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Tentacles and all, there’s more than meets the eye in The Sinking City

The Sinking City might be bogged by bland gameplay, but still manages to be a gripping take on Lovecraftian lore.

Known for the many Sherlock Holmes games released over the years, Ukranian developer Frogwares is no stranger to concocting unique detective games. One of my favorites out of their catalog, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments introduced me to their brand of logical thinking, where clues weren’t readily handed down to you and automatically prompted you to continue on with the game. No, as Sherlock, you had the singular skill of combining deductions from a handful of notes you took along the way, and form your own conclusions in Holmes’ mental palace. 

The Sinking City borrows from that mechanic and runs with it in some clever ways as you step into the shoes of Charles Reed, a private eye and former Navy diver from Boston who’s just disembarked on the murky shores of Oakmont, Massachusetts, in order to get some aim in his battle against increasingly intense hallucinations. Any similarities between this and the Call of Cthulhu game that came out last year are no coincidence, as both games are based upon the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, or as he’s colloquially known, H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most popular names in literature, who made cosmic horror a thing with his creation of the Cthulhu elder god mythos, a creature so horrible that whoever sets their eyes upon it goes insane.  

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Reed’s ability to read into past events can prove to be quite dangerous.

The similarities between both games stop once you look past the initial premise and setting. While last year’s game focused more on linear point-to-point exploration, The Sinking City is all about having you hit the literal pavement in third-person and do some sleuthing on your own, gathering pieces of clues and putting them together in the same style that you did in the Sherlock Holmes games that Frogwares is known for. After the horrific nightmare that ended upon touching port in Oakmont, Reed is quickly makes the acquaintance of the local power in charge, a large gentleman by the name of Throgmorton, who tasks you with finding his son, giving way to the tutorial of sorts case to open up the game with.

Reed is a sort of special gumshoe due to his innate powers of investigation, which unexplainably allow him to see into past events when he’s at crime scenes, giving way to a reconstruction of whatever recently took place wherever he’s currently investigating. Weirdly enough, he’s only able to see up to three things that happened, and it’s up to you to figure out the order of events, which then constitutes one of the clues you can piece together with other discoveries within his own mind palace. It’s an extremely gamey solution to piecing together the cases you’ll investigate throughout the game for sure, and it does The Sinking City no favors when it comes to variety, making the entire investigative aspect it hinges on quite linear and frankly, boring, since there are no surprises at all once you find where Reed needs to do his shtick.

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The Innsmouthers don’t have it easy in Oakmont.

Still, the world where the game takes place in is quite atmospheric, Oakmont is a Depression-era rundown flooded city that’s certainly seen better days. Its denizens walk around all moppy and the deeper you get into the mystery surrounding the city, you’ll quickly realize that there’s plenty of care that went into building the local lore, not just visually, but in writing. There are very few characters you can actually chat with, but the ones that do talk to you have really interesting tidbits to share, even if all aren’t that forthcoming right away. Some parts of town are partly covered in water, and in order to access some parts, you have to take a little boat around, which helps convey the sense of isolation The Sinking City is going for quite well, at least in the first few runs into new areas of Oakmont, after which you’re able to fast travel back as needed. 

There’s a tangible enmity in town towards both outsiders and the Innsmouthers, a recently arrived group of people who have taken the features of fish and are seen as outcasts by the local rich family who controls Oakmont, the Throgmortons, who are themselves quite different in appearance, sharing ape-ish physical attributes among its members. Taking into account Lovecraft’s personal values and the prejudices of the time period he lived in which made their way into his work, its surprising to see that Frogwares along with the more famous aspect of his work — the Cthulhu myth and the mysticism surrounding it — have managed to inject an extra layer of the themes dealt with in the books into the game.

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Boating around the flooded town makes it that much more atmospheric.

But perhaps the weakest aspect of The Sinking City lies in how badly it deals with combat. Reed carries a gun and a spade, and as you explore the city, you’re constantly picking up crafting materials that go into creating more bullets, health packs, traps, and the works. The shooting in the game, however, is extremely imprecise and not a lot of fun to deal with, since along with not a whole lot of your shots hitting, the ones that do take way too long to dispatch any of the horrible creatures you run into exploring the flooded depths of Oakmont.

You can still beat the ever living crap out of anything in your way, but you’re more likely to go down yourself since Reed can only take so much punishment before he’s out for the count. And when you retry, you’re thrown back to the nearest checkpoint, which is usually near a phone book, the game’s fast travel marker you unlock as you move within the city. I took the easy way out and bumped the difficulty down an hour or so after starting the game, and even though I haven’t had as much trouble as before, it’s still rather disappointing having to resort to this instead of having a more playable combat experience.

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Ugh, the combat in this game is bad.

Humans also prove to be not entirely against dropping down the gauntlet, and you’re bound to run into more than a few who will forgo any sort of dialog in order to let their guns do their talking, and hilariously enough, they tend to be the dumbest kind of enemy, usually standing still taking pot shots at you. It makes it evident that much of the attention to the game went in making it atmospheric and tense, but it would’ve been nice to have a little more love given to that aspect of the game. In the end, it makes The Sinking City feel uneven and like a borderline budget title at times, which is a damn shame.

Speaking of creatures, Frogwares did a decent job in translating the Cthulhu canon to videogame form. There have been plenty of videogames in the past that attempted to bringing out the horrible visages described in Lovecraft’s stories, a bunch of them closely resembling the disgusting form of a tentacled clamshell-chad athropomorphic creature. To the game’s credit, it starts out throwing some pretty disturbing monsters right away, not shying away from diving straight into  the horror movie vibe from the very get go, as the post-opening cutscene showing Reed being eaten alive after getting sucked in by a giant entity that engulfs the city as he passes out upon arriving.

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If this doesn’t scream “Cthulhu” for you, I don’t know what will.

While not as game-bending as the sanity effects seen in the classic GameCube game Eternal Darkness, the visual tricks pulled in order to convey Reed’s growing paranoia as he loses grip with reality are neatly portrayed, with walls growing smaller, dirtier, and things popping out of them, bending your own notion of what’s really there and what’s just inside his nogging. Even when his sanity meter is completely full, the game still distorts the playing field a little by having a sort of fisheye lens effect all around the screen.

Technically, The Sinking City is a mixed experience. On one hand, its world is surprisingly big and populated by a large amount of NPCs, but few of which you can actually interact with outside of whacking them with your spade, and out of the many buildings you’ll see as you run or drive your boat through town, there’s not a whole lot you’re actually able to go into, outside of mission areas and the handful of locales you can freely explore in order to find junk to craft your inventory items with. I generally found the game to be rather dark, even when using the flashlight, so much so that I had to up the gamma in the options and artificially bump the brightness in order to see things more clearly, especially during the moments I was riding the boat around at night. 

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Reed’s experience as a diver comes in handy during The Sinking City.

The voice work in the game is decent, along with the atmospheric tunes that help play up the horror theme. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the game’s presentation outside of the obvious vibe it’s going for and succeeds at providing. I didn’t run into a whole lot of bugs, but considering how bad the combat’s behaved while I was playing, I can’t really say that The Sinking City is really tight in that department — maybe the issues I’ve had with it could be considered something that might be patched down the line? Who knows!

I haven’t quite reached the end of the game as of this writing, but I’m really keen on getting there eventually, if not only for the writing, since the gameplay is pretty so-so. Be it the shoddy combat or the repetitive detective mechanics, it’s difficult to peg The Sinking City as a must play, but thanks to the source material and how well it runs with it, it’s very likely that I’ll keep with it and endure its rough mechanics so I can see how it closes up the case of this nightmarish Massachusettian port town.

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