The world of Lovecraft has now completely encompassed my life. Knowing virtually nothing about it until a few years back, I’ve now played every game going that has been inspired by it. With it being the primary influence for 2018’s Call of Cthulhu, I’ve even read the novel “The Mountains of Madness” which, if you haven’t spent time with it, is a brilliantly enjoyable read. But I do feel I’ve now possibly gone too deep in, where every time I go near water, even the bath, I hear the voice of something terrible and powerful beneath the depths. Either that or it’s my downstairs neighbours singing karaoke again. With the arrival of The Sinking City though, once again I am flung into an epic tale of other worlds, murky water and the cusp of madness. Will it enlighten me? Or fling me down to a watery grave?
The Sinking City is a third person action adventure detective title, made by the team who created the excellent Sherlock Holmes series of games from the last decade. This time the action takes place in the 1920s, in the flooded fictional city of Oakmont in Massachusetts. You play as private detective Charles W. Reed who is haunted by terrible visions and World War One.
Your investigations kick off quickly too, in fact as soon as you’re flung off your boat an investigation begins. You meet a sort of crime lord – a guy who is a very interesting hybrid of races – and he sets you off to find out want happened to his son. From there, there madness happens. The story, writing and world building is exceedingly well conceived, and executed in a compelling manner to ensure that it keeps you interested throughout. But for as good as the universe is, and the narrative behind it, it’s the gameplay and open world I have had more of a problem with.
The map of Oakmont is divided into seven districts and it’s pretty much open season as you explore and stumble upon the adventures within. The game has a main quest-line and a mixture of side missions to complete, and you’ll find that an investigation normally requires you to find a specific location from the latest clue. This can be from a conversation with a witness or a lead, or an actual investigation that sees you trawling the archives of a newspaper. Here you can search the paper using an old-school search engine, picking out the correct report and working out which clue to follow. I really like this system and it works very well; it’s hugely rewarding to find the clue.
When at an investigative location you will explore and look for secrets within objects, crime scenes or the people themselves. Object secrets are discovered by rotating the item and revealing a sweet spot to uncover further information. But then you can also explore a specific scene, via a sort of sixth sense. Here within the world-changing reality, you see omens of where to go or hidden text unseen in the real world. Entering the scene from the past will allow the chance to examine a number of scenes – a Mind Palace. It’s up to you to put these scenes in the order of events and then you will gain a further number of clues. Each of these is placed into a casebook and you match them up with each other in a sort of mini-game; finally uncovering the result of the investigation. This side of The Sinking City is brilliant and borrows from the Sherlock Holmes games. For me, I will never get bored of going through these many scenarios.
But then we have the combat…
The combat found in The Sinking City is a strange one, mainly because the actual game urges you to run away rather than fight to the death. You can melee attack, should you so wish, and there are a number of weapons available as an option should you ever consider that route too; revolvers, shotguns or machine guns. However, the creatures that attack you are varied in their look, size, and movement, so you will need to plan your attacks carefully – it is, as the game warns, very tricky indeed. It’s not made easier due to the fact that ammo is scarce, and bullets are even used as currency! At all times you will have to be careful with each shot. The combat does feel clunky though, and if I’m totally honest, it’s the one bit of the game that I haven’t really looked forward to. For the most part I’ve ended up just running away should the choice be given, and when I have had to stand and fight it has always ended up with me half dead and with no bullets left.
Depending on your state of mind, you can however craft items like ammo, first aid kits and traps from collected loot in every location. There are also bits of lore to hunt down and enjoy, and specific things to photograph with your camera. The Sinking City as a whole comes with a big open world, so exploration is encouraged with a plentiful amount of fast travel points coming in the shape of phone kiosks.
In terms of the overall look and The Sinking City has a very enticing set of visuals – both close up in the details of the character faces and the objects that you pick up. The locations are decent too and there’s a whole section under the sea that looks stunning. Unfortunately though the world itself feels a bit dead. See, city residents will walk about actioning their loops, sometimes freezing on the spot, appearing to suddenly get stuck in the ground or in a wall. It doesn’t feel like the strongest part of the game.
The city itself has also been hit with a greenish hue that obviously comes from a land suffering from a flood. The night is dull on the eyes, but the day time at least feels better visually. But there are bigger issues than that and there is one strange graphical mechanic… docking in a boat for instance has a lack of animation with you suddenly appearing on land. It’s jarring and loses the otherwise brilliant atmosphere suddenly, taking you out of the game for a moment.
The sound design though is atmospheric and beautifully pitched, creating an everlasting sense of dread with every step. I particularly like the effects it uses, differentiating between the two worlds of the real and strange. The voice work employed, and the performances of the actors, are top notch throughout with great delivery in every line.
I have been so mixed with my feelings while playing The Sinking City on Xbox One. On the one hand, I have been totally engrossed in the story, the world building and the detective elements that are in play. In fact, I have loved my time in this world and was constantly excited to see what was around the corner. On the other, the open world element doesn’t quite work and is a bit too buggy, ruining the immersion. The combat is too clunky as well, so you just end up running away a lot. I do think there is an excellent game here, but it is hampered by too much going on. A more linear, non-combat story-driven game would certainly have been preferred, but if you are curious and love a bit of Lovecraft then you should always consider a deep dive into The Sinking City.