The Sinking City Review
We find ourselves living in turbulent times. Ever since the death of Bowie back in 2016, the world has cranked out awful shit with even more frightening regularity than Justin Bieber releasing new songs. The deaths of countless well-known celebs, Brexit, election-meddling, Trump, ISIS, and Zika… It’s easy to feel that the current timeline we inhabit is the equivalent of a blazing dog poo bin.
But. This isn’t really an unusual feeling. In fact no matter how far back you go, it’s probably the case everyone always thought the world was one step away from going completely tits up. One such person was HP Lovecraft. The American author of horror and weird fiction, and creator of the Cthulhu mythos has become the grandfather of “outsider fiction”. His characters would find themselves immersed in terrifying and confusing worlds, afflicted with forbidden knowledge, and threatened by monsters both human and more unknown… while virtually unknown throughout his lifetime, the works of Lovecraft have resonated throughout the years, and influenced countless authors, musicians, and game designers.
He was also a massive racist. Yes, sadly HP Lovesauce was not best disposed towards the non-whites of our world, and his fiction would often serve merely as a vessel for his unpalatable views on – what he considered – the various “lesser” races. He loved the English though, which is nice, I guess. Although we are massive arseholes, so it’s not really a surprise.
Still, all of this doesn’t mean HP Brown Sauce should be consigned to the dustbin of history. In fact, when faced with these sort of questionable facts, some of the best fiction can spring up directly from flipping racism on its head. One well-known example is The Ballard of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, a retelling of The Horror at Red Hook, often cited as one of the author’s most vitriolic and racist books.
This then brings us to The Sinking City, the latest release from Ukrainian dev Frogwares. A studio well-known for its work on other detective ‘em up the Sherlock Holmes series. This time round, rather than another outing with the quintessential English detective, we follow the story of Charles Reed – a 1920’s gumshoe detective, drawn by stories of disturbing visions in the flooded streets of Oakmont, Massachusetts. The game is billed as an open-world investigation game inspired by HP Hobbycraft’s rich and storied mythos. Immediately upon starting the game, you’re hit with a screen stating that although prejudices were and are still wrong, their depiction has been included for authenticity. All in all, props to the studio for the way they’ve addressed the potential issues with Lovecraft’s work. It is true we shouldn’t hide or censor things simply because we don’t like them – otherwise, how can we learn from the mistakes we’ve made?
To the game itself. You arrive by sea wracked by strange and unsettling visions, drawn by stories of the residents of Oakmont who have been plagued by similar phantoms. You’re dumped pretty unceremoniously into the game with nothing but your wits, a camera, and your trusty Colt M1911.
First impressions are good, and it’s a very pretty-looking game. The city of Oakmont has been struck by flooding, and half the streets of the city are only traversable by boat. The atmosphere is off the charts, and I loved the general aesthetic which pervades the game throughout. It’s got the feel of the bathroom in a student house. Damp, sodden, and mouldy. The little touches impress too. There’s a nautical theme running throughout, and the world is stuffed full of items like a gramophone with a sea conch horn, really helping make Oakmont a vivid place to explore.
The characters are all varied and interesting. Everyone looks pretty unhealthy. Pallid skin and watery eyes abound, and most of Oakmont’s residents look like they desperately need a week in the sun. The aforementioned racism rears its head in the form of local – and vocal – hatred of the fish-like Innsmouthers. Refugees from the world of Lovecraft, they made their way to Oakmont when their home was destroyed. No-one much likes them though, and there’s a simmering racial tension throughout the story which keeps things interesting. You’re often faced with the choice to help one of two racial groups, and while it’s simplistic it does make you question your choices as you move forward.
Character animations are OK, but not without bugs. While exploring a burnt out basement, I was ambushed by an Innsmouther, but he managed to clip into a wall and get stuck. So rather than a tense fight to the death, I simply bludgeoned him to death with a shovel.
The detective Charles is an interesting character from the get-go, having served in the Navy up until a wreck left all of the crew other than him dead. He survived, but didn’t escape wholly unafflicted. He’s ended up with what I’m calling Cthulhu-vision™. Sadly, this isn’t as cool as it sounds, and just enables a purple-hued detective vision. It’s something which has been done to death now, and The Sinking City doesn’t do anything new with it as such. There is a slight balance in the sense that using it too much makes you go insane – and you can be attacked by the shades of your own mind – but at the end of the day, you can just flick it on and off as you please to help spot clues.
You get a chance to put this and your other detective skills to use within the first few minutes of the game. This is where the main meat of the story lies: collecting clues and solving cases. To do this, you have a few skills at your disposal. You can use Cthulhu-vision™ to search for clues, activate some weird sort of retrograde detective mode where you step backwards through the scenes of a crime. Basically: go to a place, look at things, speak to people, collect evidence, deduce motives from the clues, and solve the case. Sadly, this is all hidden behind a fairly cack-handed interface.
There seems to be a prevailing vogue at the moment for games to make things difficult for players to increase immersion. I can understand the sentiment, but when it takes five clicks to place a marker on the map – open the map, pick the position, right click, choose marker, confirm marker – I don’t feel immersed. I feel like I’m ready to jump in the pool but an overbearing lifeguard will only let me get in one limb at a time. In my mind, the best sort of interface is almost non-existent. The more on-screen stuff I have to fight with, the less I enjoy a game.
Speaking of fighting, combat is sadly awful. This is a genuine shame because the monsters are fucking terrifying. Like, things pulling their faces open and vomiting on you terrifying. The game advises you to run away from most things, and it’s possible to die almost immediately when facing even the most mundane of creatures. However, this is where my biggest problem with the game lies. I have no idea what it wants me to do. Once you get past the first case and the moderately interesting investigation mechanics, that’s pretty much it. All of the sleuthing is pretty much the same thing over and over, occasionally interspersed with unsatisfying combat. You’re told not to waste bullets, but when you fire one of the three or four guns you can equip it sounds like you’re shooting frozen peas. There’s no visible indicator of whether you’ve even hit an enemy, and no indication – visual or otherwise – of how damaged an enemy is. If I only fire my gun a few times in anger, I want it to feel epic when I make the choice to engage.
Then there’s the scavenging. Yup, you can just wander into someone’s office while they’re in there, open up their cupboards and pilfer whatever you can lay your grubby paws on. No-one even bats an eyelid. Not that the stuff you loot really has any use. You can use whatever you’ve gathered to build a few different items like bullets and medkits, but it feels incredibly tacked on, as if they just felt like throwing it in the mix. It would probably have been easier to just have a single resource you can barter, rather than a half-baked crafting system.
Half-baked sadly is the operative word once you start digging into the main game. You’ll find half-finished buildings with empty spaces, and a sort of false economy of exploring and looting. In one instance, I found myself wandering around an entirely empty office building before being attacked by a single super-powerful dog monster thing. While blubbing in terror I expected there to be some reason the monster was there, but in the end I just got to loot a cupboard and found some random junk. It’s underwhelming.
So, here we are. I’m a bit annoyed at The Sinking City because underneath the surface problems, there is a game absolutely brimming with atmosphere and pathos. I’d love to enjoy it for the story, but the mechanics of the game just get in the way. It’s like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel.
If you’re a Lovecraft fan, and can get past the repetitive game loop, you’ll probably enjoy spotting all of the nods to the author. The Sinking City is clearly an unabashed love letter to the world of Lovecraft, and the way in which Frogwares has dealt with the problematic racism of the author deserves mention. It just could have been so much better.
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