Frogwares has released the lovecraftian detective title The Sinking City, combining open-world exploration, combat and a universe of horrors. It’s up to your sleuthing to piece together the mystery of the submerged Oakmont, and in this Review we delve into the gameplay, investigative features of the game, as well as how it feels to explore a story that doesn’t hand-hold.
The Sinking City Review – Maddening Exploration
Genre: narrative-driven, lovecraftian horror, detective, action-adventure
Published by: Bigben Interactive
Developed by: Frogwares
Release date: June 27th
Platforms: PC (review platform)/PS4/Xbox One/Switch (coming soon)
Price at time of review: $33.99
Story & Setting
In the city of Oakmont Massachusetts set in the in 1920’s, something very strange and sinister is going on. A rather secluded area where the locals don’t look too fondly upon strangers. Through isolation, a growing lack of trust of the outside world, and a darkness is devouring the city from the inside. Oakmont is now prone to floods that just appeared seemingly out of the nowhere, causing devastation and death.
It’s through the eyes of a private detective that players will experience Oakmont. Rather than spoon feeding players with plot, it is up to you to discover the mysteries that lie in wait, which is a bit of a change of pace in the gaming industry. Through your own skills as a detective, you will unravel the story, and your choices will play a role in what is ultimately unveiled. Witnessing the supernatural will only cause distress, which can gnaw at your own sanity, adding further complexity to the gameplay.
It’s down to you as a private detective to choose which cases to take on, your main case being the primary plot, and side cases that help shape the going-ons in Oakmont. There are cutscenes, visions you will encounter, notes to read, and the townspeople’s accounts that all weave this tale together. I liked the fact there were a number of ways to learn about the plot through various methods and felt this was done well. The choices you make from your deductions will also shape the story which adds a really interactive element to the way it’s told.
There are two types of difficulty settings: one adds challenge to your investigation, and one to test your combat. If you want to try your investigative prowess you can choose the hardest setting of Master Sleuth to receive no hints, and it won’t tell you when you have collected all key evidence from a crime scene. Having choices in both combat and investigation is great because you could replay on a harder setting if you wish to live your Sherlock Holmes dream.
As detective stories go, this one is pretty hands on, and as you develop your main case you will pick up a number of clues which you will need to match together to make deductions in your Mind Palace. You can find clues by investigating the scene of the crime, examining evidence, and using reconstruction to put together the scene. Reconstruction is a handy tool which lets you use your almost sixth sense to re-imagine the scene and then put the events that take place in order. If you’ve played Call of Cthulhu, this feature has it’s similarities, but it’s down to you in The Sinking City to put these events in sequence.
Clues are abound in The Sinking City, which means putting on your detective hat and picking up on important hints that are provided in each case. Depending on the type of clue, it might lead you to a location which you will need to find on your map. Others will need you to use public records in a police station or the local newspaper, to find a person or further information. You can pin certain clues to your map to help you keep track of which areas to investigate, as well as give you a pinpoint to follow. This is very handy in sorting out your next move and helping you navigate the city. As this an investigative title, putting together the details is crucial to moving onward with the story, which will require carefully reading what you discover.
Getting from point A to B will really depend on whether the road has been submerged in water or not. If it is, you can hop on a speedboat to travel down the flooded paths. Taking the boat is also very useful in discovering abandoned houses which can be explored to loot items, but these are often overrun by monsters. This choice in travel makes exploring more involved, as finding a path to a certain location may be blocked off by floods. You can also use Waypoints, disguised as telephone booths, to quickly travel to points you have already discovered. This was a nice touch as the map is rather big, being separated into a number of districts, and also made me feel like I could teleport using a phone booth which always is a bonus in my book.
If you’re not used to a game that doesn’t hold your hand quite so much, there is a chance you may feel a little lost at times. Even playing on Newcomer setting which gave hints to cases, the game is designed for you to decide what to explore next. After getting through what appears to be the beginning of the main story, you’re left with quite an open-ended choice to explore the city. The game doesn’t clearly explain whether you need to complete side cases to help gather more details, or if you need to explore different areas to trigger the main plot’s continuation. Frogwares have been very apparent from the get-go that this is a story where you take control of the narrative. Having a choice to find out more about the citizens of Oakmont and what has happened to the city is at your own discretion. You can decide to enter the Infected Areas to combat the monsters that dwell there or help those in Oakmont.
Combat at times can be quite challenging, although you have a choice of weapons to use which includes melee. Finding materials to craft bullets, foot traps or hand grenades can sometimes be scarce which means conserving the items you have is a must. There is no way to block attacks so most of the time it will be up to your ability to move quickly to get a good shot.
The Sinking City does well to induce panic when a spawn of monsters suddenly appear, and you have moments to decide if it’s fight or flight. As there are Infected Areas and houses that are full of nasty beasts, being prepared is your best bet for survival in these situations. There is no tutorial that introduces the different monsters or how to kill them, but the loading screens do give tips which do reveal each type has it’s weak point. You quickly learn that in order to defeat these monsters, you will need to aim for their weak spot which isn’t always easy, as some are very mobile and will pounce on you. Sometimes it’s just best to run away when overwhelmed, as these enemies tend in spawn in groups and can be accompanied by a behemoth looking thing which deals a ton of damage.
As much as I appreciate the number of ways to fight the monsters, what was slightly off-putting was the lack the defense structures gave. Sometimes monsters will appear a floor below, but yet still cause damage when you’re on the second floor. Monsters from Infected Areas would also peek through the barriers, and it made these areas looked glitched out. While some monsters can morph through floors, some of them looked riddled with bugs, getting stuck in places they clearly shouldn’t have been.
While dying doesn’t mean game over, you will be ported to the closest Waypoint to the spot you met your demise. This means if you are quite far from the last Waypoint, you may have to trek back to your original place which can be rather annoying, so dying definitely has its drawbacks. You can also save manually which will let you save your current progress as well as load autosaves if things didn’t turn out the way you planned.
In true lovecraftian fashion, a Sanity meter will be something to keep an eye on. As you fight supernatural beings, you will slowly be driven mad. Using your Mind’s Eye to help pick up on mysterious markings will also affect how fast you lose your marbles, but there is a way to deal with the stress of seeing these nightmarish visions. Medication is one such method that will induce a calm state and help you regain your sanity. It was interesting to see how the people of Oakmont react to you attacking in close proximity to them, because they call you crazy, and you’re not sure whether you’re actually seeing horrors or if it’s all in your mind. If you let your sanity levels slip you will start seeing shadowy visions that are just as scary as the monsters themselves.
As you kill enemies or complete cases you gain experience which can be turned into Knowledge Points. These can be invested in a few different skill trees that can help increase damage done by your revolver, help to decrease your sanity bar when witnessing the supernatural or even increase the amount of materials you can loot. Having a choice in skills definitely increases the number of ways to play and can even create an extra layer of challenge if you decide not to use knowledge points.
Audio & Visuals
Frogwares does well with what they have, a small studio has developed a title with great investigative mechanics, but the graphics are little dated. Characters are quite emotionless in appearance, with varying amounts of detail. The voice acting does what it needs to do, but nothing is extraordinary. You do meet a number of strange looking citizens that have been “blessed” with noticeable traits, but I won’t spoil the story of why they look that way. The monsters are frighting, grotesque and are speedy in movement, so you won’t want to be in one spot for too long when you encounter them. If you don’t see them first you will definitely hear them, they are unnerving and definitely increases the fear factor.
The town is laid out well with it’s 1920’s charm, exploring feels immersive, but a little repetitive in some places. Frogwares makes you feel quite small in such a big town, filled with plenty to discover. However, this is slightly marred by the NPCs that seem to walk into walls and get stuck on inclined ground, so the game is lacking a bit of polish in this area.
There are a few options for each combat difficulty, and investigation difficulty, which means you can challenge yourself in these aspects in another playthrough. The open-world structure means you can choose to discover as much or as little as you would like. If you want to gain experience by diving into Infected Areas and defeating the different type of enemies the game has to offer this is up to you. As the loot you find around the town is random this will determine what materials you will pick up and what you can ultimately craft.
The Sinking City is a fun game to explore, and while there is a bit of learning curve to use the number of clues you pick up and piece things together, it makes you feel like an actual detective. This isn’t your simple narrative-driven game where all the pieces of the puzzles are handed to you and placed together to form the bigger picture. It is really up to you to deduce what you read and decide where you want to go next for smaller cases. Taking time to understand how the numerous mechanics work, as well as carefully looking through the written clues is key. I enjoyed the variation in gameplay as well, which even introduces diving where you can get that much closer to what is lurking in the murky water.
That being said, there were many things that felt rushed. The bugged out monsters, the lifeless faces and a few glitches here and there just made the game feel a little frustrating at times. The size of the game is quite ambitious but maybe there were too many elements to focus on that made it is a bit of an uneven experience. While not perfectly executed, the game is enjoyable to play and really hones in on the craziness that has swept the city of Oakmont. The amount of content is pretty decent, with varying combat and investigation difficulties to choose from, you definitely get your money’s worth as the title gives a lot do.
If you’ve been looking for a game that takes on the detective role from Call of Cthulhu, added with the combat elements of Vampyr, and a more extensive open-world feel, this would be The Sinking City. And, if you’re a fan of lovecraft titles you will definitely enjoy the story, and even the survival mechanics. The Sinking City handles horror, action and leaves you wanting to find out more as you discover the unsettling tales that plague this maddening world.
The Sinking City releases June 27th on Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC.
If you enjoyed this horror filled detective game then you should read about more sleuthing tales in our Call of Cthulhu review. For a gritty bloodlust title with action combat be sure to read about Vampyr. For a more noir approach to investigation be sure to read our Night Call Preview – A Gritty Noir Murder Mystery.