The Sinking City: review

  • Format: Xbone (version reviewed), PS4, PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: BigBen Interactive
  • Developer: Frogwares
  • Players: 1
  • Site: 
  • Game code provided by PR

The Sinking City is many things, but it is first and foremost a Sherlock Holmes game. Yeah, you heard us. No, it doesn’t have Sherlock in it, nor is it even remotely based on any of his adventures. It is in fact, in terms of both script and atmosphere, directly – and proudly – influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Nonetheless, it’s a Sherlock game.

While there are eldritch horrors to shoot and run away from, the vast majority of your time will be spent playing detective in a manner suspiciously similar to that found in the Frogwares Sherlock games. You’ll run around talking to people and picking up things you stumble across, gathering evidence for your current case and occasionally enjoying gently branching dialogue. There’s even a Mind Palace for heaven’s sake, where you piece together suppositions and facts to eventually reach some sort of conclusion. However, the whole ‘detective simulator’ thing is taken several steps further here. And not only because your character has powers that allow him to see the ghosts of past events.

You can choose how much assistance the game gives you but, generally, you’ll need to think and work a little harder than you might expect. Your next destination, once you’ve got it, is provided fairly vaguely, leaving you taking a close look at the map to work out exactly where you need to go. Getting even that much detail will sometimes mean searching the archives of the police station, newspaper, or city records; cross-referencing a piece of evidence with a selection of three search terms in a basic but satisfying approximation of actual research. The whole detective experience serves to make you feel as though you’re actually achieving something, even though the work you’re doing is largely illusory.

There are many choices to be made during the course of the game. Whether or not to add a willy to this ancient graffiti is not one of them.

The story and sidequests are split into cases. The main ones afford you decent influence at the final hour of each, albeit almost exclusively in the form of choosing who lives and who dies (sometimes including the client). Although your decisions occasionally change the course of individual cases in significant and interesting ways, they have no effect on the world as a whole, and no bearing whatsover on the ABC choice of endings at the very end.

The atmosphere is a bit all over the place, not helped by the fact that the developers don’t seem quite sure what they want it to be. In fairness things do, by and large, strike the precise sort of gloomy uneasiness befitting a Lovecraft story. This can be spoiled now and again by unintentional humour (such as your initial alarm at monstrous creatures in the town being met with a “oh yeah, we have those things, better watch out they don’t eat your face”), and even intentional humour (look closely when wandering the city, and you might see a poster making a tentacle joke, or referencing the Creepy Watson meme).

Notoriously, Lovecraft was deep-rootedly racist, something the game appears to try and get to grips with, but awkwardly fumbles. There are black characters (though none of great significance), yet their race is never, ever directly addressed. Why should it be? Well, considering the fact that this is set in 1920s America, this seems rather bizarre.

The controls are more of a threat to your survival than the enemies. Do NOT turn combat difficulty up.

There is plenty of prejudice in The Sinking City, but it’s deflected onto the fish-like Innsmouthers, made all the more surreal considering that the KKK exist in this world (you’ll even talk to and fight them). Combine that with a hospital founded on the line “Every life matters”, and the whole mess feels uncomfortable at best. It’s certainly impossible to tell what, if anything, the developers might be trying to say about race and prejudice.

On a more positive note, there’s no such thing as an uninteresting case, and encounters with the grotesque creatures will always induce low-level panic and unease; especially when confronted with one of the huge ones that run straight for you. You can never quite make out the details of any of these things, but that’s rather the point, and a big brownie point in terms of design.

Combat is fairly rare. This is good, because (a) its mere existence goes against the material that inspired the experience, and (b) it’s absolutely bloody terrible. Your character is a private eye that carries a gun, and he used to be in the navy to boot, so you’d expect him to be comfortable with firearms. Regardless of whether he’s handling a pistol, rifle, or tommy gun however, aiming and shooting a weapon feels like steering a car while wearing oven gloves. We imagine.

An imbalanced and slightly shonky experience it may be (including common frame rate drops, and even occasional screen tearing), but worth playing all the same. Come for the detectoring, stay for the sense of impending doom.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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