Frogwares has made a name for itself with wannabe detectives through a run of imperfect-but-entertaining Sherlock Holmes adventure games built around deductive reasoning. However, the developer’s interest in this unique brand of puzzle-solving extends beyond the world-famous consulting detective. The Sinking City is Frogwares’ latest and most ambitious adventure game to date, setting players loose in a Lovecraftian open world with a journal full of twisted cases. The expanded scope and greater emphasis on action introduce issues, but as a whole, The Sinking City still presents a mystery worth unraveling.
Players take on the role of Charles Reed, a private detective whose horrific visions have brought him to Oakmont, the titular sinking city ravaged by a mysterious flood and the supernatural terrors it has unleashed on the beleaguered population. As you undertake cases for various influential families and factions, Reed is quickly ensnared in Oakmont’s politics and power struggles. Like everything in Oakmont, no case is ordinary or straightforward, such as helping the rich and strangely simian Robert Throgmorten track down his missing son, or investigating a faction of fish-like Innsmouthers whose generous food donations to starving citizens may hide an ulterior motive. Once again, Frogwares exhibits a deep understanding and appreciation for the source material, touching on many of the tenets of Lovecraftian horror while weaving its own unique tale.
You gather clues from various locations and crime scenes, and then piece them together through deductive reasoning to solve each mystery, much like the Sherlock Holmes games. You may find yourself with only a name or a scrap of a letter to go on, and it’s up to you to figure out how to proceed. Perhaps searching through patient records at the hospital will give you another lead, or cross-referencing dates and locations in the local paper might turn up another witness. These player-driven puzzles and deductions are the heart of The Sinking City, and are just as entertaining and rewarding without the deerstalker and calabash pipe.
This time around, some of the deductions are also subjective, requiring you to make a call and live with the consequences. Is that character a cold-blooded murderer, or was he possessed by some cosmic horror (a real possibility in Oakmont) and not responsible for his actions? Should you turn him over to the authorities, or let him go free? The consequences of your decisions aren’t particularly far-reaching from a narrative perspective, but they are often memorable, and your inability to get through every case without getting your hands dirty fits with the grim world and themes. While Reed himself remains a bland and forgettable cypher, the evolving mystery behind Oakmont’s curse and its eventual fate kept me engrossed for the long run.
While that world-building and atmosphere is where The Sinking City really shines, traveling around said world isn’t as fun. Getting from one area of the city to the next is a time-consuming process, often requiring hopping between roads and boats to get where you’re going. And you always have a lot of places to go; in addition to the aforementioned hospital and newspaper headquarters, you’ll be visiting the police station, city hall, and library to drum up more leads, and it’s not always clear which location you need to visit. Fast travel helps with this process, but it isn’t particularly fast, requiring you to first find and run to a phone booth, then wait through a lengthy load time.
As you’re traveling to various locations, eldritch monsters occasionally spring up, leading to survival-horror combat. Simply put, the stiff and sluggish gunplay is not fun, and frustrates more than it excites. However, the grotesque enemy creatures introduce an ever-present threat and tension that heighten the Lovecraftian world you’re exploring. Ultimately, The Sinking City’s combat is a necessary evil that I’m glad Frogwares included, even if its implementation leaves a lot to be desired.
The Sinking City also suffers numerous technical problems. In addition to the long load times, screen-tearing is a persistent distraction from exploring Oakmont’s creepy locales on console (Frogwares says it’s working on a patch to correct this), and uneven voice performances and cutscenes also take their tolls on the immersion. The main quest is a little too long for its own good, but those who can overlook the game’s shortcomings will find a wealth of solid side quests to keep them hanging around.
The Sinking City shares all of the same problems of Frogwares’ previous games, but it also capitalizes on the same strengths. Reed’s cases offer up surprising twists and memorable moments, and flesh out a twisted world and cast of characters that I enjoyed learning about. The combat and repetition may elicit the wrong kind of madness, but fans of Lovecraftian horror should still consider visiting The Sinking City.
A rich theme and atmospheric world shine through forgettable gameplay.
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