Back in 2007 developer Frogwares released one of its Sherlock Holmes detective games, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened. It was an original story that had the famed detective explore H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. While none of the other Holmes adventures the developer made revisited this promising crossover, clearly Frogwares didn’t want to let the Old Ones lie, so now we have THE SINKING CITY to fill the void.
The Sinking City is Frogwares’ first open-world game, and it’s a detective-action adventure game that’s embedded deeply in the Cthulhu mythos, although the developer isn’t allowed to use the word “Cthulhu” because of licensing issues. In many ways The Sinking City is the game the recent Call of Cthulhu should have been, it’s certainly more ambitious for starters. In other ways, however, it’s still not the game such an influential license deserves.
The Sinking City Review | The Shadow Over Oakmont
The Sinking City is set in Oakmont, a fictitious city that seems right out of a nightmare. A permanent fog covers everything, weird gigantic shadows move in the distance, and following a disaster the residents refer to as “The Flood” half the streets are underwater. As far as freely explorable, atmospheric places go, the Frogwares team has done an excellent job. Oakmont is a truly sinister place, packed with detail, waterlogged buildings, and crazy-looking locales. The city is never less than compelling to look at, which is good since you’ll be doing a lot of looking.
There are three main ways to get around Oakmont. You can use the fairly placed phone booths to fast travel, although sometimes you’ll be placed miles from your previous destination when reloading a save. Boats also let you travel around many of the flooded areas. And, of course, you can walk and you’ll be doing a lot of. The problem isn’t so much that it’s a little tedious getting around the large open-world map, but there’s just nothing to do on the way.
There are always distractions on the way to your destination in open-world games like interacting with NPCs, exploring interesting landmarks, or whatever. The Sinking City often has nothing to distract the player, and if an open-world game can’t give you something to do between A and B then the developer should’ve just made A and B and not bothered with the in-between.
The Sinking City Review | The Case of Charles Dexter Reed
The Sinking City‘s story involves the main character Charles Reed, a private investigator, travelling to Oakmont to investigate cases of strange visions, which Reed himself is also being effected by. He soon becomes hired by Robert Throgmorton, a wealthy and influential man in Oakmont, to investigate first the whereabouts of his son and the cause of the Flood and the forces afflicting the city. You soon become embroiled in cults worshiping otherworldly gods (just don’t say the name “Cthulhu”), bigotry, xenophobia, murders, madness, and twisted monsters like any normal Thursday at the office.
The story is pretty good for the most part as it goes right off the deep end in the very first cutscene and only sinks deeper from that point on. The presence of nightmarish monsters is almost a matter of course for the Oakmont residents, as are people who literally look like fish or ape-men. As Reed investigates, the true monsters begin to make themselves known, and the various conspiracies build and come to a boil. It can be quite intriguing, especially when you often get a chance to decide the end result of cases, such as whether a suspect you’ve been chasing deserves punishment or pity.
The downside of the story is that it’s kind of ruined by Charles Reed himself, a man with less character than the oversized backpack he’s inexplicably carrying throughout the entire game. Even moments of heightened emotion are rendered null by the fact that Reed (through a combination of acting and writing) doesn’t seem to have any emotion. He’s possibly the most boring protagonist this side of Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare. Because of his dull personality, the story doesn’t hit as hard as it should.
The Sinking City Review | Mountains of Madness
Like most of the best Lovecraft-inspired games such as Call of Cthulhu or Eternal Darkness, the sanity mechanics are the best part of The Sinking City. As you see monsters, dead bodies, or things that should not be, Reed will take knocks to his blue sanity bar. This replenishes over time as long as you’re not doing something stressful, but the lower your sanity the crazier things will get. Small knocks and you’ll start getting visions of doctors chasing you or Reed hanging himself. A bit more, and you’ll start seeing fake monsters, but once it gets really depleted, those fake monsters will start fighting back. It’s a slick system that gamifies the mystery associated with Lovecraft and it needed to be more of a focus than it is.
Naturally, as this is the next game from the Sherlock Holmes team, detective work makes up the bulk of the gameplay. For the most part, this works pretty well and is quite involving. Pretty much every mission involves detective work that supports multiple possible approaches, which the game introduces well. You could be trying to find the address of a business that closed 10 years ago, or details of a suspected murder case with connections to a current crime, so you’ll be expected to go to City Hall, Police Station, or Oakmont’s newspaper offices to uncover the details. You’ll have to search locations for clues, make deductions based on the evidence, or use your psychic powers to put together a sequence of events or find hidden locations.
Yes, Charles Reed has some sort of psychic powers, which the game kind of throws in at the start without explanation. It’s also the area that’s the most like last year’s Call of Cthulhu, especially the crime scene reconstruction. However, using Reed’s powers drain his sanity, so you can’t just have his “mind palace” turned on at all times to find useful items.
But the investigation systems are pretty basic. It’s entertaining to put together crimes or find locations, and it’s great how (based on your deductions) there can be more than one conclusion to certain cases. However, after a few hours you’ll start realizing that you’ve seen all the tricks the game has to pull, and detecting becomes less about puzzle solving than just doing what you did in the last case. It’s neat when you uncover hidden locations or items, but The Sinking City can get incredibly repetitive after a while.
The Sinking City Review | The Doom that Came to Oakmont
Unfortunately, The Sinking City doesn’t just rely on detective work and wandering about aimlessly, as there’s also combat here too. And it’s awful. Ammo is limited, except for when you can craft it to full capacity after every encounter. Weapons from top to bottom feel wrong and imprecise, and the game would’ve been better without its shoehorned combat. Enemies are pretty dull too as they are either humans who just stand there and get shot, or monsters that aren’t freaky enough.
The Sinking City is certainly more involving and had more care put into it than last year’s official Call of Cthulhu game but besting its spiritual predecessor doesn’t mean it reaches its full potential. The detective work is quite involving, but the combat is a mess and the pretty open-world doesn’t have enough in it to justify its existence. It would’ve been better suited as a series of locations you hop between, rather than dull jaunts to get to places of interest or the various archives of information. The enjoyable Cthulhu detective story is enough to be worth seeing through, but it’s a mystery why the other parts of the game couldn’t be as strong.
GameRevolution reviewed The Sinking City on PC with a copy provided by the publisher.