The Sinking City Review – Cosmic Horror
I liked Lovecraftian horror before I even knew what it was. One of my most played and favourite Gamecube games was Eternal Darkness. It wasn’t until years after I’d played it that I realised it was inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos and borrowed heavily from H.P. Lovecraft’s works. I even played game after game of Arkham Horror without realising it was based on Call of Cthulhu for far too long.
There’s something deeply primal, dark and alluring about the Cthulhu Mythos. It pulls at you, whispers to you and drags you into its grasp, somehow managing to be strangely seductive and horrifying all at once.
The Sinking City from Frogwares manages to achieve the same feat. It’s janky, a little unpolished and ugly but I couldn’t stop playing it. It’s thrilling, frightening, mystifying and spellbinding at the same time. The Sinking City is a game that reaches beyond your TV screen and drags you into the sodden, damp, depressing mess of Oakmont.
The Sinking City Review
Charles Reed, an ex-Navy sailor and veteran of World War I turned Private Investigator journeys to Oakmont, Massachusetts. Reed has been plagued by visions and nightmares for years and Oakmont resident Johannes Van der Berg may hold the answer.
Oakmont is an insular, wary society and ‘Outsiders’ — such as Reed — are not fondly welcomed. However, Reed has something in common with many residents of this sodden, flooded city; his visions. Many people in Oakmont share the visions that Reed experiences and they’re far more common in the city than anywhere else.
Even before you’re in control of Reed, The Sinking City makes it clear that anything and everything you see may or may not be real. A cutscene shows Reed on his bed, aboard a boat sailing underneath the ocean while betentacled behemoths swim alongside. He falls and as he does so he wakes in the same bed, aboard the same boat, only now, it’s docked at Oakmont.
It’s here that the game begins and so too does your journey into madness.
The Elder Gods
On meeting Van Der Berg, Reed learns of the issues plaguing Oakmont. The never-ending rain, the increasing flood waters, Wylebeasts, racial tension, murder and rising crime.
Reed is soon introduced to the Throgmorton family; wealthy and powerful. The patriarch has organised an expedition under the ocean to recover an artefact but his son has vanished. It’s up to Reed to find out what happened but it’s only the beginning of his case.
It would do you no favours to have me delve further into the narrative of The Sinking City. The story is by far the most enjoyable and most important element of the game. However, Lovecraft fans will immediately recognise references to Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family and The Shadow over Innsmouth.
The longer Reed is in Oakmont, stranger and stranger events occur with increasing frequency. However, gradually, the strangeness seems less out of place. He grows accustomed to Oakmont and so too will you.
At its most basic, The Sinking City is an open-world adventure game. You explore Oakmont, investigate crime scenes, interview suspects, engage in combat with monsters and humans and complete quests.
These are the most generic and most basic elements of The Sinking City. Reed can use Retrocognition to recreate crime scenes, use his Mind’s Eye to uncover hidden clues and even recover memories from certain objects. It’s all very Sherlock Holmes meets H.P. Lovecraft.
While these investigation techniques follow the themes of the supernatural city of Oakmont, they don’t really add anything we’ve never seen before. A lot of the investigations in The Sinking City feel like Murdered: Soul Suspect and the two games could be cousins. However, the latter doesn’t have the former’s atmosphere, tension and mood.
Playing The Sinking City feels oppressive, as it should. Oakmont is a terrible, rotten, half destroyed place where lawlessness abounds. Half the city believes in racial purity and the others believe in the long-dormant Elder Gods beneath the ocean. Even with the sometimes clunky dialogue and stiff animations, The Sinking City is a fascinating study of the human condition.
No matter what I was doing in The Sinking City, be it unloading dozens of rounds into twisted, horrifying creatures, trudging across the wet streets, researching the records of Oakmont citizens or slowly puttering around the flooded streets in a small boat, none of it resonated with me as much as the unravelling story of Reed and the Elder Gods.
As he solves mysteries and completes cases, Reed learns about Oakmont and its customs. But he also learns about himself. He learns about society as a whole.
Despite being a flooded hell hole, Oakmont is a microcosm of the world in general. People trying to make their way in the world, others trying to get ahead at all costs, the 1%, the KKK, corrupt officials and more. Oakmont in the 1920s is more like our world in 2019 than we’d care to admit. And making decisions in this world is more difficult than you’d expect.
Throughout his story, Reed comes up against some tough, moral decisions. I won’t spoil them, but most times, there are only shades of grey and no black and white. Interestingly, Frogwares hasn’t built in any consequences to your decisions for the most part. There’s no binary ‘good/bad’ choice system and more often than not you won’t even see the results of your choices.
However, every choice I made stayed with me. Right until the very end. I felt it in my gut, felt the weight of what it meant and even felt sick by the choice I was being forced to make. By not providing feedback, a points system or some binary morality, Frogwares instead lets the decision stand for itself. It lets your guilt weigh on you in the real world and it’s far more impactful as a result.
All Good Things
By the time you reach the end of The Sinking City (after 30 or so hours), you’ll be emotionally drained. And the lead-up to the final decision is truly harrowing.
But, that being said, even after it was over, I wanted to go again.
The Sinking City may have all the ingredient of a modern video game; XP, skill trees, crafting, an open-world, psychic investigative powers and shooting but it’s the narrative that really elevates this game.
Frogwares has managed to tell a tale that lives in your soul and in your lizard brain. It stays with you long after it’s finished and it will have you questioning every choice you made.
Frogwares isn’t casting judgement either. It lets you do that yourself and for a game to make you examine your own morals…well, you can’t call that anything other than a success.
The Sinking City was reviewed on PC using a digital code provided by the developer.
Game title: The Sinking City
Creeping, visceral horror - 9.4/10
Moral decisions that will stay with you - 9.7/10
Visually 'just ok' - 6.5/10
Janky Gameplay - 6.4/10
Well told, chilling narrative - 9.9/10