The Sinking City Hands-on Preview: A Detective Drowning in Demons

We popped over to Paris to check out The Sinking City, an impressive detective game with horror influences...

Produced by Frogwares, the developers behind the Sherlock Holmes series, and published by Bigben Interactive, The Sinking City is an upcoming detective game with a horror twist. Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, this title puts you in the tattered shoes of an embittered investigator with a whole host of issues, who washes up in a weird world stuffed with mutated creatures and creepy mysteries.

Den of Geek popped over to Bigben’s office in Paris a couple of weeks ago to dive into the first two levels of the game. After an initial presentation from the Frogwares team, which promised a “hardcore detective experience” within a Lovecraftian world, we sat down at a console and knuckled down for three-and-a-half hours of solid gameplay.

The game opens up with our hero, Charles W. Reed, arriving (by boat, of course) in a fantasy version of New England that has been hit by a giant flood. With the water has come a wave of mania, with numerous citizens of the town claiming to have visions of giant monsters and certain doom. It’s a fun world to wade into, and, winningly, it doesn’t bother to spoon-feed explanations.

For example, the world includes mutated characters that look like other species spliced together with humans, but there’s no cut scene or info dump to explain why there are monkey-people and fish-people wandering around. You can choose to ask them what’s going on, but dialogue options like “Why do you look like that?” are seemingly designed to make you want to avoid them. Wouldn’t want to offend anyone, would we?

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Further Reading: 20 Best Dystopian Games

After a brief look around your boat and a quick welcome to town from a mysterious man, you’re free to explore. There’s a monkey person nearby that will dish out your first case: he promises to provide information about the spreading mania, which also plagues our private investigator protagonist, if you locate his missing son. This provides a nice early chance to get to grips with the game’s main mechanics.

Popping into the missing man’s abode, you’ll find a police presence and some friends in various stages of upsetness. You can ask them all questions, and they’ll provide answers that point you in the direction of clues. The brief chats here don’t feel as meaningful or possible-to-get-wrong as the interview segments in games like L.A. Noire, but Bigben did promise that everyone remembers your conversations and that your actions will have consequences later on.

When you find yourself in the correct area of the map, your character’s supernaturally-good detective powers will start to kick in. A bit like the crime-solving scenes in Arkham Origins, you’ll find areas where your character can extrapolate information about past events, and then you have to piece together a timeline of what went down. The mechanics are nothing new, especially considering Frogware’s own experience with the Sherlock Holmes series, but everything is put together well and the case concludes with a fun choice – will you spare one character to keep another one happy?

After solving this initial mystery, more of the map will open up to you. After a quick nightmare, in your character’s hotel room, you’ll find a nice big pile of side-quests that place themselves around the city. A bit like an Arkham game or Marvel’s Spider-Man, you can traverse the open world city at your leisure and choose which missions to pick up. Rather than grappling or swinging around town, though, you’ll either be traveling by foot or by boat. Picking which waterway to traverse down is a quietly satisfying pastime that will keep you busy between story beats.

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The second main mission in the game took us into a visually-impressive underwater area (with a scuba suit segment that drew to mind a certain planet from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), leading to the revelation that an important artifact has been pinched. It’s clear that there’s a deep lore to this game, with those fish people starting to look a bit… well… fishy. That could turn out to be a red herring, though. (Sorry.)

One thing that really stood out during our time with The Sinking City is just how HD its graphics are. The brief flashes of madness that Charles has to fight off (monsters popping up on the screen that aren’t actually there, for instance) are backed up by the fact that he looks truly terrified at all times. His eyes are genuinely bloodshot and bleary, with Frogwares clearly going to a lot of effort to make him look like a real (very troubled) person.

The detail in the game’s world is also impressive: there are loads of people to talk to, a nice variety of beasts to wallop, distinct districts to visit around the city, and lots of different ways to crack a case. Sometimes, you’ll need to interview a whole building of people to find the right lead. On other occasions, you’ll have to search through newspaper archives to unearth a vital clue. It’s easy to imagine dipping in and out of this game over a long period of time, solving as many cases in an evening as your schedule will allow. Once you’ve dipped your toe in, it could become addictive, especially considering that some of the combat sequences are hard to get right the first time.

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Of course, you can’t judge a whole game by its first two levels, and only time will tell whether the initially-intriguing mysteries of The Sinking City are followed up with a worthwhile payoff. It’s a visually arresting world, though, with lots of enticing elements, and we look forward to diving back in.

The Sinking City will launch on June 27 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

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