The otherworldly nature of Cthulhu mythos is undoubtedly strange to many and brought to life in vivid detail by Lovecraft’s literature, but it’s certainly no stranger to being incorporated in various ways in video games. Frogwares‘ The Sinking City re-imagines H.P. Lovecraft’s vision faithfully and does a fine job of making the world feel alive as much as it is dead, gives us a haunting story and adequately pulls off the detective work the developer is known for from their Sherlock Holmes series. Those interested in this world and meeting its varied citizens as the story unfolds will enough out of it if one can push through the gameplay and technical frustrations.
Players take the role of Charles Reed, a private investigator, during 1920’s America — specifically Oakmont, Massachusetts, which has been mysteriously flooded and its peoples having visions and even sharing the same visions. Reed is no different. We open with a dream sequence, in this case nightmare, to which Charles Reed awakens from. Coming fresh off the boat to investigate the reasons for his visions as well as to find a cure, Reed soon finds himself doing an investigation not only for himself, but for the city of Oakmont and its peoples, too.
Your first encounter fresh off the boat is with a mysterious man, a human, who introduces himself and welcomes you to Oakmont, and soon after that you’re off on your own to roam the entire city by each district. Class and racism is real in The Sinking City with feuds between families somewhat tradition now. An wealthy-looking ape-ish man in a business suit by the name of Robert Throgmorton is surrounded by police in front of a house while an investigation is going on looking for his son, Albert Throgmorton. It’s here where players get their first case. Not trusting of Innsmouthers, a fish-looking race in Oakmont, Robert Throgmorton believes one person is to blame. When Reed finds him, he hears his side of the story. Players are able to gather information, put clues together and make a decision in what to do next. Cases can pan out differently and be solved by a few choice decisions. Your quest reward will vary, but moreso how the story unfolds and which characters you may or may not have put in danger because of your decisions.
Being affected by this flood takeover, your mind becomes flooded as well. However, you also gain a power because of it. Players can toggle Mind’s Eye, a visual state with an investigative effect where perhaps something of interest may be clearer to see, be it a mark on a door or a cache where players can retrieve items. Mind’s Eye can be used at any time, but at the cost of sanity. Reed has a health and sanity meter next to each other. Furthermore, when you have pieced together all of the needed clues, your final investigation for that particular case will create a tear at the crime scene players can use Mind’s Eye to enter through. Here, players can see and hear how these crimes played out to pin them in order to finally understand what happened.
To reach that state, players must use Mind Palace where a whole set of clues you’ve uncovered for that specific case is here. Players can deduce clues to get a more accurate lead. Coupling clues together essentially merges them into one. Clues can also be coupled differently leading to different outcomes during your investigation. When you’ve deduced enough you will essentially find your truth and will have to do one last investigation with your final lead.
The Sinking City is deliberately slow-paced and focuses its gameplay more around investigating rather than full-on gunplay. Oakmont is indeed a dangerous place and it’s actually best to avoid conflict if possible. Being haunted by these creepy creatures will greatly reduce your sanity more than normal and your view will get distorted, ghostly images of people may also appear on-screen as well. Nothing crazy in this game. No jump scares. Enemies, however, will take you down pretty easily if you’re not careful. The thing is, there are dangerous territories in Oakmont and should you risk your life entering these zones, you will be rewarded for scavenging. Running through these areas and scavenging crates, desks, briefcases, etc. for first-aid, bullets, components for crafting and more can be thrilling to do so. You’ll earn skill points to put into 3 different categories to help combat, vigor and survival skills. However, since combat is less of a focus, the actual gunplay and melee isn’t too satisfying. It just works enough without being fun. The same is said for control in general.
Running around town could definitely feel speedier. The sprint function is there to help with that, but it’s still too slow. There’s no jumping where it could help in parts of Oakmont. Instead, there’s a climb input where Reed is able to step over low-height terrain or objects. Despite being a visual downgrade for Nintendo Switch, Oakmont is still a believable world. The crates of dead fish, open squid guts on paths and large, fleshy tentacles that devour buildings felt eerie. It did make me want to explore. I found myself wanting to see what was on the other side of crates or perhaps get on a roof, but using the climb input just felt wonky at best. Having to press it when coming across a step — naturally formed or man-made — that’s barely a feet high feels very outdated. And knowing which part of the terrain or object can be easily climbed will be investigative work on its own. I’m putting that harshly as it never did break the flow entirely, but I did find myself stuck in spots where one could easily step over it and I had no ability to jump. That’s a problem to find yourself in especially if you’re one who loves to explore.
Take a venture through underwater as well. The world is fairly realized and the NPC’s react to you. Hanging around dumpster fires, roaming about losing their minds, or sneaking up behind you, there’s no real sense of hope or happiness. In fact, even with named characters, nobody really takes a liking to you as you are known as the “Newcomer” getting used to everything. You only seem to just be in everyone’s way, but at the same time helping them and solving this mystery. Pulling your gun on them will also get a remark out of them and will run away. Doing so on an armed person such as a cop will get you shot. Shooting NPC’s seem to come with no penalty, really. At worst, your sanity drops dramatically. Whether in the streets, underwater or on a small motor boat, there’s perilous direction to take. Although it does not look as sharp as it does on other platforms, the game still look fine. The textures are low, there’s some pop-in and the overall visuals are not great, but the city detail makes up for it being on Switch.
The voice acting is done well, actually. For the most part. I found many performances to get the job done. The one that I just couldn’t click with is Charles Reed himself. The low-speaking, often one-tone read of lines just made it hard for me to get a personal attachment to the character I’m playing as. There are some lines that come across funny and some with more emotion, but it’s not too often in most conversations that take place. What’s worse is seeing him in his ugly default outfit you have in the beginning. Luckily, the outfits you begin to unlock mitigate some of his lack of appeal. If I can look like a badass, then that something at least.
The game auto-saves but also allows for manual saving as well. In order to faster travel across the city and its districts, players can use phone booths they’ve found to use as their access points. Generally, getting your destination isn’t much of a hassle, but this game really implements footwork. Difficulty options for both combat and investigations can be set as well. There’s no real hand-holding in The Sinking City. So often putting together clues requires some thinking, but that’s part of the satisfaction. At the most easy, you’ll get waypoint markers, but even then detective work outside of that might be necessary. Players can take advantage of several archives to cross-reference and get information on people. These can be found at city halls, police stations, libraries and hospitals, for example, and they will be different. Medical records at a hospital will not be found in police stations where criminal records are held and vice-versa.
The sound isn’t bad, either. Gun shots sound as they should. Ambiance of the sea and your surroundings are in effect. The soundtrack fits with the timeline that it’s in and actually pretty good as a backdrop; never interfering with your work and feels mysteriously moody, jazzy and eerie all at once. The game runs well for the most part. That is, when you’re just in the world once it’s been loaded. The first load takes quite a long time, what can be over a minute. Once loaded, you’re left with no more loading, until you come across a door that’s meant to be a seamless transition and will go black for a few seconds before entering. Leaving and entering from that point won’t load again for that session. Menus also take a second or more to navigate. It’s manageable, but not snappy as it ideally should be.