H.P. Lovecraft is the gift that keeps on giving, and his reputation as one of horror’s master authors has only continued to strengthen over time. His influence and themes are often used as the foundations for many movies, TV shows and video games, so much so that the term ‘Lovecraftian horror’ has become synonymous within the horror genre. The latest game to try its own spin on Lovecraft’s universe is The Sinking City from Ukrainian development team Frogwares (of Sherlock Holmes fame), an action-investigation game set inside a grim and bleak open Lovecraftian world. It’s billed as the studio’s most ambitious project to date, so does The Sinking City…sink under the weight of ambition, or does it swim gracefully to the gates of R’lyeh?
You’re Charles Reed, a war veteran turned private eye who has travelled to the city of Oakmont, Massachusetts, to investigate the source of a mass hysteria that has broken out across the region. Reed himself has been suffering from visions and vivid dreams, and it’s only a matter of time before they lead him and the rest of Oakmont to insanity.
Oakmont is not your average city – it is a city that has been ravaged by a devastating flood, leaving half of it submerged by water, with parts only accessible by boat. Not only did the flood render parts of the city uninhabitable, it brought with it a plague from the depths that unleashed a wave of madness and hordes of terrifying creatures known as wylebeasts on the city’s denizens.
The city and the overall atmosphere feels like it’s been ripped straight from the pages of one of Lovecraft’s iconic novellas. Oakmont is a grim and decaying city full of decrepit buildings, rotting carcasses and unfriendly locals who loathe ‘newcomers’. Oakmont’s populous is made up of varying species too, with humans and hybrids such as Innsmouthers (fish-like humans) seemingly at war with one another. The design of Oakmont and its surroundings is especially impressive, which despite its open world manages to feel rather confined, and the lack of visual fidelity helps sell Oakmont’s ramshackle appeal.
Fans of Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games will know what to expect when it comes to the core gameplay loop. It takes the series popular investigation formula and expands on it to provide the studio’s best offering yet. In order to uncover the truth behind Oakmont’s hysteria, Reed will need to do what he does best: being a private eye.
This won’t be a walk in the park though, with Reed needing to sweet talk locals and scour every inch of buildings and areas including the murky depths of Oakmont’s waters for potential clues. However, not all clues will be staring him in the face, after all this an investigation game, and some cases will require some actual detective work to solve. Often Reed will need to look through Oakmont’s resources, such as newspaper archives or police and city records to find the missing link. Furthermore, Reed will need to use the Mind’s Eye ability to find and discover clues that aren’t visible to the naked eye (such as flashbacks).
Once all clues in a specific location have been found Reed is able to piece together the events that went down using the Retrocognition feature, giving him a better understanding of what happened. All clues and case information go into the casebook, which will give Reed an idea of where to head next. Whereas vital case clues go into the Mind Palace, which will allow Reed to make a deduction.
Some cases have multiple paths to completion, and along the way Reed will need to make critical decisions that test the player’s moral compass. For example during one case you’ll have the option of framing someone or killing a family member, neither are ideal but someone’s got to pay the price. With Frogwares promising multiple endings I was disappointed to discover that the choices you make throughout the campaign do not matter in regards to what ending you get.
A true detective always checks his archives
The game prides itself on a no handholding approach, which can vary depending on the difficulty chosen. The normal difficulty features minor hints such as something requiring a look through the archives, while for master sleuths there is a setting that disables all case hints, leaving you completely to your own devices.
Given the amount of travelling Reed will need to do during his investigation it’s a godsend that Oakmont is relatively easy to traverse. There are multiple fast travel points (telephone booths) spread out across the city which unlock once Reed comes into contact with them, and boating through the city’s waters is a nice change of pace.
Surprisingly, the game’s story is engaging right until the very end and it tackles many themes found throughout Lovecraft’s works (including racism). Fans will appreciate nods to his literature throughout, although much like Lovecraft’s writing the game’s writing may not win a Pulitzer prize. It’s the collective result of the atmosphere, setting and characters that make it a winner. It also helps that the voice acting is quite decent given the likely budget limitations.
For the RPG enthusiasts there are skills that can be levelled up from acquiring XP by completing cases – both main and side cases – as well as killing wylebeasts. Looting materials and crafting items is a huge part of the game. Ammunition, medical supplies and traps will all need to be crafted from the materials you find spread across the city. While the game warns you that materials such as ammo are scarce it’s very rare that you’ll run out; it’s more about being smart with your supplies.
You scratch my back…I don’t kill you
Where the game does feel rather dated is in the crafting mechanics. In order to craft an item you need to go to the game’s menu, to the crafting tab and from there you can craft. This is something that would have been far more intuitive had it been a part of the weapon wheel, instead of breaking the immersion by having to go to a separate menu every time.
There’s a surprisingly large focus on combat in the game, with Reed needing to fight back against the cosmic forces and even humans from time to time. There are five guns at Reed’s disposal: a handgun, revolver, shotgun, rifle and submachine gun. The shotgun is by far the most satisfying to use and while it’s obvious that the gunplay isn’t the primary mechanic of the game, it still does an adequate enough job of sending the wylebeasts back to wherever they came from.
Unsurprisingly it does have that flavoursome Eastern European jank (that I seem to love), and while the game’s performance on PC was mostly positive with only the odd framerate drop whenever things got hectic on-screen the same can’t be said for the PS4 version, which is plagued by framerate drops and screen tearing. These may be fixed with a day one patch, but given the Necronomicon Edition is out now it’s surprising they didn’t patch it earlier (if there is one). The only other slight knock on the game is the amount of repeated assets that are used. Whether it be character models, apartment and housing layouts, and even NPC voice overs, the constant recycling of these assets can at times make it feel like Groundhog Day.
Across the 30ish hours it took me to complete The Sinking City there was never a point where I felt that the game overstayed its welcome or the mechanics were bordering on maddening repetition. Instead the more I discovered about the plight of Oakmont the deeper it pulled me in. Many creators struggle to effectively recreate the dread and despair of Lovecraft’s works, however Frogwares has done an excellent job of capturing the hopelessness and insanity, resulting in one of the best Lovecraftian experiences in years.
Reviewed on PC and PS4 Pro // Review codes supplied by developer and publisher