The Sinking City takes steps into genre-refreshing territory in order to set it apart from its Lovecraftian peers. Where 2018’s Call of Cthulhu tries to carve out a small space to tell its own stand-alone story that tucked itself into the already existing cosmic lore, The Sinking City feels like it’s picking up eight movies into a Lovecraft cinematic Cthu-niverse, delivering a concentrated dose of its distinctive flavor.Unnatural storms have been relentlessly battering this once thriving fishing community, cutting it off from the mainland, flooding parts of it, and leaving the rest sodden and dilapidated.
The Sinking City is paradoxically teeming with life and things to do while atmospherically making you feel alone and unsafe. The revamped investigation systems rely on your own powers of deduction and the combat is both tense and nerve-wracking. Save for the graphical issues, The Sinking City is heart-pounding, unrelenting, and addictive. Its powers of immersion and fear are not to be overlooked, and fans of eldritch horror, Cthulhu, and things that go bump in the night will definitely be satisfied playing in the dark.But don’t worry if this doesn’t mean anything to you; a love (or hate) for Lovecraft — or even a passing interest — isn’t required to enjoy the game, though it may help.Eternally grim and rainy, parts of it are infested by weird creatures called Wylebeasts that emerged from the sea, and its citizens – who include the fish-hybrid Innsmouthers, the Ku Klux Klan and various religious cults that are equally nasty and deluded – are a hostile bunch.The Klan itself also plays a part in the narrative, and it’s presented matter-of-factly. This is a thing that would have happened in this time period, the game suggests, and commentary isn’t necessary.
It’s reminiscent of memorable games like the original BioShock and the Silent Hill series. Its foggy streets, heavy blankets of rain, and flooded thoroughfares are great backdrops, but steering a small motor boat through a neighborhood as something stirs below the surface truly serves up that tense feeling of wanting to NOPE straight back onto dry land.Divers uncover an ancient cavern hidden beneath Oakmont filled with otherworldly statues of cosmic demons, and are driven mad by the discovery—a madness that begins to spread through the city and awakens strange, violent creatures the locals call wylebeasts.Rising water separated the city from the mainland six months ago. Barnacles and seaweed cover the sides of buildings. Entire roads are underwater, forcing the people who remain to use boats for transportation.It is essentially a detective game, much like developer Frogwares’ previous Sherlock Holmes efforts, in which Reed must gather evidence, perform old-school research at city archives, use what the game calls his Mind Palace to make plot-advancing deductions and employ his supernatural ability to reconstruct crime scenes.
Reed must often navigate the semi-flooded city by boat, which requires preternatural map-reading skills. You can fast-travel via phone boxes, but you’re only likely to find them all when you reach the latter stages of the game, and the time you spend chugging around Oakmont swiftly becomes a pain.There are scary things lurking beneath the facade of normalcy everyone tries to project in this situation. And I mean that literally, since this is a Lovecraftian story, and figuratively, since the people find themselves increasingly removed from civilization.As you explore a crime scene you collect clues that, while useless on their own, can be connected in the Mind Palace to open up new lines of investigation. And you have to make these connections yourself, without any hand-holding or hints, which makes a successful deduction especially satisfying.
There are fights and robberies that increasingly occur in the streets as the story goes on, strangely dressed folks and end-times prophets appear, and monsters literally start taking over, but most NPCs look like they’re just heading to work or to buy groceries. It’s definitely an immersion-breaking moment to see a man getting his shoes shined while, a block or two away, monsters sprout from the earth and overturned cars lay burning.Linger indulgently and the walls will turn to static as your vision warps, and half-opacity overlaid clips of enemies lurch towards you in claustrophobic chaos. It’s not quite Eternal Darkness, but it does the trick – though I found one of the more common visual frights of Charles hanging limp from a noose fairly gratuitous…Some enemies move far too quick for you to ever get a read on them – others hurl devastating viscera hairballs at you from any angle. I
eventually resigned myself to abusing the geometry – lamping their heads through a wall as their limbs contorted and flailed – I can see you judging me, but if they can use the same logic to ragdoll me then I think it’s fair game!
I loved soaking in its characters and atmospheric environments – it gave me the same surreal feeling as getting lost in one of Lovecraft’s short stories. Yet actually playing the game is a completely different affair.Its commitment to tastefully updating the storytelling methods, while preserving the setting and tone of Lovecraft shines through the tedium and frustration. Though the laborious open-world travel, clunky combat, and aggravating research system can grow wearisome, there’s much to like in The Sinking City.