“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories”
The history of games which have attempted to port to our computer screens the cosmic horrors, of what has come to be collectively referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos, based on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft is indeed a rather troubled one. We’ve seen all sorts of games that draw a little bit or even a lot of inspiration from this Mythology without it being their main focal point (legendary titles from the 90s like Alone in the Dark or even Quake come to mind, as well as more recent releases like Darkest Dungeon), but too few games that are based on a 100% Lovecraftian background and manage to convey the whole “Cthuloid” atmosphere in a respectable manner . And it’s rather telling that in the year 2019, the game that is still considered by most “knowers” to be the best adaptation of the Mythos is 1993’s Shadow of the Comet, with second place being usually awarded to 2005’s decent, but still problematic in many aspects, Dark Corners of the Earth.
Independent publisher Focus Home Interactive attempted back in 2014 to commence the production of its own game which takes place within the Cthulhu Mythos, and this attempt eventually split into two distinct projects. The first one is Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu, which essentially tried to be an adaptation of the similarly named pen-and-paper RPG published by Chaosium Inc. The second one is developed by Ukranian studio Frogwares (who have produced a series of more than decent Sherlock Holmes adventure games), is being officially released on the 27th of June, and is the focus of this here review. So without further ado… The Sinking City.
The game’s general plot elements inevitably don’t stray far from what we’ve come to expect from a Lovecraftian story. We’re in 1920s Massachusetts, sometime after the FBI’s assault on the infamous city of Innsmouth that resulted in the mass arrest or flight of most of its weird inhabitants. Close to Innsmouth is the once prosperous town of Oakmont, which has suffered a sudden and inexplicable flood of massive proportions that has left large parts of the town covered with water and cut off all access to it by land. Even more inexplicable is the sudden appearance of horrifying creatures that defy logic and established scientific knowledge, creeping up from Oakmont’s flooded areas. And, as if things weren’t bad enough already, after the Flood many inhabitants of Oakmont and the wider Massachusetts area have reported strange hallucinations and vivid nightmares…
These afflictions seem to be troubling our story’s protagonist, as well – Charles Reed, an ex-World War One Marine who’s currently working as a Private Detective in Boston. With his health and sanity rapidly deteriorating, Reed decides to travel to Oakmont and seek out the cause of his dreams. Needless to say, he ends up getting mixed up in an adventure that involves supernatural phenomena, feuds and quarrels between Oakmont’s peculiar “Great Families”, hostile and corrupted city officials, warring citizen factions, and, of course, stupendous and unheard-of wonders calling from the depths of the sea.
It’s true that the concept of “coastal Massachusetts town suffering from sea-based calamities” is not the most original in the annals of established Cthulhu-related works of fiction. However, the game’s story is well-written and presented in a most imposing and atmospheric manner, managing to intrigue, shock and horrify without ANY jump-scares whatsoever – an immense feat for a “Horror” game of our times. It also feels a lot more reasonable, “down to earth” and faithful to the limitations of the Mythos compared to, say, Dark Corners of the Earth, during the course of which we ended up killing Dagon and 2 other Great Old Ones (!), for example.
But it’s through its gameplay elements that The Sinking City demonstrates its more original virtues. If we want to be really pedantic, we could call the game an “Open-World Action-Adventure Investigation Survival Horror” title. Now, it certainly isn’t the first “Open-World” game to come out, neither the first “Horror” game, not even the first “Investigation” game, since many of its features like the Mind’s Eye Detective Vision (one of Reed’s supernatural abilities that allow him to perceive elements beyond the veil of reality that the common mind cannot detect) or the formation of Deductions for our open cases within Reed’s Mind Palace, are obviously inspired from similar features already present in Frogwares’ past Sherlock Holmes games. It is the combination of all of the above labels/features within the context of a Lovecraftian game that make The Sinking City unique.
Contrary to the predominantly linear experiences that are all previous Cthulhu games, the Sinking City allows us almost from the very beginning to wander around the Open-World environs of the “Befouled Venice” that is the flooded city of Oakmont, explore its diverse, flooded and corrupted districts and investigate main or side cases scattered across the city. These cases are sometimes affected by the non-linear nature of the game as well, since a fair number of them can have more than one possible outcome depending on the decisions we make during our investigative efforts. Of course, these different outcomes mainly affect our current “world state” to some extend, and not the game’s pre-defined endings – but we should always bear in mind that this is essentially an Action-Adventure game and not a full-blown RPG, so this doesn’t detract from the whole experience.
Since this is an Action-Adventure game, we also shouldn’t be surprised that combat is rather simple and “action-y”, without Cover or Lean mechanics or anything like that. The tactical depth of the game’s combat is limited to the use of our available arsenal of firearms, bombs, traps or melee attacks, the occasional strafing to avoid incoming hits, and the use of healing kits to replenish Reed’s health. “Hitboxes” are also implemented, so certain enemies suffer more damage when hit on the head, for example.
During the course of the game’s Main we eventually unlock access to 5 different kinds of firearms. Everything else – “Molotov Cocktails”, Grenades, Traps, as well as bullets for Reed’s guns – is either scavenged from containers across the town or crafted from materials we also find in the aforementioned containers. The same goes for the healing items that replenish Reed’s health or sanity. It should also be noted that in Oakmont’s peculiar economic system that has formed after the town’s isolation due to the Flood, Bullets have replaced the Dollar as the currency of choice, so most cases we solve also offer bullets as a reward.
Another original (and quite refreshing, to be honest) aspect of the game is its attempts to eliminate any instances of “hand-holding”. There are separate three-stage difficulty settings for combat encounters and investigations, and we even have the option to deactivate the (omnipresent in modern gaming) Quest Compass from the top of the HUD. Sure, one could always pick the easier way and set everything to the lowest difficulty setting, but even then he should not expect the game to place convenient little marks on the map that he can follow blindly – even when playing on “Easy”, objective marks must be placed on the map by ourselves, as a result of our deciphering and following the Clues we collect during our escapades.
Solving Cases and collecting and interpreting Clues are essentially the core of the “gameplay loop”. While exploring a location, we collect data through the interaction with scattered hotspots (some pretty obvious, others not so much), which make new Clues appear in Reed’s Casebook. These Clues then either point us towards the next location we must visit (at best providing us with, as already stated, an address that we must locate and pinpoint on the map ourselves), or require further investigating at one of Oakmont’s Archives – Hospital, Police Station, Newspaper, Library or City Hall. Choosing the correct Archive for each Clue relies purely on logic – for example, if a clue tells us that a suspect has recently had surgery, then it is obvious we must search the Hospital Archives in order to track down his home address.
Oakmont’s imposing and decaying atmosphere, the game’s “Cthulhu Detective” aspects and the wide array of difficulty-tweaking settings are certainly the Sinking City’s strongest points. I would say that most of the “negatives” one could point out arise as a result of the games “not quite AAA” status combined with the grand scope of its ambitions, and the realization of “what, perhaps, could have been” if higher production values were applied to it. The above stands even if I consciously avoid focusing on more technical characteristics like character animations, which could be described as “adequate” without being particularly noteworthy in either a positive or negative way.
For starters, I can’t help but feel that the game’s Open-World aspect is not utilized to its fullest potential. While wandering around Oakmont, for example, Reed might come upon a civilian being robbed by some gang member at gunpoint. In virtually every other open-world game, we would at least have the option to help the victim by attacking the robber… but not here – if we attack the culprit, the game acts as if we’ve assaulted any other random innocent bystander, we get a massive reduction to our Sanity bar, and the victim of the robbery starts frantically running away to escape from our attempts at saving his life. In general, excluding plot-critical NPCs or “quest-givers”, our interactions with the citizens of Oakmont are practically minimal.
The open-world’s lacklustre feeling is further enhanced by the rather limited number of Cases we can take on (about 20 in total, Main and Side Cases included, with a few more being planned as DLC additions), which leaves a respectable portion of Oakmont unutilized since we end up not having any Case-related incentives to visit it and explore it. In addition to that, the procedural generation methods used to create Oakmont’s districts result in numerous instances of visiting locations that are the exact copies of other places we’ve already visited. This is particularly true for several of the houses we end up exploring during Cases – their hotspots and plot-critical items are unique, of course, but their general architecture and layout is nearly 100% identical.
Putting any “production value” complaints aside, one might feel that the gameplay loop regarding Investigations ends up rather repetitive from a certain point onward – each Investigation has its own uniquely interesting “narrative”, of course, but the pattern of “locate address – collect clue – locate next required address – collect clue” that essentially comprises the vast majority of the game might seem a bit one-dimensional after we’ve seen it for the umpteenth time, especially if someone approaches this game expecting a more “traditional” adventure game experience. Also, even when playing on the highest possible difficulty settings (which practically remove any assistance the game might offer when collecting and processing clues), one might find the overall difficulty of the game to still be not that challenging. Traditional adventure game puzzles are fully absent, researching and following clues is, for the most part, a rather straightforward and fully logical procedure, and the only instances where one might find himself “stuck” in the game is when he can’t immediately locate some necessary hotspot in a location and has to search the place more thoroughly.
Finally, I have to point out a 100% subjective gripe – I discovered that, when our Sanity bar reaches zero (we lose sanity when witnessing incredibly horryfing scenery around the city, while activating Reed’s Detective Vision, or when killing innocent pedestrians), Reed… DOESN’T commit suicide. He just experiences more and more intense hallucinations, he might draw his gun and point it at his temple… but nothing more – it’s just a matter of time for our sanity to replenish either “naturally” or by using a consumable, and everything is back to normal again (it should be noted that Reed does fall dead if we kill two innocents, but this is implemented mostly as a measure to prevent mass shootings rather than a result of excessive loss of sanity). It might seem rather petty to point out the above as a “flaw”, but having played many sessions of Cthulhu PnP games, seeing the complete loss of sanity induce no final effects really bothers me, dammit.
However, it would be unfair to judge the game harshly based solely on “what it could have offered” rather than praise it for what it manages to achieve. It might disappoint someone who expects an archetypical adventure game experience or “something exactly like Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games”, but if seen primarily as a Cthulhu Mythos-based game then the truth is that it performs admirably well – dare I say better Cyanide’s attempt or even Dark Corners of the Earth (truth be told, it already plays better than DCotE just because of the fact that it runs flawlessly and seems to feature not one single bug or glitch, even in the state it’s in before its official release).
Imposing atmosphere, supernatural threats, unique implementation of detective investigation logic, open-world exploration, Survival elements that don’t end up being a constant pain in the ass, familiar Mythos elements like references to Innsmouth, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, Yellow Signs painted on walls, mad cultists worshipping the Old Ones… plus the facts that a) all of the above are enriched with new, original material that we haven’t seen in any other pieces of related fiction, and b) everything is implemented in a smooth, effortless and completely subtle way instead of being a Cthulhu Theme Park of sorts that throws gory or familiar Cthulhu stuff to our face just to shock and impress us, or yet another “Cthulhu Grand Adventure” during which we take on and bloodily murder powerful gods while once again trying to prevent Cthulhu himself from awakening. The above are undoubtedly capable of surpassing any of the game’s shortcomings, but these shortcomings still hinder it enough so as to prevent it from standing out as the best Lovecraftian game since the days of Shadow of the Comet.
More Sinking City gameplay in the following video: