Available on Xbox One, PS4, PC and soon Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Xbox One X
The Cthulhu mythos and the rest of H. P. Lovecraft’s works have continued to grow in popularity and mainstream attention over the past years. Just last year we saw the release of Call of Cthulhu, an intriguing but flawed experience that I did enjoy, which is pretty surprising, considering I’m a real wimp when it comes to horror games. The Sinking City in many regards does so much more, such as an actual combat system, skill trees, a brilliant detective system that doesn’t hold your hand unless you want to, great atmosphere and compelling narratives. However, it also suffers from a number of issues that hold it back from being a truly great and worthy game based off the incredibly iconic source material. The Sinking City is a game with so much potential that nails many aspects, but ultimately sinks under the weight of its own ambitions.
You play as Charles Read; a Private Investigator from Boston who has been plagued by nightmares of horrific proportions. He travels to the seaside city of Oakmont, a place that is partially sunken, in the hopes of finding the root to his visions. Over the course of the 20-hour adventure, you find that Oakmont isn’t your typical place, it is plagued by a number of deadly creatures straight from nightmares called Wylebeasts. You will encounter fishlike people called Innsmouthers (a nod to the short story A Shadow over Innsmouth) and a half man, half ape individual. The well known aspect of H. P. Lovecraft and his work was that he was a heavily racist bigot and his stories were filled with racist undertones that were not subtle. The Sinking City includes these aspects to stay true to the source material and the realities of the time period. However, they never feel forced and are done very well. The main story is well paced throughout, with strong writing that hooks you in and keeps you playing right until the end. However, I found the endings being a bit underwhelming, regardless of the numerous choices you make throughout the game, they have no impact on the ending, you will be able to decide from the 3 endings yourself, regardless of what has happened. It is a real shame, as the game emphasizes choice constantly, and it would have been much better had these decisions made some bearing on the ending you got. Furthermore, all the endings are pretty short, and in the ‘worst’ ending, we hardly see much of the grand cosmic horrors that many would have likely hoped for.
The voice acting can let the game down at times. Read isn’t a very interesting character, he has his moments, but he speaks with such a monotone voice with little expressions that he can put you to sleep sometimes. Whether that was the chosen direction I’m not sure, but it is definitely an odd choice and doesn’t help the experience. Other characters are more memorable, with better voice acting that helps ground you in the world. The best character in the game is the city itself, which goes far in setting the tone and atmosphere for the entire run-time. Sunken streets require a boat to traverse, where you can find monstrous eels that will attack and kill you if you swim in the waters for too long. There are closed sections of the map that are overrun by the wylebeasts, which you must enter for certain cases, but are also filled with a wealth of resources. The music changes in these sections, filling the atmosphere with genuine dread, that when you are finally safe, you’ll sigh with relief.
The numerous cases that you find are mostly done well, with intricate storylines that have alternate outcomes based on the decisions you make. In order to complete these, you will need to use your detective skills to search crime scenes for clues, use your ‘minds eye’ (special vision that can help you find hidden things and rooms and recreate scenes), and visit archives to cross check variables to uncover needed locations. The latter is perhaps one of my favourite parts and requires a bit of deduction and common sense. In many cases, you will need to locate a place or person based off of certain factors. You will need to go to the right archive, such as the local newspaper, hospital, city hall, library or police department. For example, a clue might mention a crime was committed recently, where a number of people were severely injured. For this, you would look through the Police records and set parameter such as violent crimes, after the flood and a specific district. This would provide a new clue and the location you need. It is not too difficult to work out where to look, but it is a unique and great feature.
The other detective features are also good, but don’t bring anything substantially new to the table. But what is clear is that a lot of time went into designing really interesting side cases. One that stands out in particular involves a witch called Granny Weaver. She sewed the mouth shut of a popular singer to stop her telling secrets and now is threatening her again with other mutilations. It is your job to stop her. It is such a chilling mission that remains one of the most memorable parts of the game. Other brilliant sections are the underwater parts, where you see more small creatures and great ones looming in the distance, fully using the fear of the unknown to its advantage. It was moments like this that I wished there were more of.
Looking at its combat, its clearly one of the weakest aspects. The best way that I can describe it, is that it’s ‘budget combat’. It is not terrible by any means, but it definitely has a number of problems. Movement and aiming feel very sluggish and this can get frustrating pretty fast when the enemies constantly dive out of the way, causing you to miss. There are a good number of weapons and other equipment such as bear-traps, molotovs and grenades. These are all necessary to take on the stronger enemies that would deplete your conventional ammo. Speaking of which, the thing this game keeps mentioning is that ammo is scarce, which is kind of true. However, all the containers in buildings restock with new random loot after you leave the buildings. This means you can simply raid the containers, leave and come back in again to get more, therefore you can refill all ammo completely whenever you want, drastically easing the difficulty.
Finally, a big consistent issue with the game is performance. Playing on the Xbox One X, with no X enhanced patch (I think the resolution was 1080p) the game barely hits 30fps. There is constant slow down and stutter that heavily impacts the experience, making it frustrating to play through. The screen tearing issue was solved in a patch, but the performance was still poor. Even on the X at 1080p resolution, it is not stable despite not being a graphically impressive game. In fact, the amount of terrible quality surfaces that looked like they were pulled from the original Xbox is astounding.
The Sinking City is frequently a mess, with terrible and unacceptable levels of performance and graphical errors, to unsatisfying endings and sometimes poor voice acting. Despite this, I still ended up enjoying my 20 hours playing it. The overall story and side narratives and cases were all well designed and written. The atmosphere throughout was eerie, menacing and I was constantly on edge. In the end it is a game on a small budget by a smaller team, and it really shows. It could have done with a month or two more in development to be better optimized and small issues ironed out. However, it was a game that did hook me right till the ultimately underwhelming conclusion. It had lofty ambitions that never fully came to fruition and sunk the game below the heights it could have reached. Despite the messiness and lack of truly impactful choices, I thoroughly relished my time in this eldritch detective horror.