The Sinking City has shown me that it’s time for games to let go of Lovecraft.
That’s not exclusively Frogwares’ fault (and I’m not the only person to express this sentiment) but this supernatural detective outing is at its best when it’s not aping the horror author. The central premise of The Sinking City, an ancient force that’s driving people mad, feels hollow and never gives the game any sense of urgency.
Instead, it’s the game’s smaller, more personal stories and rewarding detective work that make it worth getting your feet wet. You might not care about the mystical tome that the game has you chasing down, but when your quest leads to a family being kidnapped, you’ll go through hell and high water to set them free.
Not that you can wander over to a conveniently marked waypoint and wade in guns blazing, that is. The Sinking City makes you work very hard for your small victories, whether you’re tackling the main storyline or one of the many side-stories. The lack of hand-holding in the game can be disconcerting at first. I once found myself aimlessly roaming The Sinking City’s open map, convinced that a pre-release bug was preventing me from making progress. Three hours later, I was kicking myself for not thinking to check City Hall for the information I needed.
In a similar vein, the game relies on you to set your own waypoints; you might be told that a building is “near the waterfront, where Wilson Street meets Innsmouth Lane”, but it’s up to you to manually find that location on your map. Frogwares’ work on the Sherlock Holmes series has made its perfectly positioned to deliver a game that, thanks to a number of similar features, makes you feel like a true detective. Getting to supernaturally reconstructing the crime feels like a reward for your legwork, rather than a sneaky shortcut.
However, The Sinking City does fall flat when it comes to delivering scares. First is your protagonist, detective Charles Reed, who is supposedly suffering from nightmares. He rarely portrays that in his speech, however; he comes across as so hard-boiled that you won’t get much of a reaction out of him no matter what he’s being subjected to. Due to the flood that’s taking over the city, there are certain areas that have been declared quarantine zones; head in to search for bullets and other resources and you’ll be set upon by monsters that ooze out of the ground. They’re meant to be mutated humans and the first time you see a monster composed entirely of arms you’ll be thoroughly repulsed.
But these enemies (there’s about five basic types) are used so excessively that they quickly become nothing more than annoyance, especially when they’ve spawned into a previously empty building. There are some wonderful non-Lovecraftian side-quests in The Sinking City, one of which had me tracking down a local urban legend. Feeling a genuine chill – one of the few times the game actually spooked me – I stepped into her former home… only to be immediately set upon by the same large monster I’d seen a hundred times before.
Once I’d dispatched it, wrestling with the game’s imprecise and sometimes frustrating combat system, I was able to continue investigating – but this mundane encounter destroyed the sense of anticipation and horror I’d felt up to that point. The scarcity of bullets also means that you often end up poking through bins just to scrape together enough crafting resources. There are also human foes to fight but they’re in the minority; the game mistakenly thinks that flinging foe after familiar foe at you generates tension. The Sinking City also has its fair share of glitches, including NPCs who pop into existence in front of you, which can undercut the gloomy atmosphere.
The game’s human NPCs do, at least, present you with some engaging moral dilemmas and are a delightfully odd bunch. Things are rarely black and white and, even though you piece together evidence in your journal, you’re still left to draw your own conclusions. Did a fish-faced Innsmouth refugee kill someone in retaliation for his mistreatment? Or was his memory warped by the madness slowly engulfing the city?
I examined my own prejudices in this case and found myself wanting; having been set upon by the Innsmouthers in previous Lovecraft games, I decided not to believe him and reported his crime. I was left dwelling on that particular choice for hours; there’s a lot of sharp writing in The Sinking City that will leave you feeling thoroughly uncomfortable, no matter what choices you make. But these decisions are ultimately fruitless; your choices don’t affect the game’s ending, which is mildly disappointing.
The Sinking City is an odd beast. The game’s underlying story, while not name-checking Cthulhu as such, is Lovecraft-by-numbers and is unlikely to draw you in. Its monster encounters, the game’s main tool of delivering horror, feel tacked on and unnecessary. But the city itself, with its oddball inhabitants and twisted tales, is the perfect stomping ground for a supernaturally-inclined detective. The lack of signposting will be an issue for some, but it means that when you do finally solve one of the game’s mysteries, you’re rewarded with genuine satisfaction – and I’d like to see similar supernatural detective stories in this vein. It won’t scare your socks off, but if you can avoid getting bogged down by The Sinking City’s clunkier elements, there’s enough to enjoy here.