The Sinking City Review - Maddening In More Ways Than One

Frogwares' latest title is a test of how much can you forgive before you end up not enjoying it.
7.5
  • Playstation 4
  • Windows
  • Xbox One
  • Action
  • Open World
  • Puzzle
2019-06-27
The Sinking City Splash
Lack of polish and immersion-breaking bugs sink what is otherwise a sturdy foundation in The Sinking City. Bigben Interactive

Of all the horror genres in media, there is none that’s harder to master effectively than Lovecraftian horror. It’s not inherently the fault of anyone, though, as the genre has been kind of hard to follow after the original works by H.P. Lovecraft. How do you do justice to evil horrors so terrible they cannot be described and understood by any mortal means?

Well, for one thing, you can’t, but The Sinking City comes pretty damn close – when it’s not failing through the most frustrating pitfalls and shoddy execution. Frogwares, the studio behind the Adventure of Sherlock Holmes series, puts the formula through its paces. However, that also includes the same problems you encounter in their recent titles, which makes The Sinking City – for better and for worse – one of the most interesting horror titles of the year.

Story and setting

The Sinking City Canal
Some of Oakmont's streets are like the world-famous Venice waterways, but you also get some unnatural fog and tentacled horrors with it. Photo: Bigben Interactive

The Sinking City is set in the 1920s, in a fictional city of Oakmont, Massachusetts. You play as Charles W. Reed, a particularly troubled war veteran who turned into a keen private investigator. Like any good Lovecraftian tale, it all starts when terrifying visions and nightmares start to plague numerous people, of which Reed is also affected. This starts him on a journey to investigate the cause.

Oakmont is not all as it seems, as the secluded fishing town is currently experiencing a very unnatural phenomenon that sets up the tale quite nicely. Called ‘The Flood,’ wherein a dark force has plagued the town and its inhabitants, this phenomenon has submerged most parts of Oakmont in water under the guise of heavy rainfall, while affecting its citizens with hysteria and madness, often resulting in incredibly violent outbursts. This same madness has called Reed and others to the town, where they are cast aside by the townsfolk for being ‘Newcomers.’ Adding to all this is that the town now hosts dangerous creatures that seemingly came with the incident, and now strike terror and fear through the hearts and minds of everyone who crosses their paths.

The Sinking City, story-wise, has a lot to offer for players both familiar and not to the Lovecraftian genre. It’s simple enough to understand, yet also very maddening to think about. The game does a very good job of painting this illusion of deep paranoia through seemingly mundane events and lives of the people living there. The atmosphere is very thick, and at any given instance from the very beginning of the game, you get the feeling that there is something very wrong with this town. Reed voices in frequently, with some doubts overshadowing his perception of what’s real anymore, while some of the townspeople embrace this new hell that has descended upon them. The setting, Oakmont, is also a very realistic case of what could possibly happen in case Cthulhu and other demigods of terror started invading our cities and causing untold panic to all its citizens. It’s a classic case of ‘trust no one,’ as in addition to tentacled horrors of the deep warping the very reality that the characters breathe, there are also murderers out on the street looking to keep Reed from solving the mystery of his visions and nightmares. The plot is enough to keep any avid mystery horror fan invested and hooked to see the game through to completion, which is exactly what I ended up doing, despite its many shortcomings.

The Sinking City Populace
It's hard to believe that anyone in their right mind would choose to live here, but then again, it's the madness that draws people in. Photo: Bigben Interactive

Likewise, the citizens of Oakmont are a weird bunch that realize that they are outcasts living in a hell dimension, but with an attitude of “life must go on either way.” In your travels and investigations, you’ll meet a colorful assortment of regular folk, miscreants and other – err, let’s call them people with weird appearances. Oakmont is built on a culture that’s incredibly different from the outside world, often revealing itself to you piece by piece in your many conversations with other people. Most of them recognize a different god, which the call ‘Kay,’ and speak a slang-peppered dialect that adds a layer of flavor and authenticity to the game. Throughout it all, even with something as serious as ‘The Flood,’ these citizens endure, knowing that their place is in Oakmont for better or for worse.

Besides the main plot, you’ll be presented with these neat little subplots about the many strange and bizarre happenings in the town. All of these stories contribute to the overall deeper meaning of what it means to live in Oakmont, before and after the incident took away some of the populace’s sanity. There’s also quite the animosity brewing amongst the city’s refugees, the Innsmouthers, who are these fish-faced (literally) people from a place called Innsmouth. Caught in this web of intrigue is the Oakmont’s regular folk, and the powerful Throgmorton Grand Family, one of the city’s ruling elites. As Reed, it’s ultimately your choice how some of these subplots play out, as The Sinking City features alternate explanations for each and every investigation you end up solving.

The Sinking City overall features a story good enough for you to get embroiled in. It’s nothing too fancy, and complications are rare, but you also get a very consistent tone throughout the game, one where the oppressive atmosphere will slowly crumble away the sanity of anyone who dares to face it. It’s terror is beholden to good worldbuilding, mesmerizing characters and these strange, strange times you find yourself living in.

Gameplay

The Sinking City Case
There are a ton of cases to discover and solve in The Sinking City, each revealing a piece of the town's overarching insanity. Photo: Bigben Interactive

It only gets better as The Sinking City features a rewarding core game loop that should be enough to entertain you well past fifteen hours. The execution might be poor (more on that later) but the good design is all there, giving you incentive to complete its solid main campaign and all the engaging side missions in between. As far as content goes, The Sinking City blows it out of the water, and it’s nearly impossible to run out of interesting activities to do.

In a somewhat surprising move that yielded mixed results, Frogwares opted for The Sinking City to feature an open world. I say mixed because while it did show its strengths early on, it also became one of the title’s biggest weaknesses.

The Sinking City Map
The Sinking City features quite the huge open world map, which worked out in both good and bad ways. Photo: Bigben Interactive

Let’s take a look at all the good stuff that comes with the open world first. Oakmont is teeming with side content, and assuming that you go for one of the higher difficulty investigation levels, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that there’s very minimal hand-holding involved. In some cases, missing some clues will lead to you not getting all possible deductions. In a game that’s heavily built with solving cases and smart observations, The Sinking City shines as the open world offers a lot of freedom as to how you will pursue your various leads. I played it on the highest difficulty and found myself challenged sufficiently, an aspect which is very hard to find in other games like these today. As much as I hate the terminology, it really does make you feel like an investigator in the early 20th century, with only your wits and cunning at your disposal.

However, the open world does come with its set of problems, mainly in how the implementation and execution is overall poor. There were also a lot of sections in the game that felt out of place in the open world, like some linear segments that you can’t return to, even though there’s a location for it marked on the map. While the open world served to overall enhance the gameplay experience, it also made some aspects of it poorer and much more tedious. I would have settled for a smaller open world that’s teeming with detail, rather than what was presented – it may be large in scale, but some parts felt like rehashes of other prominent areas.

The Sinking City Retro
Charles boasts a variety of supernatural abilities that aid him in solving cases. Photo: Bigben Interactive

As Charles Reed, you have this special gift called Retrocognition that lets you see into the past events that happened at various crime scenes, which is useful for establishing a timeline and ultimately figuring out the motive. You also get a mind palace of sorts, which is something that Frogwares has in its previous Sherlock Holmes titles, as well as a handy journal that keeps all the evidence filed and secured. The map is also quite innovative, as it’s not only useful for knowing where you are at any given time – it’s also what you’ll look at for most of the game while out on investigations. Most of the evidence you’ll collect from various objects and testimonies from those involved come with explicit directions, all of which you can mark on the map in order to plan out your next move. The whole thing, though deliberate, made you feel like you’re actually solving and outsmarting the case, as opposed to just running along at a pace the game tells you to.

The Sinking City Combat
Combat feels overall half-baked and stiff. Photo: Bigben Interactive

While solving cases is a highlight, the combat system is, to put it bluntly, very atrocious. It felt half-baked, and I saw it as an annoyance every time I had to fight either a creature or human enemies. There’s no weight to the shooting, and more often than not if there is an option to just run away, I’d pick it over the tedious shooting. It sticks out like a sore thumb despite the overall great investigation mechanics.

Likewise, the RPG elements also felt out of place. At about midway through my playthrough I stopped noticing that there was an experience meter, and that I accumulated quite the number of skill points. Don’t get me wrong, some of the upgrades are very useful, although I feel like it’s overall a very unnecessary addition to what is otherwise a very sufficient title on its own. Think back to when you last saw RPG elements make a great case for themselves, and you’ll notice that they tend to shine when you, as a player, did more fighting than investigating. The aspect overshadows the point of the whole difficulty if you take certain points into enhancing your detective capabilities, as it makes some cases very easy and unintuitive; putting them into combat is slightly better, although not by much, because the combat isn’t really good at all.

I think that if you remove certain chunks of the game like the need for combat and the whole RPG shtick, and instead focused those resources into refining the investigation parts and ironing out its massive rough patches, then this would’ve been an exemplary title.

Aesthetics, Technical Problems

The Sinking City Dusk
Despite its great concept, The Sinking City suffers from poor execution. Photo: Bigben Interactive

Let me preface this by stating that I don’t think that The Sinking City is, in any way, an ugly looking game. In fact, it’s pretty much exactly what I was expecting in terms of aesthetics accurate to the era it’s set in, and the world it inhabits. However, there are a number of glaring problems that makes everything look quite bad.

A lot of The Sinking City’s major problems can be traced to its bugs. The whole game feels very unpolished, and it takes away from what is otherwise a very haunting and terrifying atmosphere. Nothing takes me out of the game faster than an introspective moment, and you see one of Oakmont’s citizens pop out of thin air as the textures start to kick in. Most of the animations, especially that of Reed’s, are very wonky and jarring, and is not what you’d expect from a moving person at all. Even the monsters themselves, who are supposed to be ‘unspeakably terrifying’ as is the par for Lovecraftian horror, are reduced to these buggy, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious pieces of meat.

The Sinking City Throg
Robert Throgmorton is a topnotch character, both in design and voice acting. Photo: Bigben Interactive

It’s such a shame, too, when you look at most of the facial animations, which are strangely competent and believable. In particular, Robert Throgmorton, who’s one of the game’s key figures, has particularly impressive facial work. I won’t spoil too much of his appearance, as I think it’s one of the key selling factors on why The Sinking City overall works, but know that as weird as he is, it only gets weirder.

The technical problems also extend to some of the in-game settings as well, at least on the PC version. Setting the viewing distance to higher increments seems to be the cause for most of this, which results to those very weird and janky texture pop-ups. It’s also quite unoptimized as well, resulting in some stutters here and there, but I’ve learned to expect such from the developer. If you’ve played Sherlock Holmes and the Devil’s Daughter, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Overall

The Sinking City Overall
It's a weird day when I find myself drawn to a title that's riddled with issues, which says a lot more about how good a concept is. Photo: Bigben Interactive

Despite all the problems I’ve raised, all very glaring ones at that, I still found myself to be quite drawn to The Sinking City, even going so far as to try and finish all of the available side content. There’s quite the obvious metaphor here, for like Charles Reed, I, too, found myself inexplicably drawn to something so terrible that it transcends mortal comprehension.

Exaggeration and kidding aside, it’s probably because at its core, The Sinking City had a lot of great ideas with some very poor execution. I’ve learned to look past most of the technical issues and the overall lack of polish, because it’s something I’ve tied to the developer and their past two titles. I do wonder for how long this can be forgiven, as good case work mechanics and investigations will only get you so far ahead. That said, it’s clear that Frogwares struck gold with the setting, and with a little more work and polish – plus some much-needed quality control – the next iteration may prove to be better. Yes, I want another Sinking City-like title where you explore a bleak open world and solve its various riddles and cases, regardless of what may have transpired for this game.

Overall, The Sinking City is very much like its title – a city of great standing sunk by some very poor execution and design choices. If you found yourself to be a fan of their Sherlock Holmes titles, then Frogwares’ tale of fear, hysteria and madness may have something to offer. It all depends on how much you can forgive its excessive lack of polish, and how much you enjoy the genre.

REVIEW SUMMARY
The Sinking City
7.5
The Sinking City Review - Maddening In More Ways Than One
The Sinking City, like most of Frogwares' other titles, offers a great concept with a somewhat poor execution. The severe lack of polish destroys the promising atmosphere, and some of the misguided gameplay elements can be annoying. If you're willing to look past that, however, then you get a very enjoyable investigative thriller in and of itself, even without those Lovecraftian elements.
  • Great open-world concept of investigating various cases.
  • Very promising atmosphere.
  • Engaging story, with some very solid characters.
  • Severe lack of polish and poor quality control.
  • Bad combat and RPG implementation.
  • Immersion-ruining bugs.
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