The Sinking City is an open-world adventure/detective game from the studio behind the Sherlock Holmes series of games. Like many games before it, it’s based on the works of HP Lovecraft, only this time set in the fictional 1920s American town of Oakmont, Massachussets.
It’s a fairly slow-paced game of mystery and intrigue that features clunky combat mechanics and a somewhat unpolished presentation, but also some memorable moments that fans of Lovecraft’s work won’t want to miss out on.
It’s surprisingly not very scary, though, and only low-level creepy, but there’s enjoyment to be had here nonetheless.
Reed me a book
You play as Charles Reed, a private detective and WWI navy diver. Initially Reed is only in town for personal reasons (he’s having some weird visions that somehow led him to Oakmont that he’d like to get to the bottom of), but it’s not long before his PI status, the fact that a great many strange things are going on, and his natural curiosity take him to the darkest corners of Oakmont… and under the sea.
As the game starts Reed must talk to locals to figure out what’s going on, which sends him on a quest to find out what happened to the expedition sent to figure out what might have caused the unnatural flood behind Oakmont’s sinking.
And find out he does, and it’s all very Lovecraftian, but that’s as much as I’ll say about the narrative. As a fan of Lovecraftian lore, I enjoyed it, but your mileage may vary.
Piecing it together
To piece the story together, Reed investigates various locations to gather clues, clearing them of enemies with rather stiff gunplay (more on that later), and then using his mysterious extra-sensory perception to “see” snippets of past events and then piece them together in the order they happened. It’s not particularly difficult to do, but it’s a neat mechanic that helps to tell the stories of what came with the Flood without too much exposition.
As for the core gameplay loop, you’ll spend your time wandering the rather large open world city, gathering clues, shooting enemies, and scavenging for materials with which to craft bullets and other equipment, all while managing your health and your sanity (because what’s a Lovecraftian game without having to do that, right?).
All missions, location discoveries, and combat kills award XP, which you’ll use to upgrade Reed’s various skills. These are the usual fare of “Gain x% more XP”, “Get x% more health points”, and “Bullets have an x% chance to deal double damage” etc. Choosing the right upgrades early on can make the game a bit easier, so choose wisely.
Oakmont is a large, sprawling city whose streets are partly-paved, and partly underwater as it is, well, sinking. Those submerged parts of the city require that Reed ride a boat like he would a car to get around, making Oakmont sort of like Venice, but with more Americans.
These boaty bits break up the walking quite nicely and let the devs show off just how waterlogged Oakmont really is.
The devs also deliberately set out to not hold the player’s hand, forcing players to figure out what to do next with the barest of clues. Even the map, which in most other open-world games is a mess of icons and highlighted locations, doesn’t automatically tell you where to go.
I had to read the mission clue in Reed’s log, and then place the icon on the appropriate location myself, using the clues provided. I enjoyed this, as it made finding things a bit more satisfying than merely following a GPS indicator.
Same with the “Mind Palace” feature – a screen on the UI where I had to link the clues I’d gathered to form deductions – from which I could choose how to resolve certain quests. Outcomes could be dramatically different, too, giving the story some replayability which I really appreciated.
Insane in the membrane
The sanity meter, less so. When it gets low (on seeing weird stuff or creatures), the screen would go all weird and Reed would grab his head in anguish or take out his gun and hold it to his temple. So typical “insanity approaching” videogame stuff, then.
But he could always boost his sanity back to safe levels with the anti-psychotic drugs he’d made or collected, and I never felt like he was in danger of truly losing his mind, or that the creatures that appeared when levels dipped too low were much of a threat.
It ultimately proved to be a throwaway mechanic that the devs probably could have done more with if they wished, IMO.
Archive retrieval – as fun as it sounds
And every now and then, Reed has to make use of the game world’s various archives (town hall, newspaper, police etc.) to figure out what to do next. These bits were less enjoyable, as he’d have to choose the quest he was seeking information on, and then choose information from three of four categories to find archived materials relating to said quest.
It is a process of elimination or deduction that I wasn’t overly fond of, and likely an inclusion based on the developer’s previous experience with their Sherlock Holmes games. Here, it wasn’t quite as welcome a feature.
The game’s atmosphere is appropriately damp and hopeless, conveyed nicely by waterlogged buildings and streets, squishy sound effects, random wandering dirty NPCs, and the ever-present mist.
Huge clusters of barnacles and seaweed cling to buildings, too, illustrating the sea’s efforts to drag the city to the depths, and weird structures in the distance hint at the presence of something decidedly otherworldly.
But while the devs managed to convey that the Sinking City is just that, a city sinking into the sea, what they didn’t do is make it particularly creepy, or scary. Which is a shame, because an all-pervading creepiness is to my mind the hallmark of good use of the Lovecraftian license.
I also wish everything looked better than it did on my Xbox One X. I found a lot of muddy, almost Xbox 360-era textures in the game, and more than a few of the props scattered around town featured very low-polygon models and were therefore not very detailed or well-defined.
The game world can be rather ugly, in other words, and not in the way the devs likely intended.
That said, the character design is absolutely superb. The people of Oakmont are a mix of normal-looking but desperate humans, and weird people who resemble animals and fish while somehow still retaining their quintessential humanness.
Their presentation is flawless, and more than a bit unsettling even if they deliver their lines somewhat stiffly.
While the Throgmortons certainly grabbed my attention, the Innsmouthers were my favourite: people with very piscatorial features and off-putting milky eyes, like long-dead fish. Yuck.
Sadly, other aspects of the game left a lot to be desired. NPCs sometimes hover a few inches in the air, they walk over scenery they shouldn’t be able to walk over, and they often pop in out of nowhere. Sometimes I’d see two people clearly arguing, or someone delivering a speech on a podium, but I’d hear no dialogue as I walked by.
Most annoyingly, the game stuttered more than it should have even though my Xbox One X should have had no issue running the game smoothly.
And then there’s the combat. The annoying, clunky, combat. In any Lovecraft-inspired game, there will be enemies. Yucky, icky, disturbing enemies that need a swift kicking or a bullet in the head.
Those, this game has (good job, devs), but they take too many bullets to kill IMO even on Normal difficulty and they jump out of the way of gunfire all too often making it tough to get a good bead on them. Aiming with the controller exacerbates the problem, as the reticle isn’t as responsive as I’d like, too, even after adjusting it (not so good, devs).
Sure, you could argue that I just suck, but I don’t. This isn’t my first third-person shooter and I am plenty fine at hitting my targets in other TPS games, so trust me when I say this game’s controls could – and should – be a lot better.
More time needed
After these myriad technical issues, I have to conclude that The Sinking City needed more time in the oven. And while I don’t mind the odd bit of jank – I love the Gothic and Risen series, for example, despite their inherent jankiness – here, it takes away from the game’s charm rather than adding to it.
Perhaps the devs will patch these things out, maybe the Xbox One X isn’t the best way to appreciate the game’s visuals (PC is likely where it looks best), and maybe shooting with a mouse is what the devs programmed for and controller controls were an afterthought, but the fact remains there are many technical challenges left un-met at launch.
A worthwhile story
While it’s clear the game still needs a bit of polishing, at its heart lives an intriguing story that is worth exploring. You just have to jump through hoops to see it.
At the end of the day, The Sinking City reminds me a lot of games like Vampyr, the recent Call of Cthulhu, and the older Murdered: Soul Suspect. It has some solid ideas, and it’s not your average vidyagame, it’s just executed a little poorly but with enough going for it to appeal to the right audience.
So if you enjoy adventure games, you’re a fan of the Cthulhu mythos, and you’re prepared to endure a bit of jank to experience the story being told, then The Sinking City could be for you.
The Sinking City was reviewed on an Xbox One X, and a code was supplied by the local distributor. It’s available on PS4 and PC as well. RRP on console is R799, and it’s on the Epic Store at $26.99 (around R380).