The Sinking City (Switch) Review
Cthulhu and the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft has made its way into plenty of games, either directly or inspired by. Developer Frogwares are proudly wearing their love for HP Lovecraft’s fiction on their sleeve with their decidedly not-another-Sherlock Holmes game. Take the Old Gods, fish people, half-ape people and all the decay and cosmic horror, smoosh it together into an open world Detective game and you get The Sinking City.
It’s the 1920’s. Charles Reed is a former WW1 vet and Navy Diver, current Private investigator tormented by visions. He has been requested by a mysterious client to learn more about the visions that he and others are experiencing in the city of Oakmont. A city that has experienced a supernatural flood that has cut it off from the mainland, as well as other supernatural phenomena. Streets littered with decaying carcasses of fish, buildings encrusted in barnacles and whole streets cut off by the flood waters. Oakmont is an unwelcoming place, especially to newcomers, of which Reed is reminded of constantly. The citizens of the city are as unwelcoming as the soggy, warped and foreboding city itself. If Reed wants to discover the meaning of the visions, he’s going to have to deal with both. What unfolds is a story of a city on the brink of madness, from which they already seemed pretty mad already.
There’s the looming threat of the tentacled Old Gods extinguishing all life, and whatever Old Gods do after that. Before that happens you’ll be spending a lot of time talking to people. They’re usually awful, people driven mad or stuck in bad situations, and almost all of them are dismissive of you. There is also tension against the fish people called Innsmouthers, who have recently been made refugees (a direct reference to a H.P. Lovecraft story). Here Frogwares highlight and acknowledge the racism and xenophobia that plagues H.P.’s work and does something interesting with it. It’s been great to see the ways his racist works can be subverted.
As mentioned before, it’s immediately clear that you’re not welcome as an outsider or a newcomer, and you won’t get your hand held. This goes from how others will treat you, right down to navigating the many streets of Oakmont. You’re not given a mini map so if you want to find your next objective marker, you have to open up the full map and find the location to mark it. When you’re trying to find a missing person or need to find an address, you’re going to have to go to the Hospital or the City’s newspaper archives to find the right information. The Sinking City makes you work for everything and does its best to make the investigations immersive. The idea of it is great, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has wanted more grounded aspects to puzzle solving/detective work in games. However, the execution of it all is a sad reminder that sometimes immersive doesn’t mean entertaining.
One of the issues that rises quickly is that Oakmont is not fun to travel around. As part of the whole ‘no hand holding’ thing, there’s a lack of a mini map. You need to manually find and place markers, and frequently use boats to get across flooded streets. It all gets tiresome fast, not helped by the sluggishness of pulling up the map. The map is needed often to ensure you’re going the right way. Locations within a case are often far away from each other. Reed is forever running around to a location just to tell you to go elsewhere, likely not far away from where you just left! Made worse is the speed Reed moves through the world. Even the boats are slow, the fastest movement in the game is running. For Kay’s sake (some Oakmont slang for you) give the newcomer a bike!
Mind Palace might sound extravagant but it’s not that fancy a place. There Reed can put two relevant clues together to make a deduction. More often than not it’s piecing together the obvious, but it’s not until you’ve put all the pieces of a case together until you can draw a conclusion on what happened. The Sinking City doesn’t make it that easy for you though, no case is ever black and white. Over the course of each case you’ll be presented with enough information to know that deciding between two options isn’t clear cut. By the time you draw your conclusion there’s no good or bad option, and I often found myself having to weigh up what is best for the people in this bleak and horror filled world. While your decisions can have a narrative impact, they don’t impact the ultimate ending as that is also decided by a final choice.
When dealing with a game that has Lovecraftian-styled horror, it shouldn’t be any surprise that there is a meter for Reed’s sanity. The meter sits right there next to the health meter. As the meter drops so does Reed’s sanity. This is represented in monstrous or macabre imagery, whether it’s your sight becoming blocked by images of creatures you’re facing, or an image of Reed hanging from a rope. Your sanity level is impacted when you use the Mind’s Eye power, being injured in combat, or even just being around the supernatural going ons in Oakmont. The game never messes with you like Eternal Darkness did way back when, it just makes it a bit harder to see clearly.
Investigations are what make up most of the time you’ll spend in Oakmont. You’re digging deeper into the mysteries about the visions, as well as getting better acquainted with the festering underbelly that seemed twisted before the flood cut the city off. Whether it’s cults, creepy families or racism, there is plenty of unpleasant elements impacting the citizens without even chucking in the Cthulhu stuff.
One of the advantages Reed has over the average Private Investigator is the power of the Minds eye. When activated it allows Reed to see the past when interacting with certain items, as well as being able to see ghostly forms or Omens who help point you in the right direction. The Mind’s Eye works like the Detective mode from the Batman Arkham series (yet again), highlighting important items. Beware though, using it for too long impacts upon Reed’s sanity.
Combat is definitely a damp squib. The shooting doesn’t feel reliable and in a game where bullets are a limited commodity, you need to make every shot count. This isn’t helped by the fact any enemy bigger than the spider-like Wylebeasts are bullet sponges. So every fight you can’t avoid becomes counting bullets and leaping in with a melee attack, hoping you don’t come off too badly. With the lower resolution on everything it also means any weak points on creatures aren’t really visible either. The combat does the rest of the game a great disservice. It makes digging deeper into the lore of the game unappealing, as side missions very often involve monsters.
If you do get killed in combat you’ll at least be brought back to a fast travel point with all your pre-fight gear back (most importantly bullets). Dark, rainy and dirty, the streets of Oakmont lack any life to them. Combined with the blurry visuals and pop in, it makes the city even more dreary.
Initially I was surprised that The Sinking City was seeing release on the Switch, it’s a current-gen game and that often means sacrifices have to be made. Visuals and textures definitely take a hit, frame rates are around 30fps but can drop at any time and does. Pop in is constant and at times the environment can look like it’s from a mobile Grand Theft Auto port. Once again it’s amazing we get to play titles like this on a handheld capable device, and The Sinking City is playable in handheld. In fact there’s even touch screen controls for some menu options like the Mind Palace.
Unfortunately the downgrade in visuals only serves to highlight issues with other areas of the game. A lot of time getting around the map is already a chore, and every case asks you to do it a lot. Combine that with a world of low resolution and texture that feels empty, NPC models that aimlessly stand or wander around often without any sound, as well as abandoned cars strewn everywhere. It all serves to make it near impossible to overlook the amount of bloat and padding that only weigh down The Sinking City further than on other platforms.
I really went into The Sinking City with some hope. The Cthulhu/ancient ones inspired story combined with some interesting mechanics. On paper I can see this game appealing to fans of the ol’ cosmic horror, but you don’t need The Mind’s Eye to see it turned out a big soggy mess. There is still a decent story if you’re willing to persevere all the madness, but personally the cost is too high. The game surrounding it is deeply unfun and a chore to play, and it sucks I can’t find something nicer about it. The developer Frogwares has made some good Sherlock Holmes games and you can see what they wanted to do here, but please for Kay’s sake stay away from Oakmont!
+ The concept of investigations is a really cool idea
+ The story and lore is interesting
- The execution of the more ambitious mechanics of investigations makes it all feel tedious
- Cramming the game onto the Switch highlights the emptiness of the open world
- Game feels padded with ‘busywork’ and lengthy traversal