The Sinking City Review — Drowning My Sanity
Despite featuring elements from many video games that I love, The Sinking City still fell flat for me.
When I first saw The Sinking City, I thought that the game would be right up my alley. I mean, it features so many characteristics from video game genres that I love. It was set to tell a weird, Lovecraftian story, feature crafting mechanics, third-person combat, and it would even take a page from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild by not telling you exactly where to go but rather give you general directions as to where your destination is rather than just marking it on a map. Yet, despite The Sinking City introducing so many mechanics and themes that greatly interested me, the game still fell flat due to repetitive mission structure, constant frame rate drops, and clunky combat.
The Sinking City nails the overall theme and the way it lures you into its narrative and world. The Sinking City tells the story of Charles Reed, a private investigator trying to figure out what has caused the city of Oakmont to flood and what has corrupted the minds of not only the residents, but himself as well. Along the way, Charles comes across dark and intriguing quests that will slowly unravel the mystery of what the hell is going on in this city.
Oakmont is dark and full of sorrow. Frogwares got the theme of this game just right. Streets are deserted with abandoned vehicles, people wander about desperate for bullets (currency in the game), and buildings and alleyways are filled with disgusting monsters that are not easy to take down. Some areas are so flooded that you must traverse the streets of the town by boat. You’ll drive by buildings that once lined the streets but now are under water. The terrain of Oakmont really sets a wonderful tone for The Sinking City.
However, once you get into the actual gameplay, The Sinking City starts to show some of its flaws. While you are able to carry and use an arsenal of weaponry, the combat mechanics take a backseat to your investigation skills. There are a litany of different ways to solve cases that Charles is currently investigating and I had an issue with most of them due to how the structuring of how those cases were set up.
For one, Charles will need to talk to or question plenty of different characters he comes across in the game just like you would in many other open world games released nowadays. Most of the characters will give you some clues on where to go next by naming streets or intersections the destination is near. Then, Charles must run off to said location to carefully comb the area for clues. After doing this, he must then return to said person or another person with the clues that he found so that the next destination can be revealed. I just felt that I was constantly running around Oakmont trying to get to the place where I can be a detective rather than actually being a detective. That said, there were times where you could go about missions in multiple ways when talking to NPCs, which I thought was pretty cool.
Every investigation mostly boils down to killing a few monsters, then scavenging each room of the building or area for items to pick up so you can check all the clues boxes. Charles will collect notes left behind or seek out clues that can piece together what happened. Once all of the evidence has been found, there will be little nodes that can be selected to view what had transpired at that selected scene. You must then piece those scenes together in the right order to figure out what exactly happened.
I overlooked some of the issues I had with this structure because many of the cases and narratives within those cases were generally interesting and intriguing. But, often I felt that I was just collecting evidence for someone else to solve a case rather than solving it myself. There were also times where I knew there was just one little clue left somewhere in the building and I already knew exactly what happened. Because I hadn’t collected that one more piece of information though, I couldn’t proceed with the mission before I found it.
There were times though that I did actually feel like somewhat of a PI. There are different archives around the city that Charles can use to help him gain more info on cases. There were archives at the police station, hospital, newspaper, and more. There was one case that had me looking for a man who had a deep wound in his shoulder from an axe. I scoped out the hospital looking for said man and another man who fit the description was currently there. However, he claimed to have been shot in the shoulder during a bar fight. So, I went to the archive in the hospital and rummaged through all of the clues I had and was able to match some categories together to reveal his hospital records and show that he had been lying to me. It genuinely felt as if I had solved this specific scenario rather than just gathering clues for someone else to figure it out for me.
Another aspect that The Sinking City doesn’t deliver on is the combat. Now, this is not what the game is about. The supposed bread and butter of this title is solving mysteries and cracking cases. But, if a game has a mechanic, that mechanic is open to critique. Charles will slowly build up an arsenal of weaponry that he can use at his leisure such as a revolver, shotgun, and various traps. You won’t spend as much time taking out weird tentacled monsters as you think you would, but when you do, it is pretty clunky, to say the least.
While great survival horror games like Resident Evil 2 won’t provide you with much ammo and often times it is just smarter to run away, combat is still engaging and fun. In RE2, Leon can cut off limbs of zombies by shooting certain body parts. Even if you only have one shot, you can shoot a zombie in the knee to make them crawl and become much slower. To me, this is a way to incorporate thoughtful gameplay in into a game rather than just firing away aimlessly.
In The Sinking City, combat has no depth or character. You essentially just shoot something a bunch until it dies. There were some satisfying moments of landing some key shots on smaller enemies that were quick and agile, making them much more difficult to shoot. However, I always felt I was fighting myself to get a handle of the combat rather than actually fighting the enemies.
One aspect of The Sinking City that I really did enjoy that I wish Frogwares would have expanded upon was the insanity meter. In certain areas, this will begin to deplete and Charles will slowly start to lose his mind. If it gets too low, Charles will even bring his gun to his head. I felt that it was an interesting mechanic that never really got utilized to its full potential. Most of the time if the meter starts to lower, you could just quickly get out of that area.
Finally, I have to mention some of the framerate issues and the bugs I encountered during my experience on Xbox One X. The Sinking City constantly will have random framerate drops for a second or two then go back too normal. It was nothing game-breaking but it was still worth a mention. Plus, there is a litany of little bugs you will come across such as NPCs randomly cutting in and out as well as NPCs somehow randomly getting on top of buildings.
Another quick thing that slightly messed with my immersion of the experience was the lack of NPC variety. I can understand reusing character models sometimes, but when there are two separate NPCs that you run across and have full dialogues with in the first couple hours of the game that are the exact same, it might make you scratch your head a bit.
The Sinking City has character. If you are a fan of Lovecraftian themes then you might still want to give this game a shot if you can look past some of its flaws. For me personally, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I was looking forward to a detective game but felt that I was just solving a bunch of fetch quests most of the time. Those cool detective moments where I actually felt like I was a PI were a little few and far between. From the subpar mission pacing and structure to the clunky and forgettable combat mechanics, The Sinking City fell somewhat flat for me but might still interest some.