The Sinking City is the latest title by Frogwares, the team behind the last few Sherlock Holmes games and published by Big Ben Interactive who have been around since days of Dreamcast. Is this H.P Lovecraft inspired romp enough to get you to take notice, or is it just a fleeting flash of madness?.
The Sinking City is based in the fictional city of Oakmont and puts you in the battered shoes of Charles W Reed, grizzled private gumshoe with a military past. Reed has been having haunting visions and they lead him to the mysterious flooded Oakmont in search of answers as to how and why this has all come about.
You won’t be long off the boat before you realize that Oakmont is different, very different, draped in mystery and oozing H.P Lovecraft from it’s soggy pores. Within the first 15 minutes you are exposed to mysterious strangers who allude to bigger things, ape like men of great social standing, downtrodden almost fish species, rampant racism, deformed monsters and a murder to really kick the tale off.
The writing, setting and story are easily this games strongest part. That is not me cutting this review short and saying the rest is utterly crap, no there is genuinely a lot here to love before you even touch the gameplay.
Oakmont is a beautifully ruined city, steeped in mystery, bombarded by erratic weather. Some of the streets completely flooded with access only made by boat, quarantined areas where things have just gotten that dangerous, civil unrest, unwelcoming to strangers, The Sinking City manages to nail the setting perfectly and easily stands high with other iconic video game settings such as Rapture & RE7’s Baker Estate.
Several other design decisions help further the experience or hinder it, I can imagine it’s going to be quite marmite. The game says when you start it and makes it quite apparent, it will not hold your hand. The game gives you very few markers on your map, people and documents give you locations and addresses and it’s down to you to do the reading and work out where you are going. Sometimes you need more info to go on so you have to make the choice to go to the hospital and look at medical records or the newspaper to view past issues for clues.
It’s little things like that which you would expect from a game where you play as a Private Detective but rather than map it all out for you it puts you all the way into a soggy pair of size 10s and helps immerse you in the tale and locale of Oakmont and The Sinking City.
The core story beating away at the heart of The Sinking City gets stronger and stronger with each beat, even if the gameplay loop does start to get formulaic you’re gripped from the get go with the mysterious Oakmont and how your actions shape the world. Even the side stories are well written and worth the time to look into, they often provide even more lore which I can guarantee you’ll want to spend the time to look into.
Throughout your investigation you’ll have to draw conclusions to your cases, how you tackle certain aspects make changes to the story, more often than not your actions feel like they have more weight than they do but it is more than easy to fall for the grand illusion of it all.
Graphically The Sinking City ranges from good to downright ugly at times. Effects such as lighting have a tendency to pop in while walking around, character models really don’t do the designs justice and the variety doesn’t tend to match the grandeur of tale The Sinking City is telling.
The Sinking City also has average to poor performance on the Nintendo Switch, it’s a far cry from unplayable but it also isn’t the smoothest experience. Frame rate tends to chug in built up areas, especially when it’s raining and even when it is at all it doesn’t feel as smooth as it really should. It is worth noting that this is a port from current gen and I hear there are issues there so it isn’t surprising it isn’t as optimised as it’s more powered brethren but when all things considered it’s an achievement that the game runs well enough on the lesser powered Switch at all.
Gameplay on The Sinking City is another factor that will divide players on this title. It is a 3rd Person Adventure title, you have direct control over Reed, much like the previous Sherlock Holmes title by the developer. This time around they have added light RPG elements, crafting and for better or worse combat.
You’ll gain EXP during gameplay by completing stories, finding new locations, killing enemies the usual shtick. You then use these points to level up and build your character, give him the ability to take more damage, craft more items at less expense, the usual.
Crafting plays a big part in the game, you’ll be able to craft all kinds of gear from First Aid Kits, ammo which doubles up as money and even tonics to keep your sanity meter from dropping too low.
On the topic of Insanity, throughout the game while you are cracking cases you’ll see some macabre stuff, this naturally damages Reed’s psyche quite a bit. If you don’t manage this well, the dark recesses of Reed’s mind manifests damaging creatures which quickly put a stop to your progress. Sometimes it’s better to run from danger and collect yourself than try tackle it all head on.
The combat is quite possibly the biggest bugbear with this title. The developers have put some work into this since it’s original release but I can only judge it from it’s Nintendo Switch release. The aiming isn’t tight enough and the melee is far too slow which can cause annoyance, especially when ammo is scarce as it is.
Fortunately there isn’t enough combat for it to completely damage the game and after a few initial battles you’ll become accustomed to it, maybe I’m just more lenient on it or the combat has genuinely seen some improvement since it’s initial launch but personally, it didn’t damage the game for me.
I love my time spent in Oakmont, it’s been years since I’ve been this immersed in a video game, it had the same drawing power to me as a great novel. Despite some performance issues, graphical fidelity not being quite there and jarring combat, there is just far too much to love about The Sinking City.
If like me you have a dark soft spot for macabre visuals and storytelling, draped in noir and genuinely brilliantly thought out scenarios, even if they are presented in a rougher than “AAA” standards, this is a title you shouldn’t miss. Everything about The Sinking City screams cult title and I’m more than happy to pledge allegiance to the city of Oakmont!.