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First Impressions: The Sinking City

by: Randy -
More On: The Sinking City

[Final review coming soon.]

Indie developer Frogwares Studio found a comfy spot for itself making Sherlock Holmes games. Fourteen years' worth, starting with Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Mummy in 2002, up through Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Daughter in 2016. In a rare step away from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Frogwares' The Sinking City brings to life an amalgam of Lovecraftian Horror tropes from early 20th century writer H.P. Lovecraft. "Tropes" isn't quite the right word, considering Lovecraftian Horror is its own well-established genre, and Frogwares is going straight to the source material. You only have to read a couple pages into Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Shadow over Innsmouth" to see the direct literary references brought to life in The Sinking City.

In The Sinking City, you are Charles Reed, private detective, owner of an exhausted Sam Spade voice, and sufferer of the maddening visions and brain trauma associated with Lovecraft's works. Distant, unknowable gods. Ocean bottom sea creature imagery. Tentacles. Lots of tentacles. Like hentai for fans of post-traumatic stress. Now, don't let me fool you: I'm not a fan of Lovecraftian Horror. "Madness" as just another meter that empties or fills up on the HUD? Or, going back to the original short stories, I think Lovecraft gets the "show, don't tell" mantra entirely backwards. That part is okay. Writing styles change over the years, and Lovecraft was writing 100 years ago.

Regardless, The Sinking City works on a certain level. Frogwares mostly takes what it's learned from its 60's Metacritic detective video games and applies them here. The biggest shift is toward an open world in The Sinking City. The streets of the fictional New England port of Oakmont have suffered a flooding disaster. People are, of course, going mad, clutching the sides of their heads in the streets, wandering around, wordlessly for the most part, like mannequins on conveyor belts. The A.I. stumbles around weirdly, which, considering the fact that Cthulhu has a hand in all this, kind of makes sense. This is an interesting case where dumb and/or repetitive NPC interactions fits in with the world building. That's a backhanded compliment, I know, but it works.

The city of Oakmont has quite a lot of character itself. It's a nightmare of flooded and unflooded streets to navigate. Hop onto a makeshift dock and walk the brooding, soul-sucked town. Hop into a little motorboat to putter your way through disastrously littered canals. Use detective vision to find specially marked doors to residential and commercial properties you can walk into, loot, and craft a small assortment of fighting tools. 

The fighting tools are pretty rough. The shooting feels terrible, encouraging you to mostly avoid it. Sometimes it's better to run, the loading screen tips advise. Indeed. Make copious use of the auto-aim, since some enemies move around erratically, clipping through the environment, while you have the turning speed of a '90s Resident Evil. The enemies are appropriately gross looking, made up of stitched-together arms and legs and torsos. Their spitting attacks leave you jamming a lot of health syringes into your forearm. 

You'll filch through a lot of crates, lockers, chests, and coffins for supplies. Those supplies let you craft individual bullets, foot traps, Molotov cocktails, health kits, and even sanity pills. The 1920s, when The Sinking City takes place, was smack dab in the middle of Prohibition in the U.S., making the alcohol to build med kits (syringes) rarer than I'd like. There are several skill trees to improve your health and combat abilities, however. Detective Charles Reed will be better and stronger for all the waking nightmares he suffers by the end of The Sinking City.

I don't want to compare The Sinking City too much to Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes games, but it's impossible not to. Recycled graphical assets from those previous games is noticeable. The dryly pared-down mission logbook is noticeable. The not-as-detailed rooms. The cookie-cutter floor plans.

But boating through the town is genuinely enjoyable, even if you can get stuck on a reef and have no ability to just, like, nudge your boat back into the water. The flooded streets of Oakmont are so twisty and require so many left and right turns to get anywhere that you'll spend too much time flipping the map open again and again.

The mystery itself—why the people of Oakmont are going crazy, and why crazy people are flocking to Oakmont—is going interesting places. I'm in it for the detective stuff. And manually placing markers on the map (lots of markers) in order to track down quest and side quest locations is great. I love it. Far more than if waypoints just automatically populated the map like in pretty much any other open world video game.

I'd like some more time with The Sinking City before cementing my thoughts. Especially since some detective elements work well, while others, like researching things in different archives around the city, are seemingly intuitive and still barely work for the betterment of the mystery-solving stuff. Detective Charles Reed is a healthy mix of witty and dreary. And while Oakmont itself is samey within its own city limits, it's a memorable setting nonetheless.

Watch the features at the top of the page in the coming week for the final review.

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