The fate of a cursed errand boy – The Sinking City – Review

Dracolich – Thursday, July 11, 2019 8:20 PM
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I feel tortured. Seeing how titles that deliver a genuine horror experience (and I don’t mean your average zombie shooter, obviously) are a dime a dozen in the game industry, whenever I boot up a new game in the genre, I find myself overcome by high expectations. The market has given us plenty of Lovecraftian titles these past few years (one must note, however, that this is largely due to Lovecraft’s works now being part of the public domain), leading to several beautiful black roses blooming in our metaphorical gardens of horror. Alas, The Sinking City has sadly turned out to be a rose with the prickliest of thorns.

The Sinking City sees you take on the role of a private detective haunted by mysterious visions, who then journeys to the city of Oakmont to uncover the truth behind his unsettling dreams. This, as one might expect, brings him face to face with all sorts of unusual phenomena and a host of peculiar citizens as he explores streets stricken by flood and famine alike.

In a game that uses horror and the element of mystery as its primary ammunition, one does not need much more of an opening premise – indeed, we can immediately, and quite comfortably, let ourselves be submerged in the oppressively heavy atmosphere of Oakmont’s seedy, foggy streets, and head off in pursuit of terrifying secrets inspired by the works of one of the great masters of the genre.

A sudden nosedive

Aside from the main meat of the central narrative, the game also offers several side cases to pursue right from the get-go. These, however, don’t always offer anything of real substance and – save for a few lines of filler dialogue – often consist of trivial tasks such as hunting for mythical tomes or investigating a few bone-chilling side-stories.

Roughly one-third through the campaign, I was already starting to feel that The Sinking City’s characters and monsters were severely lacking in variety, and around the halfway point – following a rude awakening at a hospital – the storyline, too, took a noticeable nosedive in quality. Characters that had seemed promising at first began to disappear one by one as the plot progressed, their personal stories having little to no effect on the overall narrative. As the campaign drew closer and closer to its climax with a series of plot points that were about as inconsequential as they were predictable, the only question that still begged an answer was how and when the development of this game went wrong. As such, I began to put the pieces of the puzzle together myself.

Let’s consider Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre for a moment. We have stories featuring forbidden relics, writings and mysteries that threaten the sanity of those who would discover them. Ancient, godlike entities that occasionally meddle in the affairs of mankind. Portals tunneling through the stars. Prophecies that foreshadow the coming of terrifying deities whose arrival would lead the world to ruin. An entire mythos filled with powerful, supernatural creatures. Dozens of short stories, novellas and all the derivative works – be it literature or roleplaying games – they helped inspire. I can only assume that the developers were familiar with Arkham Horror, a board game about a group of people trying to thwart the machinations of cosmic horrors and thus prevent the destruction of the world. A board game that, by the way, features locations such as a police station, the offices of the local newspaper, a city hall, a university and a cemetery, with several clues or side missions waiting to be found at each. I hope it’s getting clearer what I’m trying to get at here.

Wait a second, didn’t that already happen?

The beginning of the game, in fact, felt so tightly paced that it made me expect a well-thought-out, masterfully executed plot rich in twists, surprises and jaw-dropping moments. My expectations, however, were quickly undermined by the game’s open world structure (seriously, though, why do developers believe that making their game open world will automatically guarantee success?), leading to countless empty hours spent aimlessly exploring The Sinking City’s copy-pasted locations. The fact that the city itself feels dull and repetitive, and that the game only really uses and re-uses the same three or four enemy types throughout the campaign didn’t exactly help matters, either.

Look, I get that NPCs of different skin color beating each other up – or outright murdering each other – in broad daylight is a shocking sight. It is. But seeing it repeated dozens of times (without the game ever giving you the opportunity to intervene, I might add) will eventually make most people just shrug and walk away, the same way they would in real life. Granted, if that was the developers’ intention, then good job, I suppose, but I kind of doubt it.

The city is decently atmospheric, I’ll give it that, but the game and its plot doesn’t utilize the setting to its full potential. Although you do have access to a special ability that lets you peek into the town’s history, this ends up being largely irrelevant in the context of the main narrative, and it certainly doesn’t give you any sort of unique insight that would be worthy of a brilliant detective – instead, most of the player’s time is eaten up by poring over the in-game map like a delivery man trying to puzzle out which exact street or alleyway he needs to locate. So much for that “master sleuth” difficulty setting, I guess.

For some reason (to reward questing, I assume), the game also features an upgrade system that doesn’t impact anything in particularly drastic ways – after all, what difference does it make to be able to carry one more first aid kit or six more bullets? Or have a 15% chance to craft ammo without using up a crafting component? And in case you were wondering, the free submachine gun (with an ammo capacity of 30) and the extra knowledge point awarded for having purchased the Necronomicon Edition are equally worthless.

Sadly, The Sinking City isn’t just repetitive with its geography and monster repertoire: it also enjoys re-using the same mechanics over and over again, and has the player go through the same basic loop of investigating a location, killing all the monsters there, and collecting notes and memory fragments. In order to move on to the next step of the investigation, information found at a given crime scene has to be compared to records at the police station, the city hall, the headquarters of the local newspaper or the library; similarly, memories need to be numbered in chronological order and clues arranged in logical pairs. You’ll even hop into a diving suit from time to time to explore the murky depths of the sea, but frankly, these segments are so lackluster that the game would’ve been better off without them – if anything, whatever development time was wasted on these levels should’ve instead been used to solve recurring problems such as enemies constantly clipping through walls (and even inflicting damage this way) or the questionable clothing physics.

Oh, my eyes, Mrs. Pierce!
When it comes to The Sinking City’s musical aspects, I have to say I kind of doubt the soundtrack will be published as a separate OST. Although the audio engineers did do an excellent job in creating a moody atmosphere, there’s only one memorable track worthy of note – it’s the one you usually hear during various turning points in the story, as well as the end credits. All in all, though, The Sinking City’s audio design actually still remains one of its stronger parts; perhaps a better overall result could’ve been achieved if the team had stuck to merely creating a game with a solid atmosphere instead of trying to add in elements they weren’t quite skilled enough to pull off.

Horrifying for the wrong reasons

The Sinking CityPlatform: PC, PS4, XBox OneGenre: AdventureDeveloper: FrogwaresPublisher: Bigben InteractiveRelease: 06/27/2019I can’t get the thought out of my mind that Frogwares originally intended The Sinking City to be a far more detailed and fleshed-out experience than it ultimately ended up being, but looking at the final product, I doubt this really matters anymore. After all, it’s the developers that allowed the game to be released in such a rushed state – its individual elements don’t form a coherent whole (almost as if the writers of individual chapters never communicated with each other), the various endings offer little more than a quick, 5-second outro to “reward” your efforts, and your moral decisions affect absolutely nothing in the plotline aside from a few minor hallucinations. The Sinking City kept throwing things at the wall, but most of them didn’t stick, and ultimately, all three endings of the story were outright abysmal – they certainly terrified me, but for all the wrong reasons.

Well said, Frank
As such, I can’t in good conscience recommend this game to anyone. Regardless of whether you want memorable storylines and characters, complex puzzles or a satisfying, thoroughly haunting horror experience, The Sinking City will leave you disappointed.

I could probably spend another six hundred pages detailing my myriad disappointments with the game until I turn into an insane, incoherently babbling mess, but instead, I’ll just say this: I sincerely hope Frogwares never touches Lovecraft’s works ever again. Despite some of the main and side threads of the plot managing to somewhat mimic the author’s style (considering many of his original stories and ideas were implemented into the game with only minor changes), the game as a whole – and particularly its finale – was thoroughly incapable of doing Lovecraft justice.

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