28th Jun2019

‘The Sinking City’ Review (PS4)

by Chris Cummings

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Lovecraftian video games based on the mythology of Cthulhu aren’t anything new, with the concept finding it’s way into our video games market with the likes of Call of Cthulhu and Cthulhu Saves the World, among many others, some very well received, others not so much. It’s at the same time intriguing, especially if you’re a Lovecraft fan, and a little tired, with many of these games offering very similar traits, in both story and design, but I was still very interested when I first heard about The Sinking City, released by Frogwares, the development team that brought us the many Sherlock Holmes games over the past few years.

Taking on the role of investigator, you head into the seaside town of Oakmont, Mass, where things aren’t exactly “normal”. There’s madness in the streets, the water is rising to a dangerous level, and there are dark and sinister stories being shuffled among the voices of the townsfolk. You, the detective-type in this tale, must roam the city and figure out what’s going on. It takes the investigative elements of the Sherlock Holmes titles that made Frogwares so popular, and adds a survival horror element to the proceedings, an element that in many ways didnt feel unlike that of the 2018 Dontnod title Vampyr. A third-person action adventure with a twist, you are free to wander an open world, accepting side-quests and following the main narrative as you attempt to uncover the what’s, why’s and what-the-hell’s of this bizarre, creepy and very wet little coastal city. The setting of the 1920s and the dark downtrodden feel really gives the look and tone that you’d expect from a game based on the work of H.P Lovecraft and I thought it was a really appealing look too. They did a good job designing the creatures, the voice-work of the characters was nicely realised, and overall… when you step foot into that city when you first put this game on, it feels like you want it to feel, or at least that was the case for me.

The map is pretty big, and there’s plenty to see and do. Wander into a random house or building and you might just encounter a quest that involves investigating a missing person, a murder or a creature attack. There are “danger-areas” scattered around the map also, and with the intense lack of ammo in this game, you might not want to skip and dawdle around these parts in the earlier stages of the game, because an array of Lovecraftian beasts might just kill you dead. You can traverse the rising water alleys by boat, which is a nice touch, and there are fast-travel points to discover that will obviously make the traveling easier as your progress. It can be like a maze at first, and figuring things out, map included, is a big point here. The Sinking City isn’t one of those games that holds your hand every step of the way and tells you where to go, who to talk to and how to do it. Instead, you’ll need to use your detective skills and figure it out yourself. It’s a touch on the starting side at first, but you get used to it, and there’s something really cool about going to a library or a hospital in order to check the records to amass more evidence and eventually figure out where you need to be.

There are frustrating parts though, I must say. The investigations can be a lot of fun, and the setting only made them more interesting, giving them a nightmarish tone. Still… it can be hard to find places, and when I mentioned getting lost earlier, yes, that’s easily done. I was also surprised at how easy you can die in the game. Step off a slightly high ledge, yet a ledge that you wouldn’t think would hurt you… you are likely to end up flat on your back and sitting through a fairly substantial loading-screen to direct you back to your last save. If you’re someone who wants a horror survival game where you can jump into the infested areas and shoot up the marauding demons that confront you, then this might not be your kind of thing, because ammo is sparse and the monsters, especially the larger ones, aren’t killed with just one or two bullets. Still… this difficulty presents a real danger when you encounter these areas of the map, causing you the need to plan, plot and figure out both the route and attack.

You’re not just a random bloke with a clipboard and a trilby on your head, though. You also have peculiar supernatural powers that allow you to see a kind-of parallel dimension, a mechanic that gives you the opportunity to fix together crime scene incidents and find your way to clues and puzzles that will be vital to your investigations. This element was a lot of fun, and felt a little like the Airtight Games title Murdered: Soul Suspect from 2014, which I was personally a fan of.

The combat here, which isn’t a focal point of The Sinking City, is on the clunky side, be it the use of your gun or your standard melee attack. It can feel irritating at just how little damage is done when you’re swinging a weapon at a little mutant thing and it just won’t die. You will likely find yourself running past the monsters and avoiding combat altogether, not through fear, but just so you can save the four or five bullet you have loaded into your pistol. The movement of the character is slow and doesn’t really do too much in terms of his movement choices. This really showed me that this is meant to be much more of an investigation game, and less an action title, yet there’s a need to fight here, a need to kill the creatures in the streets, and the clunkiness made that part less enjoyable.

The Sinking City is a lovely looking game, with an atmosphere that does genuinely feel like that from some of H.P Lovecrafts writing, and the detective elements that give you a chance to use your brain and unlock clues to progress the story is a winner, and the definite plus point here. The visuals, especially the locations and the trippy nightmare moments you encounter with your character, are well done too. It’s just the poor combat and the frustrating lack of emphasis put on making the battle element flow that lets it down. It will have its fans and I was impressed with some of what The Sinking City had to offer, but I did feel disappointed by parts of it.

Still… there is a real sense of accomplishment when you complete an investigation, and the story is full of mystery, creativity and bizarre supernatural scenarios that are genuinely interesting and fun to experience.

The Sinking City is out now on PS4, Xbox One and PC from Bigben Interactive.

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