The Sinking City

The Sinking City

Written by Randy Kalista on 7/3/2019 for PC  
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Before The Sinking City, I didn’t like H.P. Lovecraft. Or detective games. But after The Sinking City? I like them both.

Whether that’s an indictment of my poor taste in horror and mystery is not important. The fact is, despite having a significant amount of jank (and the jank is significant), this game has spun me 180 degrees on the issue. It’s a testament to the loving--and possibly cult-like--craftsmanship that went into The Sinking City.

The Sinking City is indeed a detective game, wrapped in the tentacles of the Cthulhu Mythos. Cthulhu, for the uninitiated, which includes me, is a distant unknowable godlike creature, with an octopus head and a hankering for destroying all of humankind. Cthulhu, in general, would love for mankind to just die off entirely, but wouldn't mind if everyone had to check into a mental asylum first. Psychosis, night terrors, yelling in the streets, standing wordlessly facing the corner — these are the mental health symptoms that the Cthulhu Mythos likes to employ, but not necessarily explore solutions to. This is horror. I’m not sure there are going to be multiple branches leading to happy endings.

H.P. Lovecraft introduced us to Cthulhu over 90 years ago. Sure, Lovecraft died penniless and in obscurity, but he is credited with inventing cosmic horror. Scary stuff. From outer space. And while (oh no!) The Eldritch Horror (oh my!) still occupies a seemingly niche literary space, The Sinking City is more than happy to resurface this tentacled boogeyman in video game form. Just like Mass Effect’s Reapers. Or Skyrim’s Cultists in the Dragonborn DLC.

The largest thematic difference here is that The Sinking City goes back rather faithfully to the source material. To Lovecraft’s short fiction. To 1920s America. There's a sopping wet New England city. There's Prohibition. Insane Asylums. A catastrophic flood or two. A supposed immigrant crisis. Classism. Racism. Those last two, in particular, are topics The Sinking City doesn’t shy away from. Racism sucks, and it just so happens that H.P. Lovecraft was a flaming racist. He happened to be a literary genius as well as a moral failure. Rather than ignore this fact, developer Frogwares includes it. No, The Sinking City doesn’t embrace Lovecraft's racism. In fact, it makes several clear points indicating that the racists are the bad guys.

This is still horror though. And in the end, nobody’s gathering around a campfire to sing Kumbaya. I won’t speak for everybody. But I’m largely impressed by Frogwares’ interrogation of these racial and ethical dilemmas. But enough of that. This is not a treatise on early 20th century racism in America. Suffice it to say, I think Frogwares is coming from a good place in its handling of the topic.

The environmental texture of Oakmont, the sinking city itself, is choking. It feels like it’s hard to breathe while standing on its rain-slick streets. Half of the city’s roads are underwater and only navigable by boat. The other half, the part still somehow keeping its head above water, still feels like it’s drowning. You’ll have to pardon me for succumbing to the cliche that “the city is the main character," but Oakmont certainly is. Every fishing net, every cargo crate, every dock crane is rubbed down with an oily layer of grossness. The place feels like it exists in a fish tank that hasn’t been cleaned out for a year.

Not that you, Detective Charles Reed, are completely forgettable, even when placed against the backdrop of this horrendous city. Detective Reed is suffering from madness himself. Bad visions. Dark visions. Seeing stitched-together monstrosities crawling towards him. Seeing himself hanging by the neck. It’s bad. He’s come to Oakmont to investigate increasing reports of madness, and to hopefully find a root cause for his own psychosis. He’s a veteran of World War I. He was a Navy diver, in fact. But his terror aren't the post-traumas you'd expect from war. It’s something else. And within a Lovecraftian context, it’s worse. Something (Cthulhu) has awoken off the coast of Oakmont (it’s Cthulhu) and it’s going to turn everybody’s brain inside out while dragging the entire city under the waves (yep, definitely Cthulhu).

Figuring out that it’s Cthulhu, however, is far from “case closed.” You’ll traverse this godforsaken city, a city that strangely doesn’t show up on many maps, picking up page after page of literary horrors afflicting its citizens. One woman has a stalker that only appears in mirrors. One guy is having a hard time not wanting to simply drown himself in the ocean. The hysteria is widespread and not as anonymous as everyone would hope. While you're a detective, and there are mysteries to solve, rarely is anything you encounter as cut-and-dried as a) gather evidence, b) present evidence, c) convict a criminal. Not at all. You'll be jumping into cases where the lesser-of-two-evils is often the brightest, shiniest victory you can claim. 

The detective parts are good. The Mind Palace--which, sadly, isn’t an actual three-dimensional brain mansion that exists in Detective Reed’s head--is where I assemble clues together. It’s the equivalent of having a red-thread chart on the wall, except the Mind Palace in my head has random, dead, and drowned objects floating in it. Its link analysis--those red threads you’re picturing that connect A to B to C--is both basic and effective, and for that I am thankful. Nothing kills the pacing of a detective game more than when there’s no way to figure out what the developers were thinking. The Sinking City has stumped me a couple times, sure. But it was nothing that a quick 15-minute break couldn’t help resolve. That’s saying something, considering how poorly I perceive myself to be at these kinds of games.

Between the Mind Palace, your casebook of missions, the Cthulhu Mythos lore, and your map, everything you need is self-contained within the game. No need to break out a separate steno pad on your desk, despite my complete willingness to do so. The crime-solving is well-balanced. More often than not, the cases find the tipping point between making me feel like Sherlock Holmes and making me feel like a complete idiot. It's a delicate balance. 

The game, very early on and in a hamfisted manner, jams a dozen side missions into my casebook all at once. Like, here’s a stack of letters, detective. Get to it. But it was admittedly fun reading the letters, all dressed up with people’s inky-black and terrible visions, and then to scour the map, manually placing a pin on the investigation point. You might pinpoint, say, the corner of Purity Road and Oak Street where one vision took place, or drop another pin at the intersection of Old Church Road and Fitz O’Callahan Street, turning it into a point of interest. It’s far more entertaining to make me a physical actor in that process rather than, for instance, climbing and tower and having all these waypoints auto-populate my map. Every detective game, going forward, needs to quickly and completely adapt this style of waypoint management. 

Walking through town is a waking nightmare. The citizens are almost entirely mute. The shadows move aggressively, even during the dismal day. If hell was water, it would certainly be The Sinking City. It’s just a miserable, waterlogged, beached whale of a town. The NPCs routines barely have them do anything more than walk in circles. Heck, I’ve seen a dozen pairs of guys get into the exact same fight animations all across town. The few times citizens bark out any lines of dialogue, they’re short and instantly repetitive. You’ll stop talking to strangers almost immediately. Somehow, wrapped within the Cthulhu Mythos, it works. It shouldn't. But it does. 

Most violent video games don’t craft a gameplay mechanic around exposure to violence. But dealing with madness--even if it’s a meter measuring your sanity--doesn’t let you desensitize to the violence around you. I’d see a man with two hatchets buried in his chest. A gamer sees that kind of thing every day and can move past it. Not a character in The Sinking City, though. Charles Reed, private investigator and WWI veteran, still has to fight to keep it together in these circumstances. Just having sanity be another meter to manage on your HUD isn’t the most impressive way to deal with quote-unquote sanity. But The Sinking City makes up for it in mood and atmosphere. The city is such a (wonderfully crafted) drag that you can’t help but feel your own sanity, to some degree, slowly getting stripped away under the weight of the water as you make your way through this open-world hell hole.  

There are tiny missteps all over the first act. A painfully underused camera, too many bullets, too few health kits (at first), and the indecency to not even replenish your health by sleeping in a bed. There’s even the inclusion of an entire--and entirely ill-advised--combat skill tree. Trust me, no one’s coming to The Sinking City for the combat. It’s squirrely. It's tanky. The enemies hop around like they’re in some kind of Lovecraftian potato sack race. Sometimes two or three grenades won’t take out a big enemy, whereas two or three well-placed bullets will. Foot traps are iffy but crucial. I hated them at first, but now I don’t go into a big fight without setting up a few and then crafting a few more spares to keep on hand. 

So, don’t be surprised when the shooting feels terrible. Gunfights are a long ways outside of this game’s core competency. When it’s being a detective game, it’s doing great. When it’s being a third-person shooter, it’s struggling. You’ll get better at the combat, but that doesn’t mean the combat is getting better. The enormous amount of pop-in and wall-clipping doesn’t help. But again, you’ll figure it out. I was only able to kill my first mini-boss character because it got stuck on a beach umbrella and couldn’t move. Am I above cheesing the combat? What, do you think I’m going to reload an autosave because the enemy AI gets stuck on the geometry? Nope. Not reloading. I’m taking a win any way this game is willing to give it to me. Because like I said, nobody looks up H.P. Lovecraft for the gunplay.

The Sinking City is an accomplishment. I mean that. It’s from a developer that’s obviously punching above its weight. At least it feels that way to me. There’s a lot of reading, but the reading is good. The Lovecraftian horror could easily become one-note and repetitious, but it’s somehow not. The first time you see Cthulhu, you’re going to be like, Oh my gosh that’s Cthulhu. Meaning that the writing and presentation is continually surprising. The characters, including Detective Reed himself, all appropriately look, act, and feel like they’re all circling the drain. And yes, The Sinking City itself is the soaking-wet star of the show, slowly spreading itself out into some kind of horrific oil painting. To dock the game too many points for a lack of polish or for overreaching would be to miss the point of how enjoyable (“enjoyable”) it is to play The Sinking City. It’s single-handedly opened my eyes to detective fiction in gaming, and has broadened my literary horizons to include Lovecraftian Horror. Quite a set of accomplishments that would otherwise, and unfairly, be relegated to a middling score.

What goes down must come up. The Sinking City is more than the sum of its glitchy b-game parts. Balanced detective work makes up for shoddy gunplay. A gruff and well-realized cast makes up for brain-dead AI. This is unironically a highwater mark for both detective fiction and Lovecraftian Horror in video gaming.

Rating: 7.4 Above Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.

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