The Sinking City full review
Another year, another mid-budget HP Lovecraft game. After 2018’s Call of Cthulhu - a first-person horror based on the tabletop RPG of the same name - this year brings The Sinking City, a more action-oriented open world title that’s still dripping with tentacular dread.
The Sinking City has its ropey moments and lacks that comforting AAA sheen, but the mix of gunplay and detective work as you explore the semi-aquatic city of Oakmont is still compelling, and when it dips its toes into the murkier waters of Lovecraft’s mythology its pull is hard to resist.
The Sinking City is out on PS4, Xbox One and PC (where it’s an Epic Games Store exclusive for the first year) from 27 June, with a Nintendo Switch port planned for later this year. Our review copy was for the PS4, and I played through the game on a regular PS4 - not a Pro.
Unlike last year’s Call of Cthulhu, this is a third-person game. You step into the gumshoes of Charles Reed, a private detective (quelle surprise) plagued by sinister visions and nightmares that draw him to Oakmont, Massachusetts, a town that has been slowly submerging ever since an incident known only as The Flood.
The story occupies the usual Prohibition-era milieu of Lovecraft's work, meaning you'll encounter plenty of pinstripe suits and fedoras, moody dive bars, and other foibles of the setting. Lovecraft himself had famously iffy views on race, and while The Sinking City doesn't quite tackle those issues head-on, it does offer its own more progressive allegorical take on racism, along with one sideplot that tries its best to have fun at the KKK's expense.
The Sinking City isn’t based on a specific Lovecraft tale as far as I can tell, but instead draws on various elements of the Cthulhu mythos for an original story involving all the usual staples: tentacled monsters, sinister cults, occult rituals, and even a few friendly (or not-so) fishmen - as in actual half-men-half-fish types.
The main plot is broken up into discrete missions (or ‘cases’) along with various side quests you can discover as you explore Oakmont’s various districts by foot or, occasionally, boat (Reed has access to a small motorboat that conveniently, if implausibly, is always to be found on the closest of Oakmont’s many docks).
Gameplay is essentially broken down into two chunks: shooting and exploring to gather evidence, then applying Reed’s detective skills to put said evidence into action. Let’s tackle the shooting side first.
The Sinking City is primarily an action horror in the rough vein of a Resident Evil. You start off the game with a pistol, by the end accumulating a revolver, shotgun, grenades, bear traps (!), and more. Ammo is fairly scarce, but you can both find it around the world and create more through a fairly rudimentary crafting system.
Enemies range from other people (and fishmen) to more classically Lovecraftian horrors. There are pretty much only four core types of critter - little crawly ones, big crawly ones, man-shaped ones, and giant fuck-off ones - and while there are a few subtler variants within that, the combat loop does get a little repetitive.
That’s not helped by recurring environments too, with the same basic maps repeating again and again to fill in for various houses, apartments, and factories across Oakmont. This is the sort of compromise that’s hard to avoid with a small dev team, but it’s hard not to wish that developer Frogwares had reined in the sprawling story and trimmed the runtime to avoid things feeling quite so repetitive.
Still, the combat is fun even when it’s repetitive, and it’s propped up my The Sinking City’s more interesting second half: deduction. Plenty of games before this have tried and failed to make players feel like detectives, but with a pedigree in Sherlock Holmes titles (none of which I’ve played, admittedly) it’s perhaps not surprising that Frogwares has made one of the better efforts I’ve encountered.
Every clue you collect is filed away in your case book, and form the bedrock of the game’s mission system. You’re rarely actually told explicitly what to do next, but instead have to act on the information in your clues (addresses, names, and so on) to decide what to do next. You can pin clues to locations on the map to remember locations, or keep a clue up on the HUD at all times if you need a reminder.
At times you might not have all the information you need, at which point you’ll want to visit one of the archives dotted around the city - the library, the newspaper, the police station, and so on. Each of these might help you find additional info which you access through a rudimentary search mini-game, in which you filter the records down based on the minimal information you do have.
Finally, the most notable clues make it into your ‘Mind Palace’ (there’s that Sherlock history showing). Here you have to combine related clues to form Deductions, and some of which give the player a choice - based on the evidence so far, do you believe the repentant crime boss will change his ways or revert to old habits?
None of the individual systems necessarily stand out, and each have flaws - the Mind Palace all too often lags behind what I’ve already figured out about the plot, for example - but taken as a whole it’s actually a pretty compelling way to create the feeling of investigation within the bounds of a mostly linear story.
There are other mechanics at play here - probably a couple too many, in all honesty. Reed has a few supernatural abilities that let him discover illusory doors, follow mysterious omens, and re-play scenes from the past. There are also brief underwater diving sections which could charitably be described as ‘really quite bad’ - though they’re mercifully few and far between.
Then there’s an RPG-lite skill progression tree to enhance your crafting and combat skills. Oh, and the sanity meter, which declines the longer you spend in view of anything supernatural, triggering hallucinations and worse as it drops. Each of these systems is basically fine, but it’s easy to imagine that with less sprawl and more focus the game could have landed with a lot fewer caveats.
Rough edges run through The Sinking City - both the city and the game itself - but in the case of the latter it’s mostly down to over-ambition.
There are a multitude of systems and ideas stitched together here and most of them aren’t quite done justice, ranging from almost-there to absolute stinkers (if I could never trudge through another clunky diving sequence again I might just die happy).
Still, the game has its charms - mysterious, otherworldly warts and all - and I’ve really enjoyed roaming the streets of Oakmont, meeting its oddball locals, and shooting (or fleeing) its oddest. We’re still waiting for a truly great Cthulhu game, but until it arrives this certainly helps pass the time.