Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Let me get something out of the way right now: The Sinking City is a noir detective game, not a psychological horror game or a survival horror game. The trailers give you serious Silent Hill / Eternal Darkness vibes, with a side of Resident Evil 4, and while this game visually refers to the horror game history of the last twenty years, it’s doing its own thing.
But what is that thing? Imagine if Telltale Games and LA Noire had a baby, and it was infected with the Cthulhu Mythos in the womb. If that sounds awesome to you, and you can overlook some of its frustrating flaws, you’ll enjoy The Sinking City.
Setting, tone, and the need for contrast
The Sinking City is set in the 1920s, in the fictional city of Oakmont, Massachusetts, a city beset by a disastrous, supernatural flood. The flood isolated the city and brought with it economic disaster and an infestation of monsters.
The game is inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos - a world of horrific monsters and fraying sanity, imagined by American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. This is both a strength and weakness of the game.
Lovecraft’s work is a common shorthand throughout horror literature, allowing us to leap into the game with little background exposition. Private eye, going mad, looking for answers, ends up in New England, something is bad underwater, people got fish faces. For better or worse, this is a familiar story to anyone who’s had any contact with Lovecraft’s work.
Unfortunately, the game also bombards you with weirdness pretty early on and never lets up. Half-naked tattooed cult members are wandering the streets and in the first 15 minutes I saw a dude walking around with a backpack full of severed human arms. Again, no comment from your main character, and no explanation from the game. This creative choice gives me a “15-year old metalhead’s sketchbook” feeling, not “well-thought out $60 game” feeling.
The city contains multiple districts, but they all look pretty much the same - disintegrating buildings, flooded streets, sea life growing over everything. Rich districts, poor districts, it’s a post-apocalyptic New England all over. And it’s cool, but it gets tiresome when every area looks the same. After a few hours, I noticed that Frogwares reused many street signs across the city, which probably saved budget, but definitely damaged immersion. How many offices can “West M.D.” have in one city, anyway?
Clues, gunplay, and… library research?
The Sinking City does things I like and hate in equal measure. Mystery / investigation games are hard to make fun. Reconstructing crime scenes mostly consists of putting tab A into slot B, and boom, plot comes out. TSC suffers from some of this. Charles Reed, the main character, has retrocognition powers, and can rebuild crime scenes by putting disparate moments back into order. This is neat for the first few hours and then loses its shine rapidly.
However, I love its next trick. Once you gather enough clues, you start pairing them up to understand the mystery. Once they’re all paired up, you have to make a judgment call. Is the person you’re investigating culpable for their actions or mind controlled by Mythos magic? Do they deserve to be punished, even though they have a family to feed? In TSC, it’s not just about solving the mystery - it’s about deciding what constitutes justice. This is a great trick, and it gives me all the Telltale feels that I’ve been missing.
Its over-the-shoulder third person combat can be generously described as “low rent Resident Evil 4” with uninspired enemy designs and unexciting fights. Don’t come to this party for the gunplay. Weapons feel like pop guns and enemy design is limited. Luckily, you can run from most enemies, and given the game’s limited ammo supplies, this is usually strategically viable.
However, the gunplay is a relief compared to its most frustrating mechanic: doing library research. I’m not kidding. This city is starving, drowning, and full of monsters, but you still have homework to do.
There are multiple places in the game (university library, newspaper archive, police station) where you sit down at a desk and combine search terms over and over until you find what you want. It’s like the very earliest days of internet search engines, and even less fun. This is some developer’s darling that needed to be drowned in a bathtub and fed to Dagon.
TSC tries to save you from death by a thousand icons by forcing you to add the icons to the map yourself. In a teeth-grindingly frustrating decision, rather than just adding icons to your map as you receive quests, the game gives you a district name and a street intersection, and forces you to add the icon to the map yourself, speed bumping you hard, with zero gain in terms of immersion, fun, or gameplay.
Making matters worse, you often end up in a boat, alone, motoring around identical looking streets, to get to your next mission. Frogwares doesn’t understand that the boat sequences in God of War were cool because the game used these moments as downtime to explore Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir’s characters. Charles Reed hangs out in his boat alone, in dead silence. (There’s a fast travel feature, which I started using every chance I got once it became available.)
Also, the game doesn’t tell you that there will always be a boat at any dock you come across. I didn’t realize this, and spent the first few hours of the game, returning to where I left my boat, taking excruciating circuitous routes to every point of interest. But your boat, the Cyclops II, reappears at any dock you walk to. You don’t need to return to where you left it. It’s stupid, but your magic boat makes the game much easier to navigate. Also you can hold the shift button to make the boat go faster. That took me an embarrassing amount of time to figure out.
Like many games over the last five years, TSC didn’t need to be open world. Given the near identical environments and the lack of impetus to explore, an open world just creates annoying downtime between cool conversations with interesting characters and the moral choices that ensue. Can we please go back to instanced missions? I’d take a four second load time over a four minute boat ride any day.
Your main character occasionally goes into fugue states and has psychological breaks, leading him to wake up elsewhere, but it all happens in cut scenes. It would’ve been great to have some kind of Eternal Darkness-style trickery in TSC. If your sanity meter drops far enough, ghostly monsters (black fog versions of the game’s normal monsters) appear out of nowhere, but that’s the extent of it. Reality never really distorts for the player - we are always sure of what we see. It’s a missed opportunity, but I probably only notice it because I’ve been playing horror games for 20 years.
This story though...
I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing TSC but the story still has its hooks into me. I’ve encountered enough interesting twists and turns and moral conundrums that I want to see how this whole thing plays out. In a truly extreme example, I was torn between joining a man’s terrorist operation and bashing his head in with a shovel. Not many games make me agonize over a choice like this, but TSC does.
Frogwares also wisely decides to wrestle with the racism inherent in the Mythos, subverting certain anti-miscegenation tropes with its Innsmouth characters. TSC takes place after Lovecraft’s short story The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
In this story, human beings are breeding with aquatic Deep Ones, leading the people to have fish-like features. The FBI finds out about this and blows the city up. When TSC begins, The surviving Innsmouthers have come to Oakmont. Innsmouth was always a problematic metaphor for race mixing that took hold in Lovecraft’s bigoted imagination.
Oakmonters hate the strange looking Innsmouthers and accuse them of the very same things people accuse refugees of today - crime, violence, aggression towards women. However, as you peel back the layers of the mystery, you see how bigotry drives the downtrodden toward extremism, and most of the violence in Oakmont is homegrown, not imported.
I haven’t reached the end of the story yet, and there’s still time for Frogwares to fumble the ball, but as it stands, I’m willing to endure annoying research homework to discover the fate of Oakmont.