The Forgotten City Preview – A Roman murder mystery where you win if there’s no sin

Launching in late July, The Forgotten City is a testament to how smart quest structure and methodical worldbuilding can elevate your average murder-mystery into something more substantial. Of course, exploring thought experiments through games isn’t a new concept, and many popular games from Mass Effect to Portal have waded into conversations around everything from morality and ethics to free will and epistemology.

But even when The Forgotten City’s arguments retrace well-trodden philosophical ground, Modern Storyteller still manages to strike a winning combination of emotional chords and a few surprises. The premise is straightforward: you’re sucked into a time loop where if one person in an ancient Roman city sins, everyone dies. Your job is to help the residents with their problems so they don’t resort to sinful things like, say, horrible acts of violence. At the same time, you need to figure out what the hell is going on, and get back to modernity in one piece.

The Forgotten City’s roots lie in Skyrim’s crime/judgement system, and it does a satisfying, if occasionally heavy-handed job of hammering home the problems with absolute morality. But the real pleasures I had were exploring and taking “photos” – the city is a visual feast. It’s home sweet home for someone who appreciates seemingly small worldbuilding details. Naturally, if you played the original Skyrim mod, it’s relatively easy to figure out the parallels between the standalone game, but the new ancient Roman setting conceals its own secrets.

You initially get sent into the city ruins by a mysterious stranger, after which the vibe ramps up from perplexing new adventure to low-key existential horror. Unnerving golden statues line the way into the city – it’s here that the art direction really shines (sorry, pun) with its use of shadows stoking my most neurotic tendencies, because these statues were clearly once people. From there, the game patiently builds on this sense of ambient horror which culminates in a particularly visceral storyline in the city’s palace.

It’s all one densely packed mega-quest made up of familiar tasks: finding items, puzzling out tricky dialogue choices, and mercifully little combat (what little there is seems to be optional). There are energizing moments of Tomb Raider parkour antics, which is nice when you need a change of pace. Modern Storyteller adds a few helpful features to expedite each subsequent time loop — you don’t have to do every fetch quest every time you restart, you keep your inventory, and certain changes in the world will stick (you’ll also get a zipline device, which saves some time getting around). Bethesda fans might appreciate the game’s occasional Skyrim ghosts in the form of a few glitches — characters getting clipped in walls and their pathing AI wonking out here and there, which I found more endearing than anything.

With multiple endings and various ways to tackle quests, there’s plenty to experiment with in The Forgotten City. The game does a fantastic job of emotionally cementing you to the welfare of people in the city — some whom you care about, and some who honestly could just kick rocks. I still feel a nagging urge to embrace my inner completionist, and in time, I’ll probably head back to try different outcomes and tie up loose ends in what’s shaping up to be one of the most compelling games of 2021.