Release Date: June 27, 2019 Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, XBO, Switch Developer: Frogwares Publisher: Bigben Interactive Genre: Action/Adventure
At its best, The Sinking City embodies the best of the greatest (or at least most notable) detective games of the last 10 years or so. It’s got the big budget and cinematic cases of L.A. Noire, the supernatural twists of Murdered: Soul Suspect, the attempts at non-linear deduction featured in Return of the Obra Dinn and Her Story, and it even throws in some Eternal Darkness-like insanity mechanics and Lovecraftian elements for good measure.
Sadly, The Sinking City ultimately feels like watching the top 10 episodes of a seven-season series you’ve never seen before. You get all the highlights, but a weak underlying structure ensures that few of them land quite like they should.
The game sees you play as a former Navy diver turned private detective named Charles W. Reed. Mr. Reed has been suffering from unexplained headaches and disturbing visions. A mysterious source soon invites him to the city of Oakmont, a strange town that’s become a whole lot stranger since a great flood left much of the city underwater. The story soon puts you in an almost Yojimbo-like position as the hired gun for warring factions. The dynamic between these rival factions is not only fascinating but complex enough to ensure that it’s not a simple matter of pledging allegiance to the “good guys.”
That ambiguity extends to the cases themselves. There are many times when either the solution to a case isn’t cut and dry or you’re forced to make a decision that genuinely tests your moral radar. The former scenario is executed quite well. By using what’s referred to as your character’s “mind palace,” you must connect clues in order to put the pieces together and discover what’s happening. However, it’s sometimes possible to put the clues together in the wrong way, or at least walk away with a different idea of what’s going on. This can then lead to the latter scenario, which often comes down to choosing to turn someone in or let them go, but is usually complemented by a hint of doubt.
Even finding your way around The Sinking City isn’t always clear. Directions usually take the form of vague notes in your casebook which will tell you the approximate location of where you’re supposed to go. It’s a callback to the age of games like Morrowind which demanded you to use context clues to find where you’re going next. Similarly, The Sinking City doesn’t always tell you where you should be looking for clues once you arrive at your destination, though the helpfulness (or lack thereof) of this system can be tweaked via the options menu. While there are times when the navigation mechanic doesn’t make a lot of sense (such as when you’re searching official police records which don’t list exact addresses in the arrest records), it does add an additional element of detective gameplay that feels true to this universe and scenario.
Wherever you go, you’ll meet an array of clients, suspects, and undefinable creatures in The Sinking City and nearly all of them have a backstory, personality, and some kind of compelling adventure for you. There’s a story at the heart of nearly every case that plays out wonderfully in often unexpected ways. In fact, some of the smaller quests offer more engaging (if only temporarily so) stories than the game’s overarching plot.
Even when The Sinking City’s stories falter, its horror elements usually pick up the slack. The Sinking City features the usual array of sudden scares and creepy visuals that you’d expect from a horror-themed game not solely designed to scare, but the game’s use of sanity mechanics is even better than its admirable general horror atmosphere. Basically, doing things like using your detective vision ability, looking at dead bodies, or spending too much time around monsters will cause your sanity meter to fall. Let it fall too far, and you’ll start to suffer from haunting visions.
While none of these visions are quite as memorable as the ones seen in the GameCube classic Eternal Darkness, I was caught off-guard a few times when I saw my character suddenly put a gun to his head or watched as a monster bled into the frame. In any case, the threat of losing your sanity enhances the already terrifying nature of the game’s darker moments.
That’s all great, but so much of the goodwill that The Sinking City garners during its best moments is undone by technical issues that make the game a tragically broken experience that is often a chore to play.
Much like L.A. Noire, The Sinking City features an open-world (or at least large world) design that often feels at odds with the heart of the experience (solving complex cases). Yes, navigating with only the help of vague clues can be enjoyable, but the fact of the matter is that the game’s world packs too few surprises or interactive options. Aside from the occasional notable landmark, there’s not much in the way of mini-quests or ways to interact with the citizens on the streets besides pulling your gun out and waiting for a police officer to come after you.
Besides, the citizens have enough problems without you causing trouble. No, I’m not referring to the monsters on the streets or their empty stomachs. I’m talking about the fact that they live in a glitch-ridden world which often forces them to suddenly lie down or simply blink out of existence. Few of these glitches break the game, but they contribute to the lingering frustration that plagues the seemingly simple act of getting where you’re supposed to go.
While there is fast travel in The Sinking City, it can only be done between specific points on the map that must be discovered first. Otherwise, you’ve got to either walk what few streets in the city remain dry or use a boat to get to your next location (though most paths require a little of both). There comes a point when the vague directions, glitches, lack of open-world activity, and constant need to change modes of transportation start to wear on you. So many of the game’s worst elements are found in the open-world, and you’ve got to spend an unfortunate amount of time in it to get to the good stuff.
The game’s issues aren’t limited to its open-world woes, though. Cases themselves can sometimes rely on the same bag of tricks (particularly the need to reconstruct a series of events using ghostly visions) which don’t always offer much in the way of an intellectual challenge but can take some time to actually complete. Unlike a game like Return of the Obra Dinn, which encourages you to consider the impact and implications of every clue and scenario, The Sinking City’s investigations often rely on a similar series of events that would be all the more annoying if it wasn’t for the fact that they are spread between more interesting moments and developments.
The Sinking City’s action sequences are sadly worse than monotonous. You’re able to run from combat, but there are times when that’s simply not feasible. Optional or not, these sequences are never as interesting as the game’s investigation mechanics. Actually, the fact that the game’s economy revolves around the same bullets you use for your gun makes these action sequences slightly more painful. It’s all the more reason to run away from fights, but again, that’s not always an option. When you do have to fight, you’re left either spamming a melee attack or dully aiming at enemy weak points with a series of bigger and better firearms. You can craft more ammo and earn abilities that enhance your character’s skills, but the skill system doesn’t open up many more gameplay options and crafting is always more burdensome than appealing.
Much like The Evil Within 2, I worry that I’m going to eventually slightly regret being so hard on The Sinking City given that the things it does well exhibit more creativity and originality than we typically get from this genre in the modern age. In the end, though, The Sinking City is really just a collection of highlights. I’m saving some praise for the detective game that manages to be the whole show.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.