Games inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecraft are a genre unto themselves. Apart from the long history of Call of Cthulhu games, there are Lovecraft inspired point-and-click adventures, roguelites, and puzzle solving games. Heck, there’s even a Tesla vs Lovecraft shooter.
The Sinking City fits firmly into the camp of Lovecraft detective tales, with its 1920s jaded private eye investigating an increasingly bizarre series of murders in a city wracked by flood. But what could have been a great detective game is bogged down by clunky combat, fetch quests, and a general lack of finesse.
It’s a shame, because the main storyline is an interesting riff on the Cthulhu mythos and the city’s underworld. If only the game had focused on the detective elements, because the environment design and the story it tells are intriguing.
What is The Sinking City about?
Former Navy diver and current PI, Charles Reed, finds himself in Oakmont determined to uncover the source of his terrible visions. He soon becomes embroiled in local politics between gang members and upstanding citizens, with relations between humans and the fishy-looking Innsmouthers at breaking point.
Cosmic horror fans will quickly pick up on many of the references, especially when Johannes Van De Berg shows up in a yellow suit. Mayhap even a King. Hmm… There’s also references to more obscure Lovecraft stories, such local light Robert Throgmorton, whose ape-like appearance is straight out of ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family’.
As with all classic hard-boiled tales, what seems like a simple case of an abducted son leads to a far more sinister story, where the entire city is threatened by cosmic forces. Like many of the Call of Cthulhu games, coming face to face with the mythos is a matter of survival; you can never truly eliminate the threat of the Elder Gods.
The Sinking City Gameplay
Where The Sinking City works best is in the detective work players will need to undertake to complete quests. You’ll need to surmise conclusions from multiple clues and make choices as to who is correct using the Mind Palace. The game doesn’t hand answers to you on a plate – you’ll need to think long and hard, as well as use your sense of observation as a gamer to make good choices. But these key choices only usually affect the outcome of the chapter, and each chapter works as a smaller investigation within the larger story.
As you find clues, you’ll need to mark these locations up on the map, or do proper detective work by tracking down addresses using the many archives across the city. This was one of the best aspects of the game, one that many detective games could learn from. Detective games that don’t actually require detective work are one of my all-time pet-peeves.
Where The Sinking City falls over is combat. Despite having several weapons to choose from, the aiming system is clunky, locations often hamper enemies, or the monsters themselves are exceedingly slow. Fighting the mythos should be fun. This, alas, is not. Weapons like the machine gun could be useful, but there are hardly enough bullets in the game to let out more than a pffft.
I appreciate the challenging resource management; you’ll be scrounging for bullets in infested areas. But the slow monsters mean that it’s easier to go for a jaunt through what should be overwhelming areas, opening boxes and dodging bloody spit, than to actually fight them.
Even more difficult is the underwater combat. It seems like the harpoon does nothing, although it was fun firing pot-shots at Dagon into the abyss. Again, you’ll walk past monsters repeatedly, rather than engage them in combat.
More frustrating still are some of the hidden clues in the detective scenarios. Once you’ve cleared a room of slime belching monsters, you’ll hunt down papers and more arcane items to understand a mystery. General evidence is not so much of an issue, but I got stuck several times searching walls for hidden gateways and secret signs, which you can uncover with your supernatural vision. These can be obscure and downright hard to find.
The side quests offer little besides the main storyline; unfortunately, they’re predominantly fetch quests, picking up copies of magical tomes or ship manifests. One of the more fleshed out side quests is that of Silence is Golden, where you assist librarian Joy to quash a supernatural threat. But this need to search for hidden symbols and clues hampered an interesting plotline, many of which were exceedingly difficult to find.
Environment design and graphics
The environment design itself is worth mentioning, as the game does a good job of getting you into the Lovecraft vibe. Oakmont is sodden, recovering from a flood, and this is visible in the waterlogged streets and buildings, where boats live half-in and out of the water, dead fish lie on the streets, and coral encrusts the walls. You navigate the city both on foot and by boat, as much of the city still lies underwater.
Unfortunately, much of the animation here lacks finesse. People and places appear out of nowhere or freeze. Characters become locked in an animation. Monsters get stuck in doors.
One of the major frustrations with The Sinking City is the lack of discoverability. Often you happen across locations that are open, but contain no clues. There’s no reward for curiosity, as clues are only triggered when the previous part of the investigation has been completed. There’s a movement in recent games for more discoverable quests, those that appear as you traverse the map, and reward curiosity. I would have liked to see discoverability integrated more into the game, rather than having to trudge through every clue before you could proceed to the next one. Likewise, if you figure things out too fast and jump ahead, locations won’t unlock and you’ll need to return to the previous place to finish every single clue.
As an open-world game, it feels remarkably closed-world. Part of the fun of open-world gaming is exploring and uncovering, yet here there are few buildings to enter that aren’t part of larger quests. Secrets can only be accessed through linear storylines. While indie games can’t be held to the same standards as AAA games, Fallout is a perfect example of a game where curiosity is rewarded. I think only of things like the bizarre murder carpark in Fallout 4 as one of my favourite open-world experiences, and these lessons could be applied on a smaller scale here.
A small peeve – the iconography is too complex for screens, so that it’s hard to see what the game is asking you to do. Hint: if the symbol is hard to read, it’s likely asking you to take a photo. And let’s not mention the lack of manual saves on consoles (as opposed to the desktop version), so if you really, really wanted to platinum this game, you’d need to play it all again.
The Sinking City is a game made of some strong but disparate elements, and suffers from too much ambition in its scope. Its lack of finesse and poor combat experience let down what are otherwise solid detective elements in an intriguing storyline. One for the diehard Lovecraft fans only.