Lacking The Elementary

HIGH Phenomenally designed moral choices.

LOW Unbearable combat feels forced.

WTF “The Sea” impregnated someone’s wife??

The Sinking City is a mixed product. It tells an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired tale about a doomed city, uses modern cinematic storytelling, has a well-put-together narrative and feels similar to Frogwares’ successful Sherlock Holmes titles, yet these different components fail to come together and overall it’s… a hot mess with great writing?

As a fan of Frogwares’ work, The Sinking City was one of my most anticipated games of 2019, albeit being a risky pick since I’m not familiar with Lovecraftian novels. The change of universe did pay off, though, since City pulled more than a few unexpected tricks on me, the unsuspecting player.

Sinking City‘s main character is ex-marine Charles Reed, now a private eye with supernatural visions that lead him to 1920’s Oakmont — a mysterious city in Massachusetts, flooded by a seemingly endless deluge. Mass hysteria has been gripping the town, so Reed tries to cure himself of his visions while trying to solve Oakmont’s woes as well.

City’s story is told episodically, with every section being a case for Reed to crack with a moral choice at the end. It works via the trademark ‘Mind Palace’ Frogwares is so fond of — clues are found at crime scenes and this evidence can be linked to create a deduction. Once connections are made, the player must interpret the results and come to possible conclusions. In an early case, I had to intuit whether a murderer was hallucinating during his crime, or merely seeking revenge for prior harm.

One side effect of this system is that there’s not one ‘correct’ conclusion to a case, and the outcomes chosen by the player don’t have much impact on the story. Sinking City‘s overall linearity (despite the particulars of each case) means that there’s not much satisfaction in playing detective since everything will fall into place anyway — fingering a culprit isn’t about guilt or innocence, it’s more about weighing the moral implications of the verdict.

The open-world Oakmont of this third-person action-adventure detective title is an interesting attempt to make investigating crime scenes feel more sophisticated, but it doesn’t manage to effectively capitalize on the experience. I found myself generally fast-traveling between main locations and I avoided being sidetracked since there’s little value in exploring the city beyond the main cases — the sidequests feel like an excuse to get the player to see more of the city and I soon began ignoring them completely.

Other problems arise due to poor design of the explorable space. Many houses in Oakmont look the same, and the number of properties that can be interacted with or explored is quite small. Once inside a building, it becomes evident that even the main locations have copy-pasted interiors.

Almost worse than this is the lack of interactive NPCs to be found in Oakmont. There’s one type of newspaper agent present in every district, speaking a single line that repeats, and their newspapers can’t be bought or read. All wandering NPCs run away yelling a complaint about Reed’s mental state if the player points a gun at them. Conversely, when in an infested zone where monsters spawn and massively attack, NPCs nearby don’t respond at all to the combat they’re a witness to.

In terms of atmosphere, however, Sinking City has its charms. About half of Oakmont’s streets are flooded and require Reed to navigate them in a boat, Venetian style. There are also clear differences between the rich and poor districts, and the landmarks also feel easily distinguishable, making it easy to memorize them. The university campus, central church and manor district made me excited about a city no wise person would dare set foot in.

Although not a pleasant environment to explore, Oakmont successfully managed to connect with me and in particular made me view many of the themes presented as implied representations of real-world discourse. For example, there are different races in Oakmont and racism is a visible topic during play. Also, Oakmont is home to a few corporate families who rule the city behind corrupt politicians — the parallels are obvious. Learning about the city impacted my moral choices and added a welcome, realistic dimension to the plot. Further, Sinking City boasts many references to arts and politics.

There’s a case about a politician thriving on Machiavelli’s ideas portrayed in The Prince, for example, and more than a few religious references and interpretations too complicated to understand at first glance. These developers know their literature and history, and the moral choices were always awesome sign-offs to each episode — these well-done dilemmas kept me thinking.

On the other hand, the fact that such an intellectual writing team felt it necessary to include forced combat sections blows my mind.

Combat is by far the worst aspect of City and handles terribly, especially in handheld mode. The aiming with guns feels imprecise and the creatures Reed meets have unconvincing AI. If he goes down, the nearest respawn point usually requires tedious backtracking to get back to the scene, and after a few defeats, the long loading screens and repeated hikes become intolerable.

Other shortcomings of a technical nature include poor facial animations, invisible walls resulting in some undeserved deaths, framerate dips and slow-loading visuals that pop in. I wouldn’t say this Switch version of City is unplayable, but there are plenty of hiccups.

A title like The Sinking City is hard to judge. Thematically and narratively, Frogwares has hit it out of the park. Technically, it’s mostly a miss. These two aspects are in direct conflict with each other, which results in an adventure game I’m trying to forget, and an experience I never will.

[The developer has informed GameCritics that the game has been patched to improve performance, but the updated code was not available at the time of writing. — Editor]

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: The Sinking City was developed by Frogwares and published by Bigben Interactive. It’s currently available on PC, PS4, XBO, and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 20 hours 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. The official ESRB rating reads as follows: This is a role-playing adventure game in which players assume the role of a private investigator trying to solve a mystery in the 1920s. From a third-person perspective, players search for clues among crime scenes (murders), interrogate suspects, and engage in firefights with various characters/creatures. Players use pistols, machine guns, and rifles to shoot human enemies and creatures (e.g., ghoulish entities, tentacled monsters). Players also have the ability to shoot random pedestrians in the city, though there is no reward for such action. Combat and crime-scene sequences are accompanied by frequent splashes and stains of blood; a handful of scenes depict human body parts and/or entrails. The game contains some suggestive material: a brief image of a man peeping into a room while making suggestive comments (e.g., “Come on, honey, get undressed. Don’t keep daddy waiting.”); in-game text also contains suggestive references (e.g., “Rumors are their boss, Brutus, defiled several women…” and “Now neither the devil nor filthy men may touch her, for I have smitten her sinful flesh…”)

According to Daniel Weissenberger, who reviewed the game for PS4, this description doesn’t go far enough. He states: 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. Rumors 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: Again, I quote from Dan Weissenberger’s first review: 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: There are no remappable controls.

David Bakker
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