The Sinking City: A Story Worth Investigating, With Combat to Drive You Mad

By Mark Delaney, 23 days ago
Horror game developers have been partying like it's 1929 for the last few years, with a sizeable portion of new games in the genre inspired by or directly telling tales of Lovecraftian horror — notably, this is my third such review of 2019. The latest is Frogwares' The Sinking City, which cleverly coalesces the famed author's work with film noir stylings to deliver a tale that stands out from its genre counterparts. But a lack of polish all over can't keep this open-world RPG feeling like it's worth most people's investigation.

The Sinking City

Frogwares is best known for their long history with the Sherlock Holmes series and that really comes through in The Sinking City. The investigative elements are front and center and they're the game's best feature by far. As Bostonian private eye Charles Reed, players will arrive on the fictional coastal town of Oakmont, Massachusetts to investigate a string of strange visions being reported. Reed shares these visions as well, and his personal stake in the phenomenon is pivotal to the story. Immediately, this Lovecraftian horror feels unique from the others we've seen recently. Tonally, it mixes in a strong sense of film noir with Reed's fedora and tired eyes questioning townspeople all across the game's impressively large open world along with a soundtrack that features a slow-crawling bass setting the mood of a town that is as corrupt as it is flooded.

The Sinking City trusts players to a refreshing degree. Rarely is your next move spelled out so clearly, leaving you to have to make sensible deductions in your casebook, which in turn can lead to some very divergent storylines including multiple alternate endings. Even as the game's open-world may at first look Ubisoftian in size, it's lacking the clutter of dozens of map icons. In The Sinking City, you almost always mark up your own map. Landmarks like the newspaper office or town hall are given to you, but clues leading to regions or addresses don't just get sorted for you. You have to examine clues and put your next lead on the map yourself. It's antithetical to modern open world design in all the right ways, sharing this element with only a few lauded games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 or Breath of the Wild. In this case, it makes you really feel like the gumshoe you're meant to portray.

Charles is such a capable detective that he can even handle multiple cases at once, which means a plethora of side quests are made available through each 20-30 hour playthrough. These side quests reward you with XP gains and a bevy of resources which will come in handy as you're required to scavenge or craft all your own ammo, health kits, booby traps, and everything else in your inventory.

Between

While investigations can lead to some tough choices and a rewarding sense of discovery, they often also end in combat and in this regard the game is quite a mess. I actually haven't played combat this bad in years. Tentacled and amorphous monsters, called wylebeasts, can be found all over the city, especially in infestation zones where the best loot is laid out. But it was always a better idea to avoid these areas altogether as the shooting elements are plainly broken. The wylebeasts are fast and agile, making your few bullets feel crucial in a way that would make sense in most horror games, but in The Sinking City, aiming is so unwieldy that it feels your best bet is to aim at an area and hope a creature runs through your reticule. It's slow, janky, and absolutely the worst part of the game. As I leveled up Reed later in the game, I found the most effective means of combat was to sprint at monsters and repeatedly mash the melee attack instead, saving both my ammo and my patience for the game's faulty gunplay.

The game also doesn't look so great. It's moody enough and the setting is interesting, but textures colors, and character movements are all on par with games of five years ago or more, making The Sinking City feel dated upon release. Plus its denizens are lifeless. The woman giving a tearful statement outside the police station in the game's first hour will be there every time you return. It's like The Truman Show. Everyone but you is on a painfully brief loop and once you start to look for it, it's impossible to ignore. Despite the delay to polish the game, it's still pretty buggy too. UI issues affected me throughout, while friendly and enemy AI would misbehave often in sometimes humorous ways, like when I fast traveled to city hall only to find a businessman pacing back and forth atop a statue.

The Sinking City

At least there's a lot of mythology to read about. Frogwares spent what seems like a lot of time building out the backstory of the city which, along with the central snooping elements, keep The Sinking City feeling like it's worthwhile at least half the time. If you can circumvent or mash through combat enough in your playthrough, horror and mystery fans will come away with something of a flawed but fun gem on their hands.

The achievement list was not available for view at the time of writing, but from what I did unlock, it seems like multiple playthroughs will be required to earn the completion. I regularly earned achievements for making branching decisions. Presumably, alternate paths reward players too, which means you'll want to be diligently save-scrubbing if you don't want to have to replay it all in full another round or two.

Summary

The Sinking City is just the latest in a long line of horror games to be delivered via the Lovecraft Express. Because it's not adherent to any one of the author's tales, it manages to feel different from the crowded pack due to the blending of noir storytelling, its big open world full of side quests, and an investigative loop that asks you to put on your thinking fedora. Lousy combat and a low-res, buggy, lifeless land are blemishes for sure, but overall while this may not be the best of the bunch, The Sinking City is certainly the most ambitious of all recent Lovecraftian horror games.
3 / 5
The Sinking City
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately 25 hours going mad, solving crimes, and punching squids in the face. A review copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves most kinds of games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of gaming, he likes bicycling, binge-watching, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.