H.P. Lovecraft fans have had a pretty swell time recently, with not one, but two games coming out based on Lovecraft’s body of work. Last year’s Call of Cthulhu gave a nice go of placing the pen and paper RPG inside my Xbox, and this year we are lucky enough to revisit the world of the phantasmagorical once again with the release of Frogwares The Sinking City.
The Sinking City follows private eye, Charles Reed to Oakmont Massachusetts. A location he was lead to as a result of terrifying and maddening visions. Oakmont is an island onto itself following a mysterious flood that left half of the city underwater and the other half well on its way to sinking.
As soon as Reed arrives he is greeted by Robert Throgmorton, one of the prominent figures in Oakmont. Reed is tasked with finding out who killed Throgmorton’s son, this acts as a tutorial for all of the games mechanics while also dipping your toe into the larger narrative yet to come.
Developer, Frogwares famously known for their immersive, investigational Sherlock Holmes titles ventures deep into Lovecraft country this time around. It’s no surprise to discover that The Sinking City was originally going to be another Sherlock Holmes title before being turned into what it is now. A lot of the investigational elements from the Holmes games make up the most involving parts of The Sinking City.
The game doesn’t tie itself down to one particular Lovecraft story. Instead, it takes from pieces of the mythos to create a rich tapestry. Most notably, there is a heavy lean into Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family as well as The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The combination of working off Lovecraft material while creating new areas makes The Sinking City a joy for Lovecraft fans but accessible to gamers with no knowledge of its background.
There is plenty of investigation work at hand in Oakmont. This extends to main and side mission narrative. They revolve around navigating to an address on your map, which you do by checking cross streets in order to pin down an exact location. Having to actually look for a location makes the experience feel a little bit more real world as opposed to the more common highlighted route approach that fills most open world games. Sure, it takes more time but there is something there that makes you feel a lot more attached to the world in this approach.
Once you locate your spot, you head into the building and begin looking for clues. Clues come in a variety of ways. Examining items, using your powers of sight to discover pieces of what occurred at the location, and just flat out using detective skills. These clues usually end up giving you some other clue or location to investigate.
The buildings you search, typically have a lot of monsters lying in wait. Now, since this is a survival horror game, it is wise to sneak around and save ammo and resources but to be honest, for me the sneaking took to long. For the most part, I would go in and take monsters out tactically to give me free reign of the building. This leads to a better outcome when searching for clues and crafting materials.
The crafting system is very basic. You go about finding items that has the ability to be combined with other items to create ammo and meds. Simply highlighting whatever you want to craft and holding down a button on your controller easily wields whatever you were looking to add to your inventory.
In order to progress during certain investigations, it becomes necessary to dig deeper by heading to city hall, the police station, the hospital or the library in order to cross reference certain findings. I really enjoyed this mechanic, a lot like the analog approach to searching your map for certain locations, I found that having to put boots on the ground to find further clues was really rewarding… at first.
The Sinking City suffers from terrible and constant load times compounded with what ends up being too many treks across the city. The load times come at you in a variety of ways that are the most annoying when loading into a new game, using “fast” travel hubs and sometimes give short pauses to entering a building. During my first couple of hours with the game I found these semi-acceptable but the amount of running around that this game forces on you combined with the loading issues is problematic to say the least.
I mentioned that there is plenty of running back and forth across the city and that is probably an understatement. There is plenty to look at in the richly inspired world, all of it teeming with Lovecraftian winks and nods. But, after a few treks, it begins to feel empty. The thing is that it isn’t plenty of Oakmont citizens line the streets, suffering the effects of madness. The emptiness comes from the lack of interactivity. NPC’s either don’t speak or say very little. I would have love to have seen more interactivity in the streets. Having certain events or side stories transpire unexpectedly in the streets would have gone a long way to make the world feel more alive. As it stands, running from place to place begins to feel stale fairly early on.
Part of the investigational experience boils down to compiling clues in your “mind palace.” This is illustrated by simplified lines of dialogue showing the facts of what your clues turned up. It’s up to you to piece them together to discover the ultimate outcome of that particular mission. These can lead to multiple outcomes depending on what you piece together and deduce. In that way the game seemingly gives you a choice as to what party you want to side with. It makes the game feel a little more open ended in that way and I can totally get behind that in an open world environment.
Before the game begins you are greeted with a message that reads:
Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, The Sinking City depicts an era in which ethnic, racial, and other minorities were frequently mistreated by society. These prejudices were and still are wrong, but have been included for an authentic depiction of that time, rather than pretend they never existed.
Bold. Seriously, bold. Starting a game off with that sort of honesty, transparency and an unwavering approach to sticking with the facts is commendable. Sadly, racism and shades of xenophobia were heavy at the time and Frogwares doesn’t shy away from it. This leads to some of the dialogue and choices you have to make in game all the more challenging creating a feeling that I haven’t had in any of my recent gaming experiences. The game doesn’t take sides or try to show anything under any agenda’s light, it just simply gives you the facts.
The primary elements of a Lovecraft story are not the easiest thing to put into a video game format. Existential dread, quiet madness, slipping sanity combine with the feeling of isolation is hard to cue up in the interactive format where the majority of what you are doing is supposed to be “fun.” But, I really have to hand it to Frogwares in developing an experience that wields all of those pieces concurrently with more traditional shooter and open world features.
Sanity of course plays a large part in game. Along side your health bar is your sanity bar. This is lowered when put into horrifying scenarios. The side effects of losing your sanity come in the form of hallucinations and even eventual suicide. It’s all heavy subject matter that absolutely stands the Lovecraft test.
The Sinking City is a phantasmagorical achievement. The careful attention paid to the mythos pays off in the immersiveness of the world. Despite loading times, the game moves away from the “fun” factor and gives us something dark and substantial. Although not a perfect game it is a perfect Lovecratian experience as a whole.
The Sinking City is out now on PC, Xbox One and PS4.