Ever since Frogwares announced The Sinking City in 2016 I’ve had it marked down as a title to watch. Mostly because of its Lovecraft influence, but also because of the developer’s background with the Sherlock Holmes series – the thought of those two fusing together in the form of a Lovecraftian detective game got my senses tingling.
Recently I had the opportunity to play through the game’s first two missions and speak to the game’s lead narrative designer, Antonina Melnykova, thanks to the cool cats at Frogwares (the game’s developer). While my sample size was limited to a couple of hours of the game’s supposed 30-hour campaign, it gave me a taste of what’s to come and what lies ahead for our private eye protagonist Charles Reed.
The Sinking City was originally scheduled for a March 21 release before Frogwares and Bigben Interactive announced that the game would be shifting its launch date to June 27, moving it out of a hectic first-quarter period. Melnykova reveals that the delay allowed the team at Frogwares to add further polish and make minor tweaks to the game.
‘Ask any dev if they want extra time to polish up “that one thing that’s been bugging you the most” and they will gladly take you up on it’.
Releasing a game at the wrong time can mean that your exposure is severely impacted, which is why delays can be a necessary nuisance sometimes. If the game had stuck with its March release date it would have been competing with some big titles, such as The Division 2 and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
‘We know we are not operating in a bubble here – we know we have a lot of competition for people’s attention’, admits Melnykova.
‘Being able to market your game is extremely important and the quality of our game really ramped up a lot by the end of February 2019. This extra time gave us a chance to actually show that off through better quality trailers, screens etc’.
Looks like the Yarra River in Melbourne
While the build I had access to wasn’t the final version, I was impressed with just how much effort had gone into making the world feel dilapidated yet alive. From the moment I stepped off the boat and onto the pier at Oakmont port the sense of something unsettling disrupting the city was apparent. Rotting carcasses lined the piers, half-submerged boats lay marooned in the shallows of the city’s bay, and crazed denizens spoke of visions and ancient ruins. It was dark, gritty and grim – a bit like stepping into a Lovecraft-inspired visual novel.
You see Oakmont – a fictional city based in Massachusetts – has been afflicted by a devastating flood which not only left parts of the city submerged and a large number of its populace suffering from visions and hysteria, but has brought with it nightmare creatures from the sea. Reed, who is also suffering from these maddening visions, has journeyed to Oakmont in hope of finding the source of the madness.
Despite the game’s influences, Melnykova explains that The Sinking City is not a traditional horror game with jump scares and excessive gore. Instead it relies on the game’s unique characters, enemy and setting to create a horror-like atmosphere which instils tension, uneasiness and suspense in the player.
As a newcomer (as they’re known) to Oakmont I needed to make friends fast if I was going to have any chance of solving my case. The first person to take me under his wing was local powerbroker Robert Throgmorton, an ape-like man who was searching for his missing son Albert who had been on a research expedition. So here was my first test; find Albert and Robert Throgmorton would become a useful contact. Throgmorton gives me an advanced payment, which is in bullet form given that ammunition has become Oakmont’s currency since the flood, and off I go.
Welcome to paradise
It’s here that players are given an insight into the game’s detective mechanics. Fans of Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games will feel right at home, with Reed borrowing a lot of skills from Holmes’ wheelhouse. However, in The Sinking City, cracking the case will be no easy feat, with the game priding itself on its no handholding approach to gameplay (though there are difficulty options). There are no waypoints provided to find the next clue, instead players will have to use the old noggin to progress. While the challenge is what sets it apart from other games, for Frogwares, it’s all about finding the right balance.
‘The worst part about working on something where you continually iterate, is eventually your judgment is no longer clear or untainted’, explains Melnykova.
‘You know too much about what to do, where to go etc. once you play it ten times. So you need to start relying much more on private playtests and the ability to set aside any ego and just observe. If the test player is struggling to the point of clear frustration or on the other hand is just breezing through the quests, then you know it’s back to the drawing board’.
My first clue led me to a nearby building, where I got my first taste of being Sherlock Holmes in a Lovecraftian world. Reed is able to interact with certain items and people in the universe, both of which can give some sort of idea of what went down. All clues found will go into Reed’s casebook and the Mind Palace (a feature from the Sherlock games), which will help Reed get a better understanding and make a judgement.
After scouring the room and talking to one crazed local, I was able to deduce that Albert had returned less sane that when he left on the expedition thanks to the retrocognition feature, which allows Reed to see all the evidence (once found) in a crime scene and piece it together in order to make a conclusion.
There’s something fishy about this guy
My next case led me into the city proper to try and find out what happened during Albert Throgmorton’s expedition, and I was able to gain a better understanding of how bleak life is in Oakmont. It’s the perfect setting for a Lovecraftian adventure, with large parts of the city still submerged, Reed will need to dust off his boat licence in order to get around and reach parts of the city that are separated by water. Fast travel is available once you activate fast travel points scattered across the city.
Not all clues will be staring Reed in the face – he will need to use the city’s resources at times to make progress, such as to find the name or address of a suspect. Much like in Sherlock Holmes, players will need to search the right criteria in various archives to get a hit.
The more clues I uncovered for the second case the more I discovered about the history of Oakmont and its people. If you’re wondering how Lovecraftian it is don’t worry there are plenty of references here such as Reed’s sanity meter that will decrease whenever something plays with his mental state, secret cults and references to the elder gods themselves (although the names may not be exact).
As my demo came to an end I was left eager to play more and discover more about Oakmont and the source of the hysteria. For a team that has spent so many resources – both physical and mental – while building this dark new world, I wondered what other plans Frogwares has up its sleeve for The Sinking City IP, and whether the world was primed for more than Charles Reed’s story.
‘Well of course we talk about it amongst ourselves. There are still a ton of ideas we have for this world and characters’, says Melnykova.
‘When you spend so long on one game, it’s hard not to just keep coming up with things “we’d love to do”. But right now these are just talks among the team. That said, if we do decide to go forth with DLC or a sequel, the best thing about this is that Frogwares owns The Sinking City IP as a whole so that’s a decision that is entirely in our hands’.
Let’s piece this puzzle together
In a surprise announcement, Frogwares revealed that they will be self-publishing The Sinking City for the Nintendo Switch later in the year and that the move represents a new dawn for the studio as they aim to become totally independent.
‘We’re at a stage in the studio’s life where we can finally take the next big step in our future and our independence, but we need to make sure we plan and execute these things correctly’, says Melnykova.
‘Sherlock games will always be in our blood so I’m sure we’ll be back to that universe sooner than later. Lovecraft has now also become a strong part of our identity and knowledge too so that’s also a world we plan on building on. What comes first is still to be shown’.
However, after more than three years in development, the team is eagerly awaiting the game’s release on June 27. My final question to Melnykova is what advice she gives to players upon their arrival in Oakmont.
‘I would say get ready to unlearn a lot of what standard, cookie-cutter game design may have conditioned you with. The idea of you needing to figure out cases and piecing together clues using your skills of deduction and thought without continual tutorial prompts, markers on the map and waypoints is a big part of the game’.
On the surface The Sinking City may seem simply like a Sherlock Holmes game set inside a Lovecraftian universe, however after my taste test of the game I can say it’s a lot more than that. While it does share a lot of the same foundations, The Sinking City is built on an impressive world full of mystery and intrigue – one that I cannot wait to explore every nook and cranny of. It may not be a game that is for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed Frogwares’ previous work or are a fan of Lovecraft’s universe then The Sinking City may turn out to be one of the surprise titles of the year.
The Sinking City releases on June 27 on PS4, Xbox One and PC (via Epic Store).