work, we will also have to make use of a paranormal ability that lets us see the past in certain situations, something that can be incredibly useful for a private eye, and doubly so when faced with supernatural events like the ones that take place in Oakmont daily. This is represented ingame with a “witcher/Batman” sense type of thing that turns on at the press of a button and highlights important clues or even showcases things we wouldn’t normally be able to see. Of course, since this is a Lovecraftian adventure, there’s a sanity meter we have to keep an eye on, and using our unnatural sight in certain places will quickly deplete our sanity, something that can lead to a game over screen if we don’t take our medicine quickly enough.
Once we’ve gathered enough clues we can switch to our mind palace, a feature lifted straight from Frogwares‘ latest Sherlock Holmes adventure which lets us connect the information we have and come to conclusions according to our own ideas on the case we are working on at the moment. The game doesn’t force a specific path on us, and it often presents us with situations that are far from black and white, and we won’t be able to see the results of our choices immediately, so there’s always a sense of dread when deciding how to end main cases.
Since the city is actually quite big (and hard to traverse, thanks to the flood), we’ll have to look for phone booths that enable fast travel to different districts. Flooded areas can be navigated with a motor boat that will appear everywhere as if it was magic. I definitely don’t recommend going for a swim though, as there are man-eating monsters lurking underwater everywhere.
Aside from the main quest line, which is well written and engaging until the very end, we can also take a good number of side cases which won’t let us use our mind palace, but will send us on errands all over the city, sometimes forcing us to get our hands dirty with the blood of the weird creatures that stalk the poor citizens of Oakmont whenever they stray away from the main roads. Completing these optional cases will give us experience points, crafting materials/ammunition/medicine, and in some cases, we’ll also unlock new clothing choices (for instance, after completing a police officer’s questline, I was rewarded with a nice patrolman uniform). The writing doesn’t always hold up to the high standards set by the main storyline, but I didn’t regret playing the optional content, as it often showed me aspects of life in Oakmont that I wouldn’t have seen on my own.
Now that I’ve talked about the game’s best aspects, it’s time for the two things that can sour people on The Sinking City, which are the combat segments, and the way the open world works for the most part. As I’ve said before, combat plainly sucks. Our character can take some hits from low tier monsters, but once big ones show up, it’s better to run away or cheese the AI with cheap tactics. Hit feedback is mostly non-existent, so we can die in two hits without even noticing that we had been losing health, and the same goes for the way enemies react to our gunfire, as I’ve pumped bullet after bullet into big monsters with no indication of damage being dealt until the things finally fell to the floor. Considering that the developers let us craft things mid-fight, I think that they were aware that combat wasn’t the game’s strong suit, and I can’t blame them, as I definitely agree with that assessment. Things improve a bit when we are about the half-way point of the story, as we get access to a shotgun, a combat rifle and a submachinegun, but even with this expanded arsenal I often found that running was the wiser choice in most situations.
Moving on from combat, the second thing that most people will probably dislike about Frogwares‘ latest release is the way the open world works, as it’s often just an excuse to make us spend a bit more time and pad the length of the game. Pedestrians walking through the streets are often clones of others we’ve met in the previous corner, and even though there are hundreds of cars lined up at the side of the road, we can’t drive any of them, thus being forced to walk endlessly whenever we aren’t sailing our rickety motorboat through the flooded parts of the city (I did enjoy that there’s people sailing rafts or even trying to fish, a nice touch that brings some life to an often lifeless game). I get that there’s a convenient explanation for this particular issue, but being able to use a faster transportation method for the early parts of the game would have been a great boon to my experience. Oh, and we don’t get directions as points to follow in a compass or anything of the sort. If a clue requires us to go to a specific place, we’ll have to look it up in the map and mark it on our own. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this, but I’ve seen other people complaining about the way it was handled, since it somewhat gets boring the twentieth time we have to do it.
Another thing that didn’t quite click with me was the way the game runs, even on fairly beefy machines. I tested it on a 4770k with 16 gigs of DDR3 RAM and a 1070, running at 1080p and afterwards, on a 2700x with 32 gigs of DDR4 RAM and a 1080ti, running at 1440p and in both machines I got weird performance hiccups that didn’t make a lot of sense considering the game isn’t exactly a looker. As a further negative “bonus”, I encountered a bug where the game would stubbornly try to launch in VR mode because it detected my Lenovo Explorer connected to my computer… even though The Sinking City does not support VR. Oh, and there are no cloud saves, something I found out about the hard way when I moved my Windows installation on my main computer and discovered that I’d lost all my progress for no reason other than I thought it’d be backed up in the cloud, as it’s the case for 90% of the titles I’ve played in the last five years or so (to be fair to Frogwares, this isn’t really their fault, as the Epic Games Launcher does not support cloud saving as far as I know).
But enough complaining, it’s time for the final verdict. To be honest, I feel like I’m experiencing déjà vu, as the last Lovecraftian title I reviewed was also weirdly divided into two very different parts, one of which worked almost perfectly, while the other left a lot to be desired. In this particular case, The Sinking City is an excellent adventure game that doesn’t quite reach greatness because it’s saddled with a frankly awful combat system. While I wouldn’t recommend the game to everyone, it definitely clicked with me, and if you like detective titles, it’s far from a bad way of spending sixty bucks.