After years of waiting for an authentic Lovecraftian inspired horror game, we’ve been lucky enough to get two in the past year. 2018’s Call of Cthulhu had an interesting narrative, but that wasn’t enough to stop it stumbling with dated and unpolished gameplay. Hoping to succeed where Cyanide failed, Frogware have brought us The Sinking City after a wave of delays.
Whereas Cyanide’s game was closely linked to the table top role-playing game it shared its name with, The Sinking City strikes out as a new take on traditional Lovecraftian ideas. The experience that Frogware have built up through their moderately successful Sherlock Holmes series is certainly brought to bear as investigation takes centre stage. Whilst a very different beast to Call of Cthulu, there are still many similarities in style and approach, similarities that stop The Sinking City from really forging an identity of its own.
The controversial nature of H. P. Lovecraft’s writing and social outlook is well documented, but should always be borne in mind when approaching the work of a man with extreme racist views. The Sinking City clearly shows awareness of this legacy with an initial splash screen explaining that some aspects of Lovecraft’s unacceptable views are depicted in order to convey a specific historical setting. Whilst I appreciate the nod to sensitivity, the actual handling of racial issues in the game is a little unsophisticated. A very broad analogy is made between the fish people of Innsmouth and civil rights, but the fact that so many of the Innsmouth newcomers are wrapped up in murder and sacrifice undermines the parallels being drawn.
In dialogue and background, however, The Sinking City is more successful. The PI you play as, Charles Reed, is often able to persuade intolerant individuals to take a more open-minded view. These conversations are pretty well written and acted, but there is not enough choice for meaningful interaction. In most cases it’s just a matter of exhausting all of the options, with little change in events from the order of conversation you take. There are a number of set piece decisions that do have ramifications, but these are usually pretty strongly signposted and fall down to simple binary choices.
Rather than being based on a specific story from Lovecraft’s canon, The Sinking City feels like a compilation of many of his main themes and ideas. The threats from beneath the sea, the social issues caused by amphibian newcomers, spreading madness, and sinister cults will all be instantly recognisable, with a series of easter eggs found in side quests and character names for Lovecraft fans. The sense of immersion into a world truly inspired by the Cthulhu mythos is impressive and represents one of the most successful aspects of the game. The city of Oakmont in which the game takes place contains all the expected locations of a Lovecraft story too, from the port strewn with tentacular monstrosities to the University in which bizarre experiments are taking place.
Uncovering the city would be an enjoyable experience, but for the odd sense of scale and annoyances getting around. Oakmont is large for an adventure game, but many of the streets are filler with no real sense of purpose. As might be expected from the title, many streets are submerged and must be navigated by boat. This is a cool idea at first, but quickly becomes monotonous and repetitive. The boat controls in the most simple of fashions and there is no damage or sense of peril to keep you on edge. Alongside the fact that so many areas of the city look identical, this results in a sense of relief when you unlock the phone booths that serve as fast travel points. By the end of the game I was hooked on the narrative, but was stepping into phone booths more often than Clark Kent while trying to cut out as much of the city navigation as I could.
It does undercut some of the enjoyment I found in the storyline and the investigations, both of which are streets ahead of the competition. Finding clues and following leads is handled really well, with a real sense of discovery when you uncover the solution. Unlike the icon hunting from many games, you must place evidence on the map to find your destinations and clues will point you towards particular streets rather than taking you directly to where you need to go. This is a welcome change from the magical sat nav that so often characterises an open world game. However, once you’ve placed the icon, the result is very similar as it sits on the onscreen compass to guide you. Harder difficulty settings offer less guidance for those who seek more challenge but in reality I could see this leading mainly to more aimless wandering around identikit streets. I appreciate the ambition of having such a large map, but I think this is a case of a game’s reach exceeding its grasp.
As you progress through the game you in your quest to unravel the mysteries of Oakmont and the origins of your visions, you follow an interesting central quest that takes you all around the city and contains some genuinely great moments. Most of the more memorable ones actually revolve around human interactions as the cast of monsters is relatively small. This is exacerbated by the increasing reliance on combat to access areas for detective work. The pop up hints regularly remind you that fleeing is always an option, but almost every building that you explore has forced combat.
Stepping off the beaten path, early attempts to check out side quests met with failure as Reed’s equipment was not up to the task. I’d recommend following the main quest until you receive the shotgun at least. A Lovecraft game shouldn’t end up focused on looting and combat loops, with all sense of peril and fragility being reserved for cutscenes.
Ammo and medkits can be scavenged, given as rewards by quest givers, or crafted from raw materials. The latter is handed nicely without going to the extreme micro-management of many other recent games, but did make the latter part of the game a loop of clearing an infested area to replenish supplies before moving to the next quest. This had the result of making the nightmarish monsters feel like moving supply boxes rather than true threats.