The universe of H.P. Lovecraft, often touted as the master of horror, has become quite a dominating force as of late, or, at least in the spectrum of video game media. We’ve seen several games this gen alone taking on the traits of H.P. Lovecraft’s concepts; many hit, and many miss. The question here, however, is where exactly does The Sinking City fit into all of that? Well, frankly, it sits somewhere in the middle. This, by all means, is a fairly interesting game that’s marred by some baffling design choices and a shed load of technical faults.
I’ll dance around the story as best I can, because due to how the proceedings unravel, giving away just a few breadcrumbs could amount to hours worth of playing time. Players take on the role of Charles Reed, an investigator that’s not only invited to the half-submerged city of Oakmount, but drawn to it through mental, supernatural disturbances. It’s clear from the absolute get-go that Oakmount is subject to the supernatural forces too, and that’s where Charles comes into play; he’s charged with uncovering the truth of what’s gripped the city.
Charles isn’t the only character to be drawn to Oakmount, mind. In fact, through visions and other like-minded convulsions, several of its residents have been pulled to it from all corners of America. Now, however, and due to the aforementioned flood, Oakmount is cut off from its surrounding landmass. No sooner than Charles pulls to port do things start becoming ever more elusive and mysterious, and it soon transpires that things, despite already being clearly quite horrific and somewhat convoluted, are not as they seem.
It’s a very interesting setup to say the least, and one that does a fairly good job at getting you invested in its world and its plot. Naturally, given the source material, sanity plays a large role here. Charles will often dance on the line of insanity, but it’s not overly done. What makes it more bearable is the fact that it’s never really in your face, but then, it’s never really left to the sidelines either. Instead, the game toys with you, the player, rather than going for the narrative angle of watching you see Charles slowly losing his mind.
I quite enjoyed this design choice, as, if anything, it only makes you feel more invested as you question what’s real, and what isn’t; the game never truly making any definition between throughout much of play. This lack of characteristic distinction means that you cant always believe what you see, and you can rarely place any trust in what the game is relaying. You need to remember, you’re playing as someone with a fragile mind, set in the backdrop of a city that’s full of people of similar ilk; its narrative a constant seesaw as such.
Nevertheless, that’s the crux of the game’s premise. You’ll land at port, and will be thrust straight into your duties as a hired investigator. What unfolds from thereon out is for you to solve, and then further, for you, as the player, to decipher what’s real, what’s not, and what the underlining meaning of it all is. It’s a shame, then, that the game’s characters, the driving force of the whole story, aren’t all that memorable. Sure, there’s a few that standout, Charles included, but many of them just feel tacked on, needless, and dare I say, boring.
That to the side, and speaking more specifically of its setting, Oakmount is a fairly sizable map that takes quite a bit of time to explore, not only on its surface, but underwater too. There’s several districts to wade through, many of which are separated by bodies of water that require boat traversal to flit between. Each area houses a number of cases; both main quest cases, and heaps of side quest cases. These cases, for the most part, can be solved through a range of different means, with conclusions that vary based on your actions.
Speaking of case solving, The Sinking City falls quite inline with Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games, being that you’ll need to carefully weigh up gathered evidence to deduct where to head to next, in an attempt to further advance your current case. This is achieved through a number of differing systems, and although quite basic on their own, these systems, collectively speaking, unify remarkably well. Don’t get me wrong, I wont go so far as to say that this is the best investigator game on Xbox One, but mechanically, it gets a lot right.
The initiation of case, be it a main case or a side case, is always well relayed to you. You’ll always know what you’re working to resolve, but from the point of introduction onward, you’re on your own. The Sinking City does not at all hold your hand, and it’s all the better for it. During a case (you’ll be in a case of some sort throughout the entirety of play) you’ll need to gather notes and documents from places or people of interest, and then pull relevant facts to decipher where to go next. The pace of the game is really well struck during this.
I rather appreciated how the game slowly has you moving deeper through its world, rather than showing you its cards from the get-go, and having you mindlessly trek it all in back and forth motion. Here, you’ll find a scene and will be left to investigate it at your own leisure. This typically amounts to seeking out clues, picking up paperwork, observing objects, and more besides. You’ll also use your mind’s eye from time to time; a tool that allows you to use environmental clues to try an piece together what kick-started the events at hand.
During this phase, you’ll see points of interest in which an event took place, and upon further study, an event will showcase a short scene. Once you’ve found all of the scenes and observed them, it’s then your job to select the correct order sequence to unravel how the entire events piece together; ultimately providing a complete and correct story chain. Through a mixture of that, gathering evidence via picking up documents and browsing a plethora of database records, and cross-examining witnesses, you’ll form main clues.
Main clues are added to your mind palace; a place in which you can connect the proverbial dots to draw to a concluding point – which you’ll then follow in the game. It’s all really well done and powerfully maintained, with just the right amount of freedom of both choice and execution to make you feel in control. That’s really, despite the odd mechanic that’s introduced from time to time, how investigation works here; you’ll gather intelligence, study databases, interrogate folk, and piece together scenes to advance the case further.
Throughout the course of the game, you’ll earn points for earning set amounts of EXP (earned through a variety of ways), to which these points can be distributed to the game’s upgrade trees. There’s a tree for combat proficiency, vigor, and mind. Each tree sports different upgrades that will improve the capabilities of Charles, ranging the likes of being able to set traps, holding more resources, carrying more ammo, and so on. Overall, it’s quite simple and to the point, which works well in the game’s favor when all is said and done.
So far, so good. So, what’s the problem? The game’s technical drawbacks are very hard to overlook. First and foremost, screen tearing is present and persists at almost every passing second. I wish I could say that it was mild, but sadly, it is not. The screen tearing is that bad, it’s headache inducing. Then there’s the framerate, which is about as consistent as Brexit. I’m not done yet, the game is riddled with bugs; ranging getting stuck in the environment, right through to seeing the bodies of NPCs suspended in mid-air, dead-like, and in the way.
Hell, at one point an NPC was hauntingly laid in mid-air, blocking a doorway that I needed to access, leaving me no choice but to restart the game to remedy the issue. Then, there’s the game’s optimization. I’m not sure why, but the game seems to want to decide when to throw a loading screen your way, meaning that at times, you’ll get a loading screen just for walking into a building that you didn’t get one for the last time you went in. This leads to constant bouts of sporadic interruption, which for a game of this type, isn’t exactly ideal.
In regards to other issues in the game, most of the left over faults are down to little more than poor design choices. The combat, for instance, is so unrefined that it feels practically pointless. Thankfully, you don’t need to rely on combat half as much as you would expect, but there’s still quite a fair bit of it, and having such an underbaked system can indeed be troublesome for all the wrong reasons. You’ll have all of the expected tools to call from, such as melee weaponry and a range of different firearms, as well as a crafting system.
The crafting system is fairly straightforward. You’ll simply gather resources and craft whatever you need to, be it ammo, health kits, and so on. For reasons pertaining to the story, there’s no legal tender in the game, and instead, ammo is how city folk pay one another for deeds and favors. Still, even with that in mind, you’ll rarely put much of it to use as alluded to above. There’s different enemies in the game of all shapes and sizes, but none of them are particularly memorable, and not all of them are hostile unless challenged.
Though, it doesn’t really matter what weapon you pull up to dispose of foes with, because they’re all naff to handle. Melee combat is slow and clunky, and oftentimes results in you hitting everything but your target. The same can be said about the gunplay, thanks to how imprecise the handling is. You’ll spend more time aligning your shots (and wasting them) than actually plugging a successful hit; that is, of course, should the bastards you’re shooting at not constantly side-step, resetting the whole process and costing you even more ammo.
It’s truly one hell of a downside, and something I hope the developer fixes in an upcoming patch. The real shame in all of this is that with these baffling design choices and technical issues to the side, The Sinking City would have been a great game. The story remains interesting throughout, with plenty of side activities and cases to engage with should you want to stumble off the main event. Whilst fans of H.P. Lovecraft will no doubt love what’s on offer, I cant say the same for those that just want a new sleuthing trek without issues.
The game clearly wasn’t ready for release, and I refuse to believe that the developer didn’t see these faults before having it published. It’s, like many games this gen, unacceptable practice, and something to be ashamed of. That in mind, The Sinking City is not a lost cause. When everything works as intended, and when you’re not engaging in the game’s weaker elements, there’s nothing quite like it elsewhere. On the flip-side, when you’re subject to the contrary, you’ll be hard-pressed finding a good reason to continue in your journey.
I want to credit the developer for the world itself, disregarding the rather rubbish underwater sections, it’s well constructed, and serves as a solid basis for what ensues. Each district feels unique, with oppression, political unrest, and several other meaningful themes keeping things bounded and weighted. I’ll also commend the game for its use of smart and witty dialogue, being that a select few characters are well written and intriguing, whilst the rest, well, they can piss off entirely – the dull, needless souls that do very little to excite.
The bottom line is that this gets a lot right, but much of what it gets right can get lost in the midst of its problems. I’ll commend the visual and audio design, mind. Whilst this isn’t the best looking game on the block, it certainly provides a heap of well detailed, diverse, and fascinating locales. The game’s audio, including the voice acting, is good, collectively putting forward an adventure that sits well at the back end of the gen. The ball is now in the dev’s court to remedy the many wrongs. Unfortunately, until then, I cant wholly recommend it.
Through solid world design and intelligently structured detective mechanics, The Sinking City provides a commendable basis for its intriguing adventure. The game is every bit as seemingly interesting as it is unique, and makes for a strong story that knows how to toy with perception. It’s a damn shame that it sits in the midst of so many technical drawbacks, so many bugs, and so many poor design choices. This, is squandered potential at its finest.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.