The Sinking City, the latest from Ukrainian developer Frogwares, is another interpretation of a classic novelist’s work. This time around, say goodbye to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and hello to HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. The new window dressing is a welcome change, but the bad news is that we no longer have the world’s most famous detective at the helm. Holmes, with his neurotic proclamations and obsessive tendencies, is a character with so much to love. In Charles Reed, private investigator extraordinaire, we’ve got a dull-as-dishwater protagonist servicing a story that groans under the weight of Lovecraftian mythos.
Let’s start with the positives. The Sinking City is set in Oakmont, an island city neighboring Massachusetts. After a mysterious flood, hysteria has spread and the city streets are completely under water. Dilapidated American flags flutter sadly in the breeze and fungal growth lines the numerous riverways, giving Oakmont a post-apocalyptic Venetian vibe. Except, we’re in Prohibition-era 1920s here.
You can explore the map as you please, running, fast-traveling, or using a boat to get between points of interest. Reed is in town to find out what’s causing the townsfolk’s descent into madness, but that’s just the initial tease. A variety of cases sit between you and the endgame and there’s a pleasing level of openness to proceedings.
In fact, the game’s biggest strength is its unwillingness to hold your hand. While the opening tutorial mission slowly gets you to grips with the mechanics of play, later cases feel refreshingly open. You’re given a map of the city — a bird’s eye diagram of the forsaken world — replete with road names and opportunities to plan your progress. Often, you’ll need to consult the map to work out where you need to go — sans objective marker — and there’s even the option to craft waypoints based on the clues you’ve picked up.
That said, when you’re in the right place, detection tends to follow a fairly predictable pattern. Once inside a building of interest, a single button press will find all the clues in the area. In due course, you’ll need to activate Mind’s Eye (think Sherlock Vision), where Reed can dive into an otherworldly realm and piece together what happened. From here, it’s necessary to assemble the pieces in the right order. Stuck? Invariably you’ll need to try the police station, library, or city hall to access the archives to find out more about a suspect. While exciting at first, the repetitive gameplay loop wears thin after a while.
There are also deductions to be made, a nod to Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, a game that played with the exciting fantasy that you could condemn or pardon people as you pleased. That hypnotic illusion of freedom is never as strong here, in part because Reed is such an unmemorable protagonist. With a face wracked from lack of sleep, he does at least resemble someone living a nightmare, but it’s not enough to anchor a story around a character whose major distinguishing feature is his inability to get forty winks. That extends to the characters that you’ll encounter in the world, of which there are many. NPCs look like stuffed potatoes with all the facial expressions to match, and the voice acting throughout is a letdown.
The wider canvas has had other unintended consequences too. Understandably, Frogewares is anxious to keep things fresh. There are, for instance, several combat encounters throughout The Sinking City. In fact, entire sections of the map are at the mercy of the infected. Walk up these roads and enemies will spring from the ground with a bloodcurdling groan. At all times, combat is uniformly terrible, with janky guns to use (pistols, shotguns, submachine guns) and enemies that are frustratingly hard to take down. A boss battle with red barrels was just about the last straw for me. I’m all for variety so long as it services the larger whole, but it never does here.
But perhaps the biggest kicker is Oakmont itself, a hub world teeming with plenty of detail, but lacking soul. The world never sings because it all looks the same. Let’s be frank: games live and die by their environments — especially ones with a story to tell. Who can forget the disparate areas of Grim Fandango, or the wonderful way Metroidvanias use environmental detail to tell a story? The signature flourishes throughout The Sinking City feel wearisomely one-note after only a few hours of play as if landmarks are being copied and pasted over one another (though the occasional excursion under the sea brings a much-needed injection of variety). The NPCs that cross your path are similarly lifeless. A vendor hawking the latest paper invites you to buy a copy but can never be interacted with, while NPCs stand around like props in a stage play during cases, unmoving unless interacted with. Red Dead Redemption 2 this is not.
In the end, perhaps this should be no surprise. The Sinking City is not the work of a big development team strung along by an unlimited budget, and what Frogwares has attempted here is admirable. The brave approach to game design frees you from the typically restrictive world so many adventure games use as a backdrop to their story, but no component part can justify the whole.
In fact, outside of an initially pleasing hook, a lot of what’s on offer here has been done far better elsewhere — most damnably by the Sherlock Holmes games Frogwares developed before. Deduction works better when you’ve got the eponymous detective to write about, and the horror mechanics are tropes pulled from better games. Take, for instance, the very crude sanity system in place. Use Reed’s psychic abilities too liberally, or stare too long at the nasties of Oakmont, and you’ll run the risk of going mad. But in the end, it’s just another meter that you’ll glance at from time to time and pay virtually no heed. Besides, scrubbing environments of will give you the necessary requirements to create the tonics you need to stay safe. It’s all only ever a button press away.
Fans of Lovecraft will, at least, find something to appreciate. The appearance of Innsmouthers (a reference to the Lovecraft short story The Shadow over Innsmouth) are a neat touch, and the branching endings will have you coming back for more. There is also the acknowledgment that much of Lovecraft’s work was steeped in racism. I won’t spoil anything, but suffice to say that several discomforting themes are brought to the light. Yet in the end, The Sinking City is an overly ambitious product — good for a number of hours, yes, but lacking any satisfying punch.
This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game. A copy was provided by Bigben Interactive.