There are a few games which I’ve followed for a number of years now, hoping they satisfy all of my hype and anticipation I’ve gained throughout the years of following their development. As a massive fan of Frogwares and their Sherlock Holmes collection (seriously, those games are brilliant), my preconceived opinion for The Sinking City was through the roof, a combination of the Sherlock mechanics and a Lovecraftian setting sounded like a match made in heaven!
Finally, I got my hands on the game in order to play through it and experience everything which is on offer. I’ve had the PC version for a few weeks, which is an Epic Games Store timed exclusive, but I also grabbed the PlayStation 4 version as there were a few technical issues (on my side) which were affecting my enjoyment of the PC version. So, this review will be mainly focused on the PS4 version. As such, I’ve spent approx 40 hours or so within the dark and disturbing town of Oakmont and I’ve seen all the endings and experienced all of the side quests.
Considering the number of Lovecraftian games we’ve had over the last few years (Call of Cthulhu, Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics, and Conarium to name a few), how does The Sinking City stand along-side them? Let’s find out…
Set in the 1920s, The Sinking City starts off as any standard H.P. Lovecraft inspired game often does, you’re a private investigator who has travelled to a small island in search of answers behind a paranormal occurrence. To put it simply, Charles Reed, our protagonist, has been haunted by strange visions of Oakmont and disturbing beasts which reside within the ocean. He has been summoned to the real Oakmont, by Johannes van der Berg, in order to find the source behind these disturbing dreams, dreams which the locals are also having. However, little did he know that his issues would be the least of his worries as he disembarks upon the dock of this foul, infested land.
In his quest to find answers to his predicament, he utilises his skills as an investigator in order to help out the locals around the town, locals who wouldn’t look out of place in a zoo or a circus of ‘Freaks’… The citizens of Oakmont don’t take kindly to ‘Newcomers’ so you must build up their trust by completing mundane tasks such as finding a letter, investigating a robbery, or taking out giant mutated creatures which have mercilessly infested local homes – you know, the usual jobs a P.I. would have.
Each completed case brings you one step closer to the truth and one more step closer to madness as you not only fight against the satanic creatures you encounter, but you also fight against your own sanity in hopes of staying sane. Can you solve the mystery behind your psychotic visions and the terrible events occurring within Oakmont, or will you succumb to the insanity once and for all?
The gameplay within The Sinking City is very different from the other Cthulhu-based games which I mentioned above. As well as the infamous investigation style which Frogwares uses within their latest Sherlock Holmes games, there’s also a rather big emphasis on combat and action. As such, there are three core gameplay mechanics in play here, Exploration and map reading, Investigations, and Combat; Let’s take a look at them all…
Exploration and map reading:
The Sinking City is a rather big open-city (too small for me to class it as an ‘open-world’, but it’s fairly big), the majority of places are there for show, or locked until you activate a certain quest, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to see and do! The world itself is a Lovecraftian’s wet dream, from it’s washed up and half-eaten whales and squids, to the barnacles taking control of the city as they rise from the depths and engorge the houses. Everything looks absolutely disgusting – in a good way. As such, exploration is not only possible but it’s encouraged as you search every trash can for resources, talk to all the crazy inhabitants, and keep an eye out for the subtle Easter Eggs.
Instead of handing everything to you on a platter, like a nice slice of Wylebeast flesh, The Sinking City wants you to feel truly immersed as you uncover new cases and discover your next key location. So, as you talk to specific NPCs you’ll take on new cases and gather a bit of information on them. Using this knowledge, you must plan out on the map the locations in which the testimonials and verbal information point to. Alternatively, you may have to visit the hospital, City Hall or the University in order to do some research for more information, as we saw in The Devils Daughter (another Frogwares game).
This aspect of the game was done brilliantly for the most part, with only a few of the ‘further deductions’ within the above buildings being a bit ‘obscure’ in how you gather the information. As I strolled through the Graveyard and saw all the messages from people involved with the game (including my PR Contact), saw the awesome Easter Egg on the wall in the form of a poster, and went for a leisurely stroll and uncovered a number of side missions I never knew existed, I was fully immersed and found it hard to pull myself away from the game!
Frogwares are infamous for their Sherlock Holmes series of games, games which range from point-and-click to much more modern first and third-person perspective mysteries which are a combination of puzzles and deductions. A lot of the core mechanics from those games have come over to The Sinking City as well, with the investigation side of the game really standing out for me. Once you’ve discovered the building or location you have to be in, based on the exploration and note gathering above, you’ll either be introduced to a ‘puzzle’ or combat. The ‘puzzles’ are basically reconstructing crime scenes and figuring out who did what and why – just like we saw in Call of Cthulhu.
Simply interact with everything you can find at the scene, take notes, talk to people (if they’re alive), and scavenge any resources you find hidden away. Once you’ve done a certain amount, a portal into your mind opens up, waiting for you to enter it and become the true detective we all know you are! Basically, once you walk through it you get to view a number of past ‘shadows’, events which have already happened but out of order. It’s your job to put them in order and deduce the truth behind the mystery. Also, as you’re obviously equipped with the power to use your ‘mind’s eye’ for reasons you’ll uncover as the story unfolds, you can activate this and either discover secret rooms, reveal what an object really looks like, or even follow the guidance of creepy ghost-like apparitions as they guide you to an important piece of information.
Finally, the ‘Mind Palace’ is yet another component which has come over from the Sherlock games. As you uncover specific pieces of information and clues, you can combine multiple pieces of information together in order to slowly work out the true motive behind the strange things which have been occurring. You can even come to multiple conclusions, such as decide whether you’ll save a bunch of people or not based on if you believe they are harmful to the outside world or if they’re just possessed and sick.
However – this is where the game falls flat on its face into a big pile of Cthulhu poop! In the Sherlock games, making a choice at this level changed your character’s narrative and gave you different branching pathways based upon your chosen answer. In The Sinking City, the Mind Palace is purely an informative tool, it shows you the ‘what if’ scenarios you would get if you were to choose that pathway. You see, even if you chose to keep the sick guys in their underwater prison due to them being mental, you could still tell the quest giver where they are so they could save them. It doesn’t lock the answer or consequence in until you pick that dialogue choice yourself. Technically, the mechanic works as a tool to see what’ll happen, but coming from the Sherlock Games, it feels like it’s missing the impact it had over there.
Combat in a mystery adventure game is always hit or miss with me. Some games pull it off great, others not so much. Take Call of Cthulhu for example, it had a really good story and a nice selection of puzzles, yet the combat was a poorly executed first-person shooting gallery where you couldn’t miss. Thankfully, The Sinking City is much more hands-on in terms of its combat – but is that a good thing?
Bullets are scarce in Oakmont, so much so that they are actually the local currency as they have more worth than money itself! So, keeping yourself fully stocked with ammunition heavily relies on you finding stashes within the multitude of resource stashes around the city as well as crafting them yourself from the resources you’ll also find. Certain key-components, such as gunpowder, is rather hard to find and the amount you consume upon crafting things is increased based upon the power of the weapon it’s for. So, it’s not uncommon for you to find yourself in the heat of a battle against a vagina-faced creature with no ammo left, resorting to slapping it around with your trusty hand-spade – yeah, your guy’s melee weapon is a spade for some reason.
In terms of the creatures, there’s not a large variety of unearthly monsters which you’ll come across but they all look down-right disgusting! From long-legged spider-like creatures to giant pulsating blobs which combust into an explosion of puss that splats all over the place, the creativity gets a ten out of ten from me! You’ll mainly encounter these creatures as you embark on certain cases and enter empty houses, but there are also walled-off Monster Zones which you can brave if you want to find lots of loot stashes as well as tonnes of experience for killing them all within these enemy-spawning areas. Not only that, if your insanity meter drops then you’ll start to have visions of the creatures running around you – if it gets low enough, your visions will actually manifest and start attacking you!
Thankfully, there is a toggle in the options menu to adjust both the combat and the investigation side of the game independently, so you can increase or decrease the experience based upon your own preferences. I would say the game is primarily an investigation and exploration game, but at least a third of the game will involve combat.
No good Lovecraftian game would be complete without its own supply of freakishly horrific NPCs. As we’ve visited the city post-craziness, we get to see the locals after the effects of Cthulhu have taken place. The main thing you’ll notice here are the three races of people living upon this unholy land, the standard humans, the Innsmouth people (who look like a mermaid but with a fishes head and human body), and the Throgmortons (think ‘Planet of the Apes’). However, regardless of the race, everyone has begun to become affected by the strange visions and temptations of the evil which is at play within the city. As such, you’ll begin to uncover more occult-esqe people such as witches, zombies and more.
A lot of the characters you’ll meet within the game won’t interact with you in any way, other than yell at you if you run into them or chase after you if you try and take their picture. However, the ones created for you to interact with all have their own personalities and grotesque features/past for you to talk about and stare at. One of my personal favourites has to be the librarian who has had her mouth stitched together because the suspect didn’t like her voice. This leads to a side case which is rather horrific, especially her teddy bear! Urgh!
My main complaint with the people is the AI in place on the NPCs in the street. I know Frogwares have come from creating worlds in which the NPCs are basically static, other than following set paths, and you can clearly see that here as nothing is dynamic or adaptive to the situation. For example, one of the creatures broke out of the Monster Zone by accident and nobody cared as it followed me down the street. As soon as I pulled out my gun to shoot it, everyone started to scream and ran away. They reacted to the Private Investigator pulling out his weapon (not a euphemism), but not a giant blob walking down the street.
Also, there was a lot of NPCs randomly appearing in the distance, like we see in older Assassin Creed games, and the clothing of each character flicks around as the physics reset every now and again, leaving people with invisible bodies or in my case, an old woman with her panties showing as she lay dead on the floor!
Welcome to Oakmont
Aside from talking to the locals, offering to help them, trying to stay sane, uncovering hidden stories, and rummaging through the trash cans, what else is involved within the sunny town of Oakmont? First up is something we all take for granted – getting around the city. Sure, you can use your legs but when you’re in a place dubbed as ‘The Sinking City‘, it’s quite clear that a lot of the place is underwater thanks to a flood which occurred not too long ago. As such, imagine Venice, only replace its gondoliers and clear-ish water with small speedboats and sewer-infested sludge! A large portion of the land has sunken within these depths so your only way to get around is to hop into a boat and merrily drive around from dock to dock. However, if you do feel like a swim, be sure not to spend too long in the water as there are creatures who reside below!
Secondly, if you really must go into the depths, be sure to grab an adequate diving suit beforehand. I’ll be honest here, I didn’t like these segments as I was terrible at them. You’ll get to walk around the seabed as you move towards key locations, avoiding the underwater beasts who are out to eat anything that moves. You are equipped with a flare and harpoon gun, but it’s still really hard to avoid the Seaman-like creature which follows you around! It’s a nice change of pace, doing your thing under the water as well as above it, but I easily died at least five or six times more here than I did to the creatures on the land!
Also, all that XP you collect has to be used somewhere! There are three skill trees for you to work your way through, some skills increase your health and sanity whereas others will give you a 15-25% chance you don’t use any resources when crafting. If you wish to stay alive for a decent amount of time, you’ll want to start investing in some of these as soon as possible!
On a side note, as you progress through the story and solve certain cases, you get access to a host of new costumes – again, something we saw in the Sherlock Holmes games. I both loved and disliked these for various reasons. I loved the fact you could change at any time and there are a decent selection of getups to get into, such as the infamous Sherlock Holmes costume and even a Plague Doctor. However, I wished the game has kept the unlocks a secret. Sure, tell us we unlock a costume if we do a certain quest, but don’t show us the costume until we get it – help build the suspense. Instead, we can see the costume and decide if we can be bothered to try and unlock it or not. Also, the best costume, the Occult one, is locked behind DLC – why tease us with it! I don’t even think the DLC is on sale as it was a costume and three mission Deluxe content item.
The Sinking City looks great, on both the PS4 and the PC, although the PC version clearly has a lot more detail and better lighting if you crank everything up to the max. The developers have truly captured the atmosphere required for a Lovecraftian game with its thick fogs, murky waters, sea-based creatures and plants, disturbing imagery, and subtle green tint to the overall aesthetic. The characters themselves look really good with their almost realistic features and high level of detail, from their clothes right down to the tattoos they have on display. There are some really unique and horrific images on display within this game, not enough to freak anyone out or cause nightmares, but some will shock you and make you jump a little.
Soundwise, Frogwares has nailed it! From the ambient noises coming from splashing through the puddles and squelching through the puss, to the moaning and footsteps of the disgusting creatures who are lurking around as they get ready to ponce on you. Everything feels so atmospheric and immersive, especially with headphones. Similarly, the music is very subtle yet blends with the aforementioned ambient noises perfectly in order to deliver a horrific and perfectly suited overall soundtrack.
Finally, the voice acting. This is one of the key components of any narrative-heavy game and can easily ruin the whole experience if it’s bad. Thankfully, Frogwares has cast the perfect voice actors within this amazing game. Sherl… I mean Charles Reed sounds great, a really gritty American who’s borderline given up on everything as he seeks out the truth this one final time. Even the NPCs, both the ones you talk to and the one who just hurl abuse at you in the street, all sound really good. I was really impressed with every single line of spoken dialogue with the game as everyone sounded like their visual persona, even the zombie child…
On a side note, I think I have to talk about performance. I played the game on both a PC (i7, 16GB RAM and 780ti) and a PS4 Pro, both of which had the same performance issues. On the PC, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get a stable 60fps as it would be 60 for a while but then drop to the mid-50s regularly when enemies approached. This could be my GPU but I did lower the settings, so take the PC aspect with a grain of salt. But, the PS4 version didn’t ‘feel’ smooth to play. I believe the console versions are 30fps, rather than 60, but the game felt like it was either dropping frames in the open world or it had a frame pacing issue. It wasn’t enough to put me off playing the game, but it felt a little ‘off’ and I’m usually not sensitive to subtle dips or pacing issues.
So, did The Sinking City meet my expectations or was it a mediocre experience? Personally, I’d say that the game met my expectations but didn’t surpass them by too much – which isn’t a bad thing as I already had high expectations to begin with. The map reading, investigations and exploring the world via the boats in a Venice-like environment was really well done and I loved every moment of it. Solving crimes made me feel like Sherlock Holmes again, piecing together the various aspects in order to come to a final conclusion. However, the uselessness of the Mind Palace as a morality and deduction setting tool was disappointing. I see how it’ll work as guidance, but I would have liked it to lock in your answer and force you down that path. Overall though, the detective side of the game was exactly what I wanted out of The Sinking City.
The combat was where the game slipped a little for me. I wasn’t going into the game thinking we’d get the next Call of Duty in terms of its combat, but it did feel a little clunky at times. Don’t get me wrong, it all worked perfectly, but it just didn’t hook me as much as the investigation side. This is coupled with the crafting side of the game – I love games in which you craft in order to survive but it felt you were given a lot of the wrong resources the majority of the time, often needing one resource but getting tonnes of another. You also don’t have much space in your pockets, so you can’t carry a lot, so you tend to run out of ammo pretty fast. That being said, I completed the game without too many issues, so it may just be a psychological thing – maybe I didn’t really need any more bullets than I managed to find or craft?
Finally, the story. I really enjoyed the story within the game, It kept me intrigued and invested in wanting to find out the truth, all the side missions had their own stories to tell and lore behind them, and everything felt rewarding and exciting to investigate. My one issue would be the ending of the game – I’m not going to spoil it here but when you get to it, you’ll know what I mean! I would have liked more consequences for your actions and the world to dynamically adapt to what branches you pick to go down as you progress further into the game. However, if you forget about branching overall narratives and a dynamic story which follows throughout, the game does offer a lot of choice and options for the individual cases as their own separate entities. There are also trophies for picking a lot of the alternative outcome options, meaning there’s a nice amount of replayability (if you don’t save and reload).
The Sinking City is basically Sherlock Holmes off his tits on Opium after reading the works of H.P. Lovecraft. It combines all of the great deduction and investigation mechanics we’ve seen in Frogwares‘ Sherlock games with adequate combat mechanics and an emphasis on plotting out your own map based on the clues you uncover. Whereas I wasn’t a massive fan of the combat in place, it helped mix things up a little so that you’re swapping between investigating and killing things. Neither version I played (PC and PS4) felt perfect, in terms of its performance, but it wasn’t enough to put me off playing the game as the gripping story and horrific aesthetics had me hooked.
If you’re looking for a game which screams Cthulhu and oozes Lovecraftian atmosphere, then The Sinking City is for you. With its story and side cases taking you easily over 40-hours in order to complete them all, there’s a lot of exciting and imaginative narrative to uncover and become deeply traumatised by. With the help of the brilliant voice acting, the gorgeously gruesome visuals, and the atmospheric ambient soundtrack, you’ll find it hard to stop playing once you begin, or turn off the lights at night…
** You can check out our review for the Nintendo Switch version HERE **
The Sinking City£49.99
- - Very atmospheric with its disturbing visuals and creepy sound effects
- - Great use of the core investigation mechanics from the developers previous Sherlock Holmes games combined with combat and exploration
- - Lots of unique and interesting side missions to participate in, as well as the exciting main story
- - You really feel like a detective as you plot out the locations on the map and search for more information in various archives
- - Very long playtime at around 40 hours to see most of the game
- - The Performance isn't great on the PS4 Pro, feeling like either a pacing issue or framedrops when the action gets intense
- - Some of the thorough investigations seems a little obscure
- - The combat is adequate but it doesn't feel as satisfying as I'd hoped for
- - No creepy Watson when you don the Sherlock costume! The developers should have Watson appear as one of your visions or randomly behind you when your wearing it!