The Sinking City (Xbox One Review)
Cosmic horror is a hard thing to communicate to an audience. A larger than life threat that is too difficult for the human mind to comprehend, something that, if you laid eyes on, would drive you completely mad. But it’s also much harder to articulate this looming threat if you cannot physically represent it. Lovecraft’s short stories are full of descriptors and punctual wording to help emancipate the reader’s mind but developers Frogwares don’t have that same luxury since gameplay usually takes precedence in games. Instead, Frogwares’ focus is on the visual representation of such things, placing the dark and ominous creations in plain sight for all to see. Unfortunately, the grim scenery, hilariously, is the only thing that’s pleasant about The Sinking City.
Private investigator, Charles Reed, is summoned to the city of Oakmont MA, to solve a string of madness inducing cases. Not long after the Great War people, including our protagonist, started having strange visions that drove them insane. With Charles having a personal interest in this case — due to his own array of visions — he sets out to get to the bottom of it. The plot draws from various Lovecraft works, but most notably from The Shadow Over Innsmouth which deals with social injustices, discrimination, and the state of the dilapidated city itself. Considering the Cthulhu Mythos is the most popular of Lovecraft’s creation, it’s only a matter of time until someone really manages to bring it to life. The Sinking City does so through its storytelling and characters that aren’t as muted as other developer’s attempts, i.e. the recent Call of Cthulhu by Cyanide. Clear comparisons can be made to real world prejudices, some are very on the nose while others mild and more obscure. The Sinking City is a transparent look into the mind of H.P. Lovecraft, someone who was clearly tormented throughout his life and was often criticized for his depictions of race and xenophobia.
Oakmont is truly brought to life by the people that inhabit it and the stories they tell. However, the city itself is a truer advocate of this eldritch tale — that is when textures properly load in and the screen tearing simmers down. Sunken streets lie flooded with furnishings from nearby buildings and upturned vehicles left to rust and decay. Residents are forced to travel by barge and raft in their daily lives to avoid the snarling teeth below. Festering coral clings to the side of buildings as if to say the sea has taken over, but The Sinking City’s soundtrack is what sells this theme of hopelessness. Melodramatic tones and somber notes, akin to something you’d hear from a Silent Hill game, makes Oakmont feel like it’s sister town; giving Akira Yamaoka a run for his money. The inhabitants mirror this tone by being afflicted with a “gift of the sea” that make them look hideously disfigured, more fish than man. Scaly bodies and fin like appendages make them stand out from the crowd. Seen as unnatural, they are confined to living life in the poorer districts that largely cover Oakmont. However, nothing really compares to the denizens of the deep that plagued Charles’ every move. Stygians, Lethians and other monstrosities emerged from the sea when Oakmont was flooded. These horrors are clear as day and are visually horrifying as you’d expect from anything Lovecraftian. Their grotesque forms are an appreciated visual treat as opposed to what they could’ve been, something less effervescent and more imaginary, and much easier to get your head around.
What I couldn’t warp my head around was The Sinking City’s combat. It’s atrocious. For all intents and purposes The Sinking City is a ‘3rd person shooter’ — for lack of a better term — as you look over Charles’ shoulder to fire your weapon but lack the know how to do anything else. Dodging, taking cover, locking on, even a simple 180 degree turn is too much of an ask. Movements feel too stiff to effectively dodge incoming attacks. Conversely, the enemies seem far more effective than Charles and can do everything Charles can’t. Enemies aren’t placed into the environment as much as they’re spawned in. Emerging from puddles on the ground, or even clipping through walls and scenery, results in Charles being unfairly outnumbered and outgunned. Subsequently, stealth plays no part in The Sinking City’s design with frequent loading screen tips telling you to run for your life if unsure of your predicament.
Facing monsters in combat rarely feels beneficial as levelling up has little to no impact on Charles. Levelling up produces skill points for Charles to increase his health slightly, carry more ammo, or increase his ability recover his mental state quicker, but it’s often a marginal benefit. Creatures and mobs don’t have a level attached to them as The Sinking City is not an RPG as such, meaning these added bonuses rarely come into play. Encounters don’t evolve in difficulty much from beginning to end and I often found myself forgetting the skill tree even existed. The most obvious upgrade that would attract your attention is Charles’ mental stability. Creatures can have an adverse effect on your mind, temporarily blinding and disorienting you but nothing that can be recovered using antipsychotics from crafting materials, making skill points feel even more superfluous. Crafting plays a large part of The Sinking City’s core gameplay loop, you need parts to craft ammo, and ammo is necessary to fend off baddies. The problem here is that there is an abundance of goods lying around for the taking, so these skill upgrades aren’t really pushing the limits of your character’s potential. Crafting itself is really simple and intuitive, opening the menu and pressing a singular button does the job but traversing the jittery and slow loading menus becomes a chore as crafting — even with said skill upgrades — is a constant endeavour and becomes tedious the longer things drag on.
When you aren’t looting and shooting, you’ll be on the case, several in fact. Charles’ main role is to uncover everything strange and suspicious in Oakmont, so surveying every nook and cranny is his job. Cases come at you intermittently throughout your time in Oakmont, but without prompt or locational clues. Most come hand in hand when talking to major residents of the city, like physicians, the coppers or even gang leaders. Sadly, they all follow similar beats as they usually require very basic tasks, such as killing x enemies or finding a location, which uncovers a brief note or piece of text for the player to read describing the full event. Even more troubling is that the best of these is tied to the games pre-order DLC, Necronomicon, which takes Charles all over the city in search of forbidden tomes that relates to other works of H.P. Lovecraft — with an exclusive boss at the end.
That’s not to say that the general sleuthing for clues and culprits isn’t anything to write home about, in fact the detective work in The Sinking City has some of the most in-depth components in any video game in recent memory. Clues, locations, suspects, and general information isn’t handed to you on a silver platter. Charles will need to interview suspects, examine crime scenes closely, and even navigate the world with no waypoints to aid him. You’ll need to construct a crime board of locations on the map, marking where objectives should be in accordance to street names and districts. You’ll even need to cross reference information with various community and government establishments, like City Hall or the Oakmont Newspaper, to find additional information. Weirdly, you can only track one quest at any given time, marking scenes of interest on your map for that one specific quest will disappear when changing to a new case and suddenly reappear once you switch back. Again, this results in more menu fumbling than is necessary and slows the pace of the game dramatically.
Lastly, The Sinking City leads you to believe there is some kind of morality system in place as you continue to make hard choices throughout the game, but nothing ever really pays off. It’s all smoke and mirrors. The Sinking City culminates in a choice between multiple doors representing different endings. I even tested the extent of this moral comapss by going on a killing spree, slaying civilians left, right, and centre to no differing results. The A.I. appeared numb to it all, wandering the streets with no intent. Although, I suppose that could be argued that it’s the lunacy that addles them and not their poor design.
Themes of madness run through The Sinking City’s every facet, even its design, that could eventually drive the player crazy with frustration. I’m no expert on H.P. Lovecraft’s work and that’s mainly because my imagination just isn’t that wild to clearly understand them. As such, the visual representation are a real aid in this regard. Creatures and The Sinking City itself are so immaculately brought to life, but are plagued with awful combat encounters, terrible technical problems and god awful A.I. The Sinking City can be enjoyable to those seeking a more open approach to Lovecraftian storytelling but only if they can see beyond its flaws, much like the work it’s based on.
The Sinking City0.00
- Fantastically crafted world.
- Monsters are outwright horrifying.
- Crafting is very intuitive.
- Detective work has a lot of depth to it.
- Combat is clumsy and awkward.
- The A.I. is atrociously bad.
- Menu's are jittery and need to be constantly used.
- Plethora of technical issues.