by Sean Martin
reviewed on PC
IT’S PROBABLY THE FISH
For quite awhile now I’ve been keeping my eye on Frogwares’ Lovecraftian detective mystery, The Sinking City. Ever since I saw the announcement trailer, and spotted some gameplay at Gamescom, I have been extremely excited by the prospect. Whether it’s Darkest Dungeon, Bloodborne, or Eternal Darkness, I love me some Lovecraft. A Lovecraft-Noir combo, exploring a flooded city, filled with cosmic mysteries and unusual fish creatures... I was ready to dive in head-first! But then, unfortunately, my expectations and the hype were confronted by the reality. Not to say that The Sinking City is bad, but it could be a lot better.
You are a private detective (a character so two-dimensional I literally can’t recall his name), exploring the part-sunken city of Oakmont, seeking answers to the nightmarish visions which drew you there. Upon arrival you quickly realize something is amiss, and so must investigate further, aiding rich and poor alike, and sounding the depths of the curse which seems to be dragging Oakmont into the ocean. You’ll wander around the city, using your powers of detection, while blasting away the occasional aquatic monstrosity.
POWERS OF DEDUCTION
In Oakmont, you’ll approach mysteries in a variety of ways, but generally they follow the same pattern: getting an initial clue, locating a crime scene on a map, examining crime scenes (perhaps using detective vision to reconstruct events), using an archive at the hospital, police station, university or newspaper to uncover more clues, and confronting the perpetrator. Some of these actions are more interesting than others. The idea of having you locate crime scenes yourself with no objective markers actually amounts to little, especially when the city is stock full of reused assets, and you can’t communicate with the aimlessly wandering NPCs. If anything, it just illustrates how empty it actually is, when you have to find one correct door/individual in an otherwise ambivalent city.
The archive mechanic, on the other hand, is actually quite interesting — you’ll have to discover clues by choosing three relevant archive entries (place, location, crime etc). If you choose the correct ones you’ll discover a clue. The archives do allow for process of elimination, but at the same time, they feel like actual detective work. As Holmes would say: “Eliminate the impossible and whatever’s left, however improbable, must be the truth”. It’s also nice that the game expects players to use their brains to pick up the trail — a clue might mention a character was insane, so you go and check the asylum and lo and behold, the game is once again, afoot. It’s nice that the game rewards player smarts.
However, it can be hard to enjoy these great detective mechanics when the rest of the game feels far less loved. Oakmont is pretty janky, the NPCs wander pointlessly, with little interaction or interesting random encounters, and the city itself is quite obviously built from a number of reused assets. I wanted a city I could explore, but most of the houses you enter are a similar prefab, filled with monsters. It seems absurd for a game that otherwise discourages shooting and grants you little ammo. Not to mention that the monsters (except the quite cool spider-like ones) are fairly boring, amalgamated as they are from corpse pieces. On top of this, the sanity meter just gives you a few preset visions as it drops, such as the detective being hung, or a monster appearing. It’s also a shame that all supernatural/sanity experiences in the game occur through cinematic cut-scenes, breaking the immersion.
There are some good things about The Sinking City — the detective mechanics, the admirable approach to mystery-solving, inspired by the open play of classic tabletop game Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. But Sinking City is missing just that: a city. It’s a problem I’ve encountered with detective games in the past, such as L.A Noire’s fairly empty city, but at least they had famous landmarks and random encounters. Oakmont is hollow, its structures repeated, its NPCs ghost-like, and the game’s visual approach to Lovecraft is gaudy, where it might have been creeping/subtle. While some of the quests do contain interesting stories, it’s not quite enough to make up for the weaknesses of the setting. I really wanted to like this game, and perhaps fans more interested in the source materials of Lovecraft or those interested in Frogwares’ evolving mechanics of detection will get a bigger kick out of it than I did.
Some interesting detective mechanics, cool premise, some surprising cases.
Too many reused assets, too much dull gun-play, city feels empty.