The Sinking City Review – An Ambitious Mystery That Sadly Fails to Stay Afloat

    Title: The Sinking City
    Developer: Frogwares
    Release Date: June 27, 2019
    Reviewed On: PS4
    Publisher: BigBen Interactive
    Genre: Psychological Detective Thriller

To solve a tough case, it takes more than just looking through a magnifying glass, smoking a pipe, and relying on Watson to help out. If you haven’t picked up on the clues that I’ve laid down, I’m referring to the fictional yet beloved private detective, Sherlock Holmes, the man who solves cases with his remarkable ability to gather evidence based upon his sharp skills of observation and deductive reasoning.

The Frogwares team is no stranger to Sherlock as they’ve made a whole series of games based on the character alone (the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series). Rather than solely sticking to what they know, the developer opted to create a whole other beast, the psychological detective thriller The Sinking City. It’s quite an ambitious project, complete with a vast open world, a story that was inspired by the universe of H.P. Lovecraft, and an investigation system that’s unlike anything else, but unfortunately, The Sinking City is plagued with issues that cause it to sink rather than rise in more ways than one.

Set in the 1920s, The Sinking City has you take on the role of Charles Reed, a U.S. Navy and Great War veteran turned private investigator, who decides to travel from Boston to Oakmont, Massachutes in hopes to discover the cause of the nightmarish visions that have been plaguing him for quite some time. These visions aren’t just happening to Reed, however, since in Oakmont, residents have been dealing with visions too after a massive disaster, known as The Flood, has half-submerged the city. To prevent both he and the city from sinking into complete, inescapable madness, Reed must uncover the cause of The Flood before its too late.

Given that The Sinking City is a detective game, the story unfolds slowly but surely over time as you solve the many mysteries in and even below Oakmont. These mysteries are all related in a way with the biggest mystery of all, The Flood, which makes The Sinking City a relatively gripping experience in the grand scheme of things. Playing through the game, I was constantly wondering what I was going to uncover next, and my never-ending curiosity is what made me want to help Reed with his unfortunate case — for the beginning of the game, that is.

The Sinking City

The problem is that the delivery of the narrative is underwhelming due to the lack of a great cast of characters. Reed’s backstory is undeniably interesting but other than that, he’s a pretty shallow character. Sure, the player is the one responsible for helping him make tough decisions — such as, in one instance, either choosing to lie or tell the truth about the one responsible for murder — but really, he lacks any sort of deep characterization making it difficult to truly care about him as the main character.

Several other characters also suffer from the same issues as most characters are not given any sort of character development at all. Multiple times throughout the game, you are quickly introduced to a character, then you help them out or they help you out, and then after that, they are all but forgotten. On a somewhat similar note, while there’s a disclaimer at the start of the game that it tackles some serious social issues like racism, which it does, the problem is that The Sinking City lacks significant character development and great writing to truly make a profound and deep statement on these issues, further adding to the sense that there’s much to be desired with the game’s overall narrative — regardless of the H.P. Lovecraft inspiration it has.

Diving deep into The Sinking City with an open mind is essential, especially with how the game’s explorative-focused gameplay lets you decide how to move the narrative forward. While the primary objective is to, of course, find out what’s making Reed go mad, there’s much to explore, discover, and uncover in the city of Oakmont. As you go through the city, you’ll come to find characters that if you chat with them, they’ll provide you with cases that need to be solved. Some of these cases are centered around Reed’s primary case, while others are served as more side, optional cases to let you learn more about the city of Oakmont itself. The cases are what makes The Sinking City stay afloat in terms of fun, as they are all quite challenging to solve, and each they are unique in their own ways. 

TSC screenshot Clues Investigation

For each case you take on, you have an idea of where to begin looking around, but then it’s up to you to figure out how to obtain the evidence you so desperately need. The reason being is that there’s basically no hand-holding in the game as there are no straight forward tasks and objectives to follow, which is what I practically enjoyed. Exploring every nook and cranny in a crime scene is the way to find evidence that all goes into your Case Book, which can be opened to further analyze all evidence that’s been collected. Obtaining evidence can be as simple as picking up an object and examining it, but there is a slew of unique abilities at your disposal that is all tied together with The Sinking City’s open investigation system.

Even though Reed’s madness is a terrible curse, it has granted him unusual abilities that are connected with the game’s Sanity meter in which if it gets too low, Reed will start experiencing vivid visions and may get to the point of harming himself. One of the main abilities that come in handy, though, is called the Mind’s Eye that allows you to reveal an occurrence from the past that comes in the form of illusions, omens, or even tracks that aren’t visible to the naked eye. Furthermore, there’s the Retrocognition ability that basically lets you step into an alternate reality of sorts to understand events that happened in the past, this lets you pinpoint all the critical scenes that made an event, like a murder, occur. Doing all this leads to piecing all the clues together to unlock deductions in the Mind Palace, a menu in which further adds another level of depth, that needs to be used to figure out the truth for each case.

It’s these abilities alone that make the detective gameplay of The Sinking City so undeniably creative and engaging. Getting to actually go through a case can be difficult, however, given that you need to think of where and how to get it started, but that’s what actually encouraged me to keep playing.

In addition to the open investigation gameplay, The Sinking City does have light combat, crafting, and an XP skill tree with branches for Combat Proficiency, Vigor, and Mind. These gameplay elements aren’t anything to write home about as they’re all basic and streamlined, especially when compared to the investigation gameplay that’s so deep and twisted. Many of the enemies, which are demented creatures, do have various abilities, but most of the enemies can be either taken down pretty easily or avoided via running even if they do pop out of nowhere. The developer did try to make The Sinking City have survival-horror mechanics by making it difficult to pick up ammo and supplies, but it’s often times very easy to find the crafting materials needed to make anything you need. Furthermore, the XP system isn’t handled too well as it takes quite a while to have the points required to gain a new skill.

TSC screenshot Gate OpenWorld

What significantly plunges The Sinking City’s into the depths of mediocrity, however, is the open-world (in this case, open-city) you explore either on foot, a boat, or underwater in a diving suit. While it all may come across as interestingly eerie and mysterious at first, you’ll come to find that looks can be deceiving. The problem is is that there’s nothing really to do at all in the city you’re in. Almost all of the NPCs that are on the streets of Oakmont can’t be talked to or just even interacted with, and many of the buildings aren’t accessible at all. It’s a shame as the concept of the city is so wonderfully strange  — but since you basically can’t do anything in it or even below it, it feels so utterly and needlessly lifeless and empty. To be bluntly honest about this, The Sinking City would’ve been better exploration-wise if it had a well-developed, linear city that had multiple pathways.

Sadly, the visuals and technical aspects of The Sinking City further highlight why the game is too large in scope for its own good. On the bright side, the characters and the locations within Oakmont are without a doubt impressively detailed, and the lighting systems in place do deserve some praise. That said, the game suffers from bugs, glitches, visual issues, like textures popping in and out all the time, and very stiff facial animations, along with technical issues, such as unstable framerate problems, that greatly prevent The Sinking City from reaching visual greatness.

What’s especially odd to note is that accessible doors in the game are just flung open by walking right into them. Also, there are several loading screens, even when it comes to entering a building, that can leave you waiting for quite some time. I understand the developer wanted to push the limits from a visual and technical standpoint, but doing so has resulted in far too many minor issues that can’t be ignored. Aside from this, the game’s sound design does complement the eerie atmosphere in The Sinking City, and the voice acting is pretty well done.

TSC Disaster

Being ambitious, especially when making a new IP, shouldn’t be considered or viewed as a negative decision by any means, because it takes an overwhelming amount of bravery, willpower, and creativity for it to happen in the first place. The Sinking City has all the right pieces for it to be something extraordinary, but unfortunately, a majority of the pieces aren’t as well-developed as they need to be, which is truly disappointing to say.

Maybe with a major update or two, the game could be a must-play, however, as it stands, The Sinking City is a massive but shallow mystery that is more trouble than its worth to solve. That said, I’m looking forward to what Frogwares’ brings with their next title as I bet it’ll greatly improve upon The Sinking City’s solid foundation.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Brad Crespo

Editor-in-Chief - On a quest to play as many new games as possible while trying to finish an endless backlog.