The Sinking City is a waking nightmare designed to test the sanity of both the main character and you. Charles Reed’s Lovecraftian misadventures in the flooded city of Oakmont is a font of potential that falls well short of its ambitions. I love that the game is largely about playing detective, sussing out clues and leads by examining evidence, exploring crime scenes, and visiting archives to conduct research. However, the addition of unenjoyable combat, the myriad of glitches, and confusing city design cripples the game just short of reaching the finishing line.
Charles Reed is a former Navy sailor turned private detective who suffers from recurring nightmares. As visions of alien cephalopods haunt him, Reed is summoned to investigate a similar hysteria gripping the fine folks in Oakmont, Massachusetts. Reed’s arrival is marked by terrible events surrounding the prestigious Throgmortons, a wealthy and influential family identified by their ape-like facial features, which are a result of “good breeding.” As it happens, Oakmont is a severely messed up city. It has suffered an unnatural flood that not only has engulfed half the city but it has made travel from the mainland incredibly difficult, forcing the locals to subsist through a barter system and routinely antagonize the fish-like residents from Innsmouth who have tried to eke out a living in the city as best they can. Reed finds himself in the middle of rising tensions between the Throgmortons and the Innsmouthers but much bigger than that is the presence of a cult that is up to no good.
There are a few things I do enjoy about The Sinking City. I appreciate the systems in place that put the onus on the player to find out where to go and what to do by thoroughly reading through clues and evidence that point to vague areas of the city. Doing so forces you to really pay attention to the major characters as the game doesn’t hold your hand and tell you where to go. This portion of the game is cool and as a librarian by day, any video game that simulates doing archival research using a system of keywords is OK by me. To that end, much of the game is spent pouring over maps to puzzle out where to go when all you’re given are the names of districts and cross streets. Add to that the time it takes to journey from one location to another. Travel is slow even when holding down the trigger button to sprint or boost the speed of motorboats. With little to see and do on the way to your objective, getting around Oakmont is a chore. Phone booths function as fast travel markers but you have to find them on your own. You’ll want to head out and find phone booths as early as you can to really cut the time spent running from A to B. Given the length and frequency of load screens, perhaps it doesn’t matter either way.
Evidence and general notes about your current cases are kept in unordered lists in your journal to gently nudge you in the right direction. Evidence doesn’t explicitly tell you where to go and like I said, you’ll need to study the map to figure it out. I don’t mind this at all. In fact, I think it’s a pretty neat idea. Where the problems come in as that it can sometimes be confusing to know where you’re supposed to go. A lot of that confusion is attributed to how often the developers reuse assets, from a house’s floor plan to an entire neighborhood block, creating lots of unnecessary confusion. While hunting a lead for a side case, I stumbled onto a neighborhood that was designed exactly like one I visited earlier in the story. I checked my position on the map to verify I was in a different place but this new neighborhood was designed like the previous one. There was only one house I could get into—just like the other one—which had the exact same three-story floor plan and interior design, save for a few furnishings. My travels lead me to another house that had the exact same caved in ceiling, collapsed walls, and hole in the wall leading outside as the house you interact with at the very start of the game. Sanity is one of The Sinking City’s major themes and I couldn’t tell if the developers were playing me or just being lazy.
The sanity system is another feature I quite liked. Charles Reed has a supernatural power that lets him see more than the average person. Using this ability while investigating a crime scene or a suspect’s last known location reveals hidden clues and sequences of events he can reconstruct to catch a new lead. This is accomplished at the expense of Reed’s sanity. Wandering into scary places riddled with bodies and other visual horror is mentally taxing on our hero. Doing the best impression of Eternal Darkness, as the sanity meter depletes, Reed will start having visions that, at first, appear as harmless, superimposed apparitions. The more sanity he loses, the likelihood of those visions manifesting themselves as creatures made of black smoke. You can attack these visions only to see them disappear as if they weren’t there.
The Sinking City makes specific demands of the player without them even realizing it. The worst of the lot is combat mechanics that comes off as a major detriment to the game. Every so often, Charles Reed comes face to face with a wylebeast, the name given by the locals to describe the Lovecraftian nightmares that stalk the homes and streets of Oakmont. There’s an entire bestiary of monsters to contend with and I very much love their designs. These Silent Hill-like monsters are terrifying, especially when they appear, growing out of puddles of slime with a sickening lurching sound. That love quickly soured because fighting these beasts is not fun at all. The game makes it a point to suggest that running away from the wylebeasts is a noble decision, especially given the scarcity of weapons and health items. The thing is, almost every encounter I’ve had has happened in areas I need to explore in order to get more evidence for an investigation. The monsters I faced were faster and more agile than Reed who can’t take many hits before he’s killed. Death is a huge inconvenience because the game sends you to the nearest phone booth for a respawn and if you haven’t been exploring and seeking out these phone booths, you may be in for a long walk back. The worst, though, is that you’re brought back with only a third of your health and any items used in the fight - bullets, health packs, traps, and grenades - are gone for good and enemies respawn. As if the game’s pacing weren’t bad enough, slamming the breaks on progress to scrounge around for too few supplies and avoiding enemies so you don’t die and lose stuff again really blows. Add to that the numerous technical glitches, crashes, and bugs, you’ve got a video game that actively fights with you every step of the way.
After playing through Cyanide Studios’ Call of Cthulhu, I had high hopes for this game. The Sinking City is a great idea and I liked the emphasis on doing detective work and conducting research to find articles that relate to your cases. It’s kind of a cross between L. A. Noire and Call of Cthulhu. Investigating crime scenes and questioning the locals to collect evidence and build cases via Charles Reed’s “Mind Palace” is a fascinating process where a bigger picture develops as you move along with the mystery. There are also moments of choice involved that put you in awkward positions, like whether or not to turn a culprit in to the proper authorities or keeping their identity a secret in exchange for a decent reward. The design of the monsters and the Innsmouthers are fantastic and the world building is creepy and fun. However, The Sinking City gets hamstrung by an overall chunkiness it doesn’t quite recover from. It’s hard to stay invested when combat is terrible and glitches and crashes ruin pacing and progression. This is a game demands a lot of patience and tolerance.
Only one man stands in the way of dark eldritch horrors swallowing up the city of Oakmont. All things considered, it might be best to just let them have it.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.