The Sinking City is an action-adventure/horror game with heavy inspiration from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Developed by Ukranian studio Frogwares, The Sinking City is one of the most peculiar games to release in recent years, simultaneously being an absolute mess and a fun experience at the same time. The big question is if the latter manages to outweigh the former.
The story, as mentioned above, takes inspiration from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and works as an allegory for those very writings. There are some great moments that will stick with the player after playing. But in between those there is writing ranging from bland to kind of stupid.
The game takes place in the fictional town of Oakmont, MA, right after the area is hit with a massive flood. What parts of the city not under water are in chaos. It also becomes apparent the town wasn’t in particularly good shape before the flood.
The player takes control of Charles Reed, a former U.S. Navy diver and current private eye from Boston. Reed suffers from nightmares and hallucinations after being shipwrecked during the war and comes to Oakmont to cure himself. Almost as soon as he walks off the boat he becomes involved with the various conspiracies gripping the city.
The story and writing of The Sinking City have points where it really shines, but this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you get great passages like a piece describing a man slicing himself to bits and sending it down the pipes to join voices he hears from them. Bits like this are properly disturbing and keep in the spirit of its Lovecraftian inspirations.
But these great bits also make the bland ones stand out, the latter being more numerous. For every piece of writing that fits the spirit of Lovecraft, there are another 3 or 4 that read like bad fan-fiction. While taking inspiration from the original works isn’t a bad thing, The Sinking City at times borrows too much.
The game’s plot also suffers from lack of focus. The main questline alone seems to introduce a new faction or concept from mission-to-mission, never being expanded upon. This makes it fairly hard to care about what’s going on moment-to-moment, as characters just drop from the story.
The game also has the issue of presenting the player with choices that ultimately don’t actually matter. The only thing changing is some dialogue and what trophy you unlock. This makes it hard to get invested in making these choices, as they don’t really matter.
The game’s atmosphere is actually pretty on point for its source material. There aren’t a lot of things in the game that will make you jump out of your seat in terror. Instead, it goes for a constant sense of discomfort, making the player feel like there is always something inherently wrong with the city.
Mind you, the overall plot is, at the very least, what keeps the player invested until the end. It’s just frustrating to see so many issues come up to hurt the experience. Ultimately the plot of the game isn’t anything that’s going to change your life, but you won’t be bored playing it either.
Gameplay wise, Sinking City is a bit more skewed than the story aspects of the game. There are some good mechanics involving investigating and solving mysteries, but they are outnumbered by the various other gameplay issues. In particular, the combat of the game is pretty miserable.
The combat seems to revolve around conserving resources and trying to be as efficient as possible in dispatching the enemies you fight. You scavenge around the ruined city, collecting and crafting what you need to fend off the various monsters throughout the environment. On paper, it seems solid enough, but in practice, it borders on disastrous.
One of any issues with the combat include the main enemies you fight throughout the game called Wylebeasts. These enemies jerk around the map or sponge up bullets. The enemies aren’t so much challenging as they are annoying, and you’ll be fighting quite a few of them.
The resource mechanics are also really easy to exploit, with containers reloading when you walk out of a building. This means the player just runs in and out until they are fully stocked up. Most of your ammo is used up in a single fight, so you need to grind these resources a lot.
There are also problems with trying to navigate the game map. The player has to go into the map and place markers, and while this is neat the first few times, you’ll be sick of it by the end. Even when you manage to find where you need to place the marker, actually finding where you need to go is still a pain.
There is also just a load of smaller problems as well. The player will often get stuck on level geometry, and the actual control scheme is awkward to use, among other things. On their own they are manageable, but all combined they start to wear on your patience.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some good points to the gameplay as well. The actual investigation mechanics work fairly well, having the player collect evidence and piece things together. Searching various archives to find suspects and locations gives a real detective feel, though it can get a bit repetitive.
The only weak part of this is actually talking to other characters for information. There isn’t really much to branch off of in thee dialogues, and anything not pertaining to the task at hand is generally just exposition. What options there are usually boil down to “do what this guy says,” or “kill him.”
The best parts of the gameplay involve investigating and following clues to your next goal, though it gets repetitive near the end. Whenever the game tries to deviate from this, primarily with the combat, it goes downhill fast. For most people who play through the game will do so because they want to see how the story plays out.
Graphics and Sound
Visually, the game has a nice aesthetic with the whole sunken city thing going on. The problem is that as you keep playing, you realize that upon closer inspection everything kind of looks the same. Several assets and room layouts are reused over and over again.
For actual graphical quality, to say the game looks dated is about as nice as I could get. Many portions of the game, character models in particular, wouldn’t look out of place in the early-to-mid PS3 era. Some of the visual effects they use just wind up reinforcing this as well.
This wouldn’t be the worst issue in the world, but the game also has a lot of performance issues. The framerate is super choppy and frequently suffers from slowdown. There is also what is, quite frankly, an unforgivable amount of loading screens in the game.
Sound-wise, there isn’t a lot to say. I never really noticed the music of the game, and while this means there wasn’t anything particularly bad about it, it also means there wasn’t anything particularly good. I will compliment the game for not overusing sharp sound cues to try and get a jump scare.