The Sinking City Review – H.P. Holmes

We’re in a strange time of numerous video games inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The Sinking City is the latest such game, from developer Frogwares. If that name sounds familiar in any way, that’s because this is the developer behind the long-running Sherlock Holmes series of games. And therein lies the biggest selling point of The Sinking City: its focus on detective work. You’ll have to put on your best (figurative) deerstalker, as this is a game that will put your mind to work, for better or worse.

There really is a lot of ambition behind The Sinking City. A Lovecraft-inspired tale set in an open world where you’ll have to use your wits more often than not. In some ways, it succeeds; the world you find yourself in is perfectly creepy and unsettling, while being in charge of cracking a case was more engaging than I was anticipating. Still, technical issues (and limitations) oftentimes mar the experience from reaching its full potential. But if you’re a fan of twisted tales and mysteries with too many webs to count, this could be just the tale for you.

The Sinking City Review- Quite Literally, A Sinking City

I suppose there’s no better place to start this review than the titular sinking city itself. Like any good Lovecraft story, The Sinking City takes place in a fictional New England locale. This time, the action is set in Oakmont, Massachusetts. It’s a city that’s been ravaged by hardship, being the recent victim of persistent flooding. You get the sense, however, that something was wrong with Oakmont long before any of this.

While The Sinking City’s setting is far from the most robust open world I’ve seen, there’s a lot going for it. The design is deliciously damp and gross, with a perfectly retro feel (The Sinking City takes place in the 1920s). As a city that’s been partially submerged, there are plenty of spots where roads have been replaced by rivers. With walking not an option, you must traverse by motorboat at times. While I definitely had my issues with this boat traversal (something we’ll get to), it does a lot to add to Oakmont’s overall personality. With its own religion and bartering system, Oakmont truly feels like a world of its own.

Boats are evidently the main form of transportation here.

And Oakmont certainly feels alive…to a degree. It’s filled with NPCs, many of whom are impoverished. Sadly, a lot of it is mostly superficial; a majority of the NPCs can’t be interacted with in any way. And while The Sinking City’s map is open, the open world is more of a facade. You can’t really traverse everywhere, as most buildings are inaccessible. I never truly felt immersed in Oakmont and its culture, though I certainly didn’t mind jaunting around this disgusting city.

The Sinking City Review – There’s a Mystery Afoot!

While The Sinking City is a Lovecraftian horror story through and through, it really is more of a mystery than anything else. You’re in the role of private investigator Charles Reed, who has more than a few skeletons in his closet. Plagued by troubling visions (apparently along with many across the country), he sets off to Oakmont, with promises of answers. Naturally, there’s much more than what appears on the surface.

The Sinking City is very much a noir-flavored narrative. Not five minutes into Oakmont, Reed is roped into solving the gruesome murder of the son of one of the city’s most powerful figures. From there, the story only spirals, revealing expeditions gone wrong, generations-old cults, and hidden agendas of almost everyone in the city. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

How you solve the mystery is up to you.

The mystery-solving aspect was by far my favorite part of The Sinking City. Frogwares doesn’t hold your hand much at all, and while a lot of times you’re given a location, the rest is up to you. You’re oftentimes left to your own devices, searching through the city’s numerous archives to find some kind of lead. And in a crime scene, you’ll likely make use of the Mind’s Eye, a tool that allows Reed to see what others cannot, so to speak. Opening a supernatural gateway of sorts, the Mind’s Eye is key to collecting all the evidence necessary to crack a case. Unfortunately it’s at the cost of his sanity (here a quantifiable measurement).

However, like any good detective, you’ll ultimately have to put the clues together yourself. Using the “Mind Palace,” you’ll piece together the various clues found throughout a case in order to reach a conclusion. Be aware, though; many of these conclusions are open-ended. There’s two sides to every story, after all. Role playing as detective is easily The Sinking City’s greatest strength.

The Sinking City Review- A Murky Journey

Sadly, as much as I was engaged in walking down this twisted rabbit hole, the journey wasn’t always smooth. More than a few technical hiccups and overall limitations gave me pause. I never encountered any visual downgrades or framerate hiccups, but there were plenty of times where opening the map became a waiting game. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that the map is a necessity during the adventure.

Now, I don’t want to make it seem as though that alone broke the game for me, because it didn’t. What almost did, however, was navigating the boat. Like I said, you’ll need to rely on a boat if you want to explore the whole of Oakmont. Operating the boat in itself was a cumbersome experience, though I suppose it could be on-brand for the time period. But that doesn’t excuse the times I got stuck on a piece of debris (I think?) sitting in the ocean, or the time I literally got stuck inside of a dock. There were times where I had to restart the game, as I wasn’t able to move at all. But I was invested enough to keep pushing.

Only go into the depths with protection.

The Sinking City does dare to tackle some more uncomfortable topics. It’s no secret that Lovecraft was pretty racist and xenophobic (heck, plenty of his works are not-so-subtle allusions to this). In a way, it was refreshing to see a game so openly tackle this head-on. However, at least in my initial playthrough, nothing went past “this is how things are,” or even sometimes “xenophobia is bad.” Considering how intertwined Lovecraft’s viewpoints are with his work, perhaps topics like these were unavoidable in some way. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated Frogwares opting not to shy away from these points, especially in an era of “non-political” games. I just wish it went deeper.

The Sinking City Review- The Old Ones Would Approve

Despite some technical shortcomings and constratints, The Sinking City does have a lot going for it. Fans of Lovecraft’s work will find plenty of references to dig into here. Considering some of them do go into spoiler territory, though, I’ll refrain from mentioning them here. But I was impressed at how the Lovecraftian lore was intertwined into this spiraling tale.

More than other video games I can remember playing, I really felt I was investigating and solving a case here. I ended up being much more invested in building conclusions than I had anticipated. Would I help undermine a clearly evil organization (one fans of Lovecraft will immediately recognize), at the cost of innocent lives? Or do I immerse myself in said organization, all in an attempt to dissolve it from within. The Sinking City keeps the lash at arm’s length, and that’s what makes it all the better.

Still, I wonder what this game would be if it truly reached its (admittedly lofty) goals. Some issues hold me back from giving The Sinking City full marks, but I still recommend it. Whether you’re a fan of Lovecraft, horror in general, or even a good old mystery, you may get a lot out of Frogware’s latest. Just beware the call of Cthulhu.

The Sinking City review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.

7.5Bronze Trohpy
  • Delightfully twisted mystery
  • An appropriately creepy setting
  • You're a detective with no leash
  • Navigating a boat is the worst
  • Less-than-ideal technical issues