How do you solve jigsaw puzzles? Do you start with the corners and the border first? Do you group colors? Do you bundle elements into what you assume the full picture will portray? Puzzles are often enjoyable because you can solve them in a variety of ways — incorporating your own “rules” along the path to a single, correct solution. The Sinking City is a puzzle where you need to figure out your plan from the start, because it has an infinite number of pieces. And some of them keep moving. You see that too, right?
Since 2002, Ukranian developer Frogwares hasbeen making games almost entirely based on Sherlock Holmes. If you’ve stumbled onto any of these products, you know they’re surprisingly… okay, actually! Mostly they showed the studio was always developing towards something bigger and better. And now, that bigger and better has arrived. Frogwares couldn’t live as “The Sherlock Holmes People” forever. So the studio took an open-world Holmes game they were developing and turned it into an open-world H.P. Lovecraft game, instead. Who would’ve guessed that jumping from one public domain property to another would make such a difference?
Lend Me a Tentacle
[Quick note: bonus points to Frogwares for including a disclaimer at the start of the game, acknowledging that Lovecraft’s work comes with Some Baggage.]
The Sinking City is LA Noire set in the universe of Cthulhu’s mythos. You’re a detective trying to solve every local problem in a seaside town: from murders to missing books. You’re a former navy diver with some emotional baggage, yourself. (Quite a lot of baggage actually.) But that doesn’t prevent you from being the one level-headed jerk on the island who can tell everyone else about the obvious realities that they can’t see. Being the arbiter of truth can suck, but being the arbiter of truth in culture where unwelcome answers get burned at the stake — well, that’s even harder.
The first thing to note is that The Sinking City refuses to hold your hand. This is a mystery game where you investigate various locales and collect clues. You’re going to read more notes and books than you did in every Elder Scrolls game combined. And then it is entirely up to you to go out and solve whatever puzzle they relate to. There are no in-game prompts. There are no waypoints telling you where the go. The titular sinking city itself is deliberately designed as a sprawling labyrinth to keep outsiders from navigating its streets and waterways. The Sinking City, the game, goes a step further. It doesn’t bother dividing your cases up into distinct missions or levels. This is a huge open world. If you have a dozen cases in progress at the same time, well, that’s the life of a private dick.
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It is also the best detective simulator I have ever played, set in a fantastic world that I adore. I can’t oversell how much I appreciate its excellent elements that allow me to overlook what a goddamn mess the rest of the game is.
The Sinking City’s dedication to obscurity extends beyond gameplay, and into the narrative itself. The protagonist solves mysteries by dealing with various locals, poring over archived documents, and eventually combining all the relevant details into a conspiracy wall of deductions. It is very possible to get a chunk wrong and wind up with wildly different conclusions from one playthrough to the next. None of this is game-ending. It just changes the world around you.
Oh, and your character can use supernatural powers to put together visions of terrible events from the past. They also have a sanity system that lowers in spooky situations and can cause hallucinations. And… You have to craft your way through such sequences. Look. I’m just getting at the huge number of game mechanics involved. Some are wildly more exciting than others, but there’s no way you could criticize the game for not giving you every tool you might need to solve a mystery.
But there’s a problem. You have to manage all these details via menus with conflicting navigational commands. I spent a solid third of my time with The Sinking City clicking through these menus — often flipping to a map or some other setting I didn’t want. This would be a minor UI issue, except for the sheer amount of information you need to process simultaneously.
For example, you keep different custom maps for each case you work on. But when you spend significant chunks of time navigating the city, it’s impossible to see what else you could investigate in your vicinity unless you swap back and forth between a few different tabs and a 11 different case options. The Sinking City is a game that wants you to create and gather all this data yourself. Then it makes managing that information so frustrating that you’ll want to turn in your badge. Er, do private eyes have badges? Probably not.
The Sinking City also brings a number of other issues you might expect from a developer that has never made an open-world game before. Characters and objects drop from the sky, fall through the world, or just disappear entirely. For a game about slowly losing your mind, some of these glitches actually feel at home. Screen tearing and monsters getting stuck in walls are less interesting… The draw distance, meanwhile, would feel right at home on the previous console generation. Large chunks of the game look quite good, but many of the bits that matter reveal a layer of “budget title” that I hope Frogwares can improve upon next time around.
Perhaps the most frustrating detail is that you can’t tell which objects or clues you can interact with until you physically touch them. At that point, an icon will pops up. Whereas other, more polished detective games know to alert the player when they’re a few feet away. The result is that my little dude ran around on-screen, rubbing up against every wall and surface in each room. Remember looking for secret doors in Wolfenstein 3D by clicking on every panel of every wall? No? Well, it’s a lot like that.
The Forces of Darkness
That brings us to what nearly sinks The Sinking City: combat. Much like Vampyr in 2018, this game’s fascinating setting and story are marred by some of the worst on-screen fights I’ve ever endured. In theory, the player is encouraged to flee most battles with otherworldly monsters. Ammunition is scarce and creatures and powerful. But there are entire sections of the city that you must raid for supplies and quests — where waves of tentacle beasts seethe and swarm. As inter-dimensional beasts, they can also pop up randomly in the middle of whatever room you’re searching for a carved wooden boat. (This happened to me and I’m still salty about being killed by a something I couldn’t see.)
The smallest foes in the game are these spider-like monstrosities — ones that move so quickly they are nearly impossible to even target. At one point, I just accepted that firing wildly and expending six times the amount of ammo I should was just… how it had to be. The aforementioned glitching into walls makes things slightly easier. Thank god. I took down my first boss creature because its head went through a solid building. I stood still, emptying every bullet I had into whatever part of him was still visible.
If it were possible to, say, sneak around, this would all be fine. But there are boss fights and a lot of playing exterminator for folks and their infested haunt-basements.
Human enemies are just as wonky. You just don’t know when someone will turn violent. There’s no indication until they start murdering you. I walked up to one guy to ask a question; he pulled out a gun. I had no ammunition, so I had to beat him to death with a brick. This happened a handful of times in my first hour of The Sinking City. These don’t really count as surprise twists when you don’t know why anyone acts the way they do. Worse, I eventually just tried shooting at monsters. If I was too close to a populated area, however, policemen would start shooting at me for disturbing the peace. The large vomit monsters right next to them went unnoticed.
Worth the Work
It’s also worth noting that the early game is not built with any kind of basic tutorial. I enjoy that there’s very limited prompting in this game, but I wasn’t told how to fight until I reached my fifteenth monster. I didn’t know I had a camera until two hours into the game. That might have helped me find some of the camera-related clues!
Still! Still. I thoroughly enjoyed The Sinking City. I know this is a delightfully long list of grievances, but the core conceit of embodying a 1920s gumshoe is handled so well that I endured the flaws. I’m glad I did. The shared Lovecraft universe is put together here in such a bizarre and interesting way.
I don’t want to spoil things, but one of the first characters you encounter is a half-ape man who owns a mansion. He’s mad at a half-fish person you meet later. No one in this city finds any of this strange. Just one investigation later, I suddenly found myself in a diving suit at the bottom of the ocean. You never know what’s coming next in The Sinking City. The freedom to do a literal deep dive into the mysteries of this region was a delight. There is so much game here to play and explore, and the living world Frogwares created scratches my every dark itch.
If you’re keen on reading an encyclopedia worth of lore, or building your own panicked conspiracy theory boards while fighting back the spiritual intoxication of Eldritch gods, you could do a lot worse than The Sinking City. If you don’t want to pull your hair out with madness over video game design, though: Wait for the sequel.
The Sinking City
The Sinking City can't find the right balance of "fun" and "frustrating," but the incredible setting, story, and surprises make up for any faults.
- Fantastic game about giving you all the detective tools and none of the gamer help
- An incredibly ambitious attempt
- The sheer number of mechanics is staggering
- The sheer number of mechanics is staggering
- Mid-range budget title meets open world equals issues galore
- The best way to handle to combat is to put the gun to your own head