No Happy Endings Under The Sea
HIGH Tommygunning a 12-foot-tall wall of angry meat.
LOW Spending too much time walking to research hubs.
WTF There’s a cameo by Creepy Watson!
It’s not like it would have been a reach for Frogwares, known largely as the Sherlock Holmes people, to make a Lovecraft-themed game using their existing format.
Traveling to locations via map hotspots, looking for clues, chatting with witnesses, solving the occasional puzzle — all of these mechanics would work perfectly featuring Lovecraft instead of Doyle since detectives perform in largely the same way whether murders are committed by greedy uncles or eldritch abominations, and Frogwares has already demonstrated that they’re capable of making great games in the genre.
With this being the case, why did Frogwares eschew the obvious development avenue and instead decide to make an open-world action-adventure? I’m baffled by the decision, because everything good about The Sinking City is buried under heaps of mediocre combat and needless travel.
Set in the titular half-submerged island-city of Oakmont, The Sinking City casts players as a detective plagued by visions. He hears that others suffering from similar visions have come to Oakmont in search of a cure, only to vanish afterwards. Such info might dissuade someone else from attempting the same, but our hero comes armed with a couple of guns and a stylish hat, so… he’ll probably be fine?
Sinking City is broken down into traditional detective game structure. There are people who have information the player needs, but each requires a favor before they’ll help. Of course this sends the player down rabbitholes of investigating missing persons, picking sides in a mob war, and safeguarding the city’s food supply, among other things.
The cases are intriguing enough, and the developers use the ‘mind palace’ system from the Sherlock games to great effect. Players search crime scenes and interview suspects to uncover clues, then mix and match those clues to come up with the truth. However, the truth is open to interpretation, and in each case, the player is free to resolve an investigation in a couple of different ways, depending on which character’s point of view they agree with.
Unfortunately, the decisions don’t matter much — one of Sinking City‘s key weaknesses is that it tries to have things both ways by wanting players to feel like they have agency, but their resolutions have no meaningful impact on the world.
The stakes of Sinking City‘s story are made clear — the stars are right, a prophecy is coming true, and the player will have to decide whether to stop it or help it along. Because the devs need the player to end up at the final decision point no matter what, any choices up until that point are irrelevant, and the world doesn’t react to anything the player chooses beyond altering a newspaper clipping pinned to the corkboard in the player’s house.
While the plot may be fairly compelling to existing Lovecraft fans, the gameplay leaves everything to be desired.
Combat is slow and lacking visceral thrill. There are just four types of monsters, and three charge straight at the player, making them wish there was a dodge button. (There’s not.) Every encounter boils down to swinging a shovel to kill small enemies or shooting large ones from a distance. Gun-toting humans will occasionally show up, but since Sinking City lacks a cover system or the ability to switch shoulders when aiming, these encounters boil down to soaking up damage while shooting back, and then walking away to heal when necessary. These fights feel like minor annoyances more than anything else.
It seems the devs understood how hollow their combat was, and tried to bulk it up by adding a superfluous crafting element. In addition to ammo and health packs, searching bins in locations will turn up resources to craft various ammo types. This is ostensibly to add resource scarcity to the combat — what kind of ammo should the player craft with limited resources?
While scarcity may have been the intention, combat is decidedly not optional despite loading screen tips that suggest fleeing as a viable tactic. No, every location that needs to be investigated is packed with monsters that must be killed before investigations can proceed, and to ensure that this is possible, the player is constantly handed such enormous heaps of resources that I couldn’t figure out why Sinking City didn’t just scrap the crafting and give the player unlimited basic ammo, with specially-crafted bullets being the treasured resource.
Worse than the tedious combat is what a slog traveling is. Oakmont is a fairly large map, but there’s nothing to do between investigation points. There’s good environmental storytelling in the world’s design — rotting wood, submerged streets, and hovels crudely boarded up to keep out the creatures that besiege the city — but that story could have been told without copying and pasting the same handful of buildings a hundred times to create an overworld.
In many hours of wandering the city, I found no hidden quests, random events or surprise characters. The only thing players can stumble across are “infested zones” where they can farm monsters for experience points via the awkward combat, but why would anyone want to do that?
Another example of how badly Frogwares has botched Sinking City is how research works. Each missions has the player going to a location, killing some monsters, and rifling through files. They’ll find references to a name, event, or location, and instead of getting a new destination marker telling them where to go next, they must first research the information they discovered.
This would be fine if researching meant opening a menu and putting things together, but The Sinking City has something far more dull in mind. There are different research hubs in the city, with each holding a different sort of info. Every time the player finds a lead, they first have to determine which hub would have the correct research materials. Then they must walk to a fast travel point that gets them near the hub, and when they finally arrive, they have to pore through files to figure out the intersection that’s closest to their ultimate destination, and then they have to figure out the specific location from there.
Practically, this means that in order to compete any case, the player will have to perform this sequence of busywork at least once, because Sinking City can’t be bothered to cut the chaff and give players the true location they should head to next. Worse, the entire process might have to be repeated multiple times if the player isn’t sure where to do the research. Let’s say, for example, that triplets were born — where would one go to look that up? Hospital birth records? Town hall citizenship records? Newspaper reports of the incident? Only one of the archives will have the crucial info.
The Sinking City is a perfectly acceptable detective game that gets bogged down by mediocre open-world adventure. While I respect Frogwares’ ambition to explore new areas, with results this shoddy, they should have stuck to what worked. Without tacking on hours of worthless travel and open-world nonsense, Sinking City would have been a high-quality cosmic horror mystery. In its current form, I can’t recommend anyone but the most devoted Lovecraft fans make the journey to Oakmont.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Frogwares and published by Bigben Interactive. It is currently available on PC, XBO and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4 PRO. Approximately 25 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. I feel like ‘Blood and Gore’ and ‘Suggestive Themes’ don’t really go far enough to describe the situation. There are a ton of dismembered corpses everywhere, and gross perversions of the human body through mutation. Rumours abound of women being abducted to serve as brood mothers to monstrous children, and while we don’t see it onscreen, there’s plenty of evidence around to suggest that it’s happening. This is bleak cosmic horror that children and younger teens should be kept far, far away from.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The audio is a real problem here. The main character has a ‘detective vision’ mode that’s necessary to find many clues, but the audio cue for when to use it is far more obvious than the visual cue, and it can easily wind up buried under all of the other weird visual effects. When playing on mute I had a much more difficult time finding clues than when I had the sound on. Also, there’s no captioning to let the player know when enemies are stomping around nearby, so without the sound, you will be surprised by enemies quite frequently. As such, I’d suggest turning the combat to ‘easy’. All dialogue has subtitles, which cannot be resized.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.