The Sinking City was one of my most anticipated games of 2019, but after playing the first three hours or so of the newly released Switch version, I’m bitterly disappointed. Aside from the technical issues, it’s packed with baffling design decisions and wonky action sequences. And most egregiously of all, it’s just a bit boring.
If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s basically Lovecraft done by Frogwares, the developers behind the Sherlock Holmes games. Accordingly, you play a private investigator who is on the hunt for the source of his weird visions and the many people who have gone missing in the decidedly strange town of Oakmont in Massachusetts. The game originally started off under the wing of publisher Focus Home Interactive, but then in 2017, Frogwares and Focus parted ways, with the latter announcing that Cyanide would be developing what eventually became Call of Cthulhu instead. So in many respects, The Sinking City is a direct rival to 2018’s Call of Cthulhu – and the latter game is far stronger, in my opinion. It may have had a few rough edges, but it nailed the feel of Lovecraft, and was damn creepy to boot (check out my review here).
So, let’s start off with the technical aspects. I haven’t played the PC, Xbox One or PS4 versions of The Sinking City, so I can’t say how the Switch version compares, but I experienced some notable frame-rate drops while playing in docked mode (I haven’t tried handheld mode, so I don’t know whether that fares any better). There was also some dreadful pop-in, particularly on blades of grass that only sprang into life a couple of metres in front of my character as he ran down the streets of Oakmont. But to be honest, these are the least of the game’s problems.
The actual town of Oakmont itself is one of the most drab and unmemorable video game locales I can recall. It’s painted almost entirely in muddy browns and greys, and most streets are utterly indistinguishable from one another, which makes navigation almost impossible without constantly referring to the map. It’s also needlessly huge, full of vast tracts of land that provide little or no distractions. What’s the point of a making a huge game world that all looks the same and lies mostly empty?
As I was labouring down Oakmont’s streets, I remembered what an amazing job Vampyr did in terms of giving its city character and making it feel lived in. It may have had some problems with ludonarrative dissonance, but that game did an astounding job of world-building. Each area of Vampyr‘s compact London felt unique, whether it was the rundown slums of the East End or the grand houses of the West, and each street had its own landmark buildings to help you with your bearings. Most importantly, you were never far away from something worth investigating, whether it was a citizen to question or a hidden area to explore.
The Sinking City feels like the complete opposite. Even important buildings like the police station seem to blend in with the rest, and there are areas of the city that feel identical – one square in particular feels like it was copied and pasted from another area of town. Having some areas of the city immersed in flood waters (and only navigable by boat) is a good idea, but even these parts blur into each other after a while.
Then there’s the godawful combat. In Lovecraft’s novels, the creatures generally only show up at the climax of the story. And likewise in 2018’s Call of Cthulhu, monsters are a rare occurrence – yet when they DO show up, they’re terrifying. But The Sinking City is full of wonky beasts that reminded me of the low-poly antagonists from Nightmare Creatures on the PS1 (video). Combat involves shooting at them very slowly while walking from side to side in a vain attempt to dodge their skittish swipes and bullet vomit. There’s no sense of impact to your shots. There’s no dodge button. It’s like the last 20 years of gaming haven’t happened.
More to the point, I don’t know why the monsters are there at all. Isn’t Lovecraft about looming dread and encroaching insanity? That’s an area where Call of Cthulhu really triumphed, with its twisting plot and strange psyche-out moments, where you’re not entirely sure whether what just occurred was real or in your character’s head. The Sinking City has some of those moments, too, but it also practically screams ‘THIS IS A VISION, IT’S NOT REAL’ whenever one drops. And in terms of suspense, it feels like The Sinking City shows its hand far too early. I mean, one of the first people you meet is the fish-like descendant of historical interbreeding with Lovecraftian creatures – surely that sort of revelation should be the climax of the story, not the opener? You might feel differently, but it seemed bizarre to me.
Last of all, the detective bits, something you’d hope would be a highlight from the maker of the Sherlock Holmes games, are mostly very linear and dull – a case of hoovering up all the items in an area so you can proceed to the next bit of the case. Admittedly, almost exactly the same could be said of Call of Cthulhu, but at least that game had some excellently creepy dialogue to go with it – the writing in The Sinking City, by contrast, is pedestrian at best.
One innovation of The Sinking City is deductions, where you can piece bits of evidence together to essentially make a leap of faith judgment, choosing which path to take. This could potentially make for some interesting, divergent gameplay later on – but the rest of the game is such a car crash that I just don’t want to play it any more.
And that’s the main thing – The Sinking City just isn’t very much fun. Originally I was planning to do a full review, but after the first few hours of playing, I have zero interest in going back to finish it. If you’re after an atmospheric Lovecraft game, buy Call of Cthulhu instead and avoid this like the plague.
The Sinking City was developed by Frogwares and is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch. We played the Switch version.
Disclosure statement: review code for The Sinking City was provided by Wire Tap Media. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.