(Caution: Minor Spoilers)
The Sinking City is best described as a survival horror game with psychological overtones. The game is set in the H.P. Lovecraft universe in the 1920s, just after the conclusion of the World War I, in the “city” of Oakmont Massachusetts. Developed by Frogware and published by Bigben Interactive, The Sinking City is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC via the Epic Store.
For the purposes of this review, I played on the PS4. I estimate the average play-through to take 30+ hours for those adept at this type of game, but there is a lot to read and visual elements to enjoy so your experience may vary.
In The Sinking City, you play as one Charles Reed, a private investigator who is having nightmarish visions. The game begins as he arrives in a flooded Oakmont to track down the source of his disturbances. As a private investigator, you’ll utilize different investigative modes to help solve the many mysteries surrounding Oakmont. You will also have to defend yourself quite often from the denizens of the deep known as wylebeasts.
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.H.P. Lovecraft
Exploration takes form in third person and while there is no real jumping or platforming, you can climb from one area to another. Oakmont is a fairly large area, and while walking is your primary means of getting around, there are fast travel points in the form of phone booths to help ease repetitious backtracking. You will have to utilize the map, street signs, and visual cues to find most of your objectives.
During your exploration in Oakmont, you will need to constantly scavenge for supplies. Some areas are more rich than others, and there will be times where you are dry on one material or another and will have to improvise to survive. Quest rewards will often serve to help refill your components, items, and bullets, but it usually won’t be enough to get you through the next objective. Thankfully, you can sometimes find whole usable equipment or at least the components to construct it via the crafting system throughout the buildings of the city and scattered about in the alleyways.
One of the more integrative aspects of the game is the sinking city of Oakmont itself. A good portion of it is underwater and can only be traversed by boat or with a diving suit. Boats can be found at almost every makeshift dock and you will need them to get to many locations both near and far. Diving suits however, are found in specific areas where underwater exploration is required to progress. Swimming should not be considered as an option except for very short sessions as carnivorous leeches will set on you before long.
The underwater diving mode is nothing short of immersive. As you trudge along the ocean floor, you’ll encounter many Lovecraftian elements. Some of these you can defend against, but there are those that will have to be avoided. While in the pressurized diving suit, you have a pressure gauge instead of a life bar. This gauge will have to be manually recharged if you take too much damage from monsters or environmental hazards such as hydrothermal vents. You are also armed with a harpoon gun and have flares for illuminating darker paths.
Some of the more notable aspects of Oakmont include the liveliness of the citizens and detail of the environment. As a suffering city, you will find odd behavior around every corner and people fighting over many things. Under the surface you will find monstrous oceanic life and references right out of Lovecraft’s imagination. Overall, a great deal of effort went into creating an explorable atmosphere rife with references to Lovecraft’s fictional works.
One issue of note is that intermittently, loading and a minor amount of screen tearing can be an issue on the PS4 version.
Investigations and Skills
Investigations will occur at specific sites and are usually contained within buildings. There are typically more clues than you need to complete your leads. Finding them all however, will lead to bonus experience which will help your survival with skill purchases. Many of these clues are in plain sight, but some can only be found or ascertained by using Charles’ psychic abilities known as retro cognition or through research.
Mr. Reed wouldn’t be a private eye without access to research and archives and the Sinking City provides this in varied forms. You will have to access libraries, police reports, medical logs, and city records to track down individuals and locations. Once you have your destination or individual in mind, you can pin their locations to the map and compass marks to get you to your destination.
All that we see or seem is just a dream within a dream.Edgar Allen Poe
Mr. Reed’s retro cognition also grants him the ability to interact with the history of a place or object. You will use this ability frequently to assess the actions of individuals and come to case-solving conclusions in your Mind Palace. Once you have enough clues, you can create leads, and form deductions to help you finish your jobs. Conclusions are not set in stone however, and should you change your mind you can simply go back and reassess your deductions. This of course affects the story and flow of the game, leading to various outcomes.
There is a 3-sectioned skill tree that you can use to give yourself an advantage in combat once you gain enough experience. The effects of each skill up are typically minor in nature, but each one adds up. Eventually, you will find encounters growing easier as you acclimate to the weakness of your enemies and are enhanced by your skill choices.
In addition to the main story of the game, there are various side jobs for you to complete. These jobs are found by interacting with specific citizens and completing them gives you experience, material rewards, and costume unlocks. Since you will want every skill to help with survival, these quests are highly recommended. These side quests are also tied heavily into the lore of the game and the Lovecraft universe, making them a pleasure to complete rather than a grindy chore.
Combat in The Sinking City is where the second half of the horror element comes into play. You will not only square off against the wylebeasts, but also other humans as well. Mr. Reed uses several era-appropriate firearms throughout the game, a few of which are unlocked via story progression. He also has access to traps, explosives, and stimulants to recover health and sanity with. Since bullets are the primary form of currency in Oakmont, combat with weapons must be considered strategically. While there is a melee attack, it is similar to other survival horror games and cannot always be relied upon.
Wylebeasts mostly come in four different archetypes, stygians, lethians, cocitians, and acheronians. They each behave differently and must be combated in their own way. Occasionally, you can come across one of several variants of these archetypes, which will have special abilities you must contend with. There are also boss battles, some of which have abominations you must face off against in unique ways.
Modes and DLC
There are multiple difficulty modes for both the combat and investigation aspects of the game for those who want a deeper challenge. Coupled with the multiple ways to resolve the cases and various endings, there is a level of replayability to the game as well. At the time of this writing, the DLC extends to a cosmetic outfit, weapons skins, item packs, and three extra side quests.
Mr. Charles Reed is a former Navy diver during WWI who suffers from PTSD and traumatic visions. Working as a private investigator in Boston, his visions become dramatically worse but also grant him the ability to see past things that others cannot. In his attempt to find the source of his maddening malady, he travels to Oakmont where he finds more than just a partially underwater city.
Monsters and humanoids known as Innsmouthers also inhabit the city along with individuals who possess animalistic physical traits. Mr. Reed soon finds that the visions also plague people here and are directly related to the state of the city. To fully ascertain and restore his condition, he must solve the underlying mysteries that await him in the Sinking City of Oakmont.
Character control can feel somewhat stiff at times primarily due to a lack of dodge and run only working in specific directions. It doesn’t really impede the gameplay too much, but is comparable to many other survival horror games such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Aiming has no snap or aim assist and I find that it really lends to the survival aspect as Sinking City since it is not a primarily combat oriented game. In some parts however, the elements really add up and that’s where this game’s psyche factor really begins to shine. For instance, you may be suffering from visions, an enemy is spraying an obscuring ink across the air, while multiple creatures attack you from different angles. Trying to aim a weapon through the midst of those things can be interesting and really help lend to the grittiness of the scenario.
Boat driving utilizes classic controls and is very responsive. The underwater controls also act appropriately, with a dampened feel to them. There is no button remapping so getting acclimated with the controls is recommended to leave each encounter with as many resources as possible.
The camera is positioned in a third person offset position. Being offset allows you to see evidence easier from this perspective. You can maneuver 360 degrees on the horizontal plane, but tilting up and down is limited to 180. The camera zooms in while targeting to make your character less of an obscuring factor. I didn’t experience any issues evidence hunting or in combat related to the camera making it a fairly smooth setup.
The devils are certainly in the detail of The Sinking City. Many well designed textures help sell the visions of the dark, gritty, and visceral Lovecraftian world. From bloodshot eyes to skin imperfections, each major character was well thought out and mapped. Innsmouther design and and the simian features of Mr. Throgmorton deserve individual accolades as well. The more monstrous designs on both creatures and enemies were also a gory delight to observe.
In the environment, caves and statues held a very accurate translation of modern artistic interpretations of the relative mythology. Gaping maws set with countless teeth were a wonder to look at and I often spent more time than I should staring at a lot of these.
Boating around was another enjoyable aspect. Houses are enveloped wholly or partially by corals, entombed objects, and various oceanic elements. Running from a largely unaffected part of the city, to the slums, and then to the sunken areas emanated a sense of contrast. Ultimately the ambient appearance and the downtrodden look of the characters made for a very enjoyable visual experience.
A few downsides of the graphical coin was clipping and animation. For instance, while driving the boat, certain objects would clip through the bottom at a consistent pace, which really ruined the ambiance of an otherwise enjoyable view. Several NPC animations would also clip badly while interacting with each other and some looked very stiff and barely finished. I did note that most of these were from NPC town folk which you don’t really converse with, but the observation remains.
The sound quality in The Sinking City is very high. Many audio cues for interactions and scene changes are perfect in both execution and timing. The numerous effects from monsters, backgrounds, and supernatural occurrences lend themselves well to each part of the game. Underwater effects and distortions were extremely immersive and sounded great over speakers. The voice acting was also top notch in my opinion, with my favorite characters being Reed and Throgmorton.
Engrossing the gameplay is a soundtrack very well suited to the theater that is Oakmont. Many of the tracks are eerily similar to the style of Akira Yamaoka. Two tracks in particular sound reminiscent of Silent Hill and possess a very foreboding overtone. Exploration and some areas were greatly enhanced by the dreary soundtrack which is important in any game with horror elements. My only remark would be that I wish there were more music options for various system setups.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed the Sinking City. While traveling can occasionally become tedium with no spontaneous street encounters, the environmental graphics, sound, and music kept me involved enough to cancel that out. Horror is the name of the game here, but Frogware doesn’t sell them in jump scares, instead they push an integrated experience. Investigations were extremely fun and the combat and skill systems were par for the course for survival horror. Anyone that enjoys the stories woven by H.P. Lovecraft, highly thematic stories, or survival horror games should have fun The Sinking City.