Does The Sinking City rise to the top or just give you a sinking feeling?
Charles Reed, former US Navy diver turned private investigator, has been having strange dreams and visions of giant, horrifying creatures beneath the sea. After some time, he determines that the town of Oakmont, Massachusetts may have some answers and he finds himself arriving at the town via boat. He quickly discovers that this place has been subjected to seemingly unnatural rain storms, flooding many parts of the settlement and turning Oakmont into something of a gradually sinking city. The rainstorms aren’t the only unnatural things that seem to exist here though, and Charles will need to work hard to survive, let alone discover the cause of his own maladies.
Upon arrival in Oakmont, Charles quickly finds himself speaking to Robert Throgmorton, the head of the influential Throgmorton family, who apparently has been looking into the causes of the visions that Charles, and seemingly many others, have been having. Of course, this being a video game, this knowledge won’t come for free and Charles is employed to find Robert’s missing son. Thus begins Mr. Reed’s adventure in this utterly bizarre city.
The Sinking City is, at its heart, a horror open-world investigation game with a Lovecraftian theme. As Charles Reed, you will explore the city, talking to residents, complete quests to advance the story and find out what’s causing the flood as well as the mysterious visions. Most of these quests will involve bizarre events and terrifying monsters that Charles will need to fight off to survive. The bulk of the game, though, takes the form of investigating locations to figure out what happened there and where to go next.
The quests tend to come from townsfolk who will ask you to solve some sort of mystery, generally revolving around something supernatural occurring. You’ll be given a clue about where these things are happening which you’ll need to find using your map before heading off to investigate. Once you arrive, you set about exploring the area to find clues about what happened. This takes the form of finding items, talking to other people or using your Mind’s Eye. This is Reed’s special ability that allows him to see things that others can’t, such as events from the past or ‘omens’ that point him in the right direction. Piecing these clues together will help you work out what’s happened and resolve it. In some cases, you can complete a quest in more than one way which can lead to different resolutions and change future events. What’s great about these outcomes is the fact that the ‘right’ outcome is often unclear. You can bring down a potentially evil organisation by framing them for poisoning civilians or you can let the organisation continue and save the civilians’ lives. What do you do?
Sometimes these mysteries will involve you fighting off monsters ー called Wylebeasts ー that seem to have infested parts of Oakmont since the flood or humans that want to prevent your progress. The Sinking City equips you with a fairly standard array of weapons with which to defend yourself, including pistols, shotguns, rifles, and grenades. Whilst there aren’t a huge number of different types of enemy to fight, they do tend to be dangerous and can take you down very quickly. The Wylebeasts tend to be more dangerous as they ー as well as other things you can interact with ー cause you sanity damage which distort your vision and make you see monsters that aren’t there. Sadly, the combat itself is probably the weakest aspect of the game as the weapons feel weak and enemies don’t really react to being hit. I found myself using melee attacks more often than not as they seemed to be more reliable against all but the most powerful opponents.
A further issue with firearms is the scarcity of ammunition. Whilst The Sinking City is a survival horror, the low power of the weapons and the lack of ammo makes combat a chore when it’s required. There is a crafting system in place that allows you to use materials you find to make more ammo, as well as traps and healing items, but the carrying capacity is very low ー even when upgraded ー meaning you can’t really rely on that to keep yourself ready to fend off opponents.
The investigation aspect is easily the best part of the game. You having to figure out where to go using your map, as well as having to figure out the clues yourself, gives you a sense of accomplishment that you don’t get when there’s simply an arrow pointing you to the glowing key item. It feels a little like the Batman: Arkham series and Murdered: Soul Suspect in terms of investigating crime scenes without being given too much direction. Occasionally it did feel like I was searching for one more interactive item to finish off the scene, but most of the time I was naturally coming across things that seemed out of place and piecing it all together using what felt like my own intuition. It’s very satisfying!
The story is also excellent. The main plot of The Sinking City is a smorgasbord of Lovecraftian references, with characters and old ones from the mythos cropping up at regular intervals. It gives the feeling that Oakmont is a city that doesn’t fit in with the rest of reality and that it’s a focal point for all the strange events that could ever occur. Reed experiences many moments of strangeness between investigations too, as he suffers more and more bizarre visions as his mental state gradually declines. These cutscenes are mostly very well done and give subtle hints about events that are yet to unfold. Often you won’t realise they were hints until after later events.
I say they’re mostly well done, as the technical side of The Sinking City is less than stellar. The very first thing I noticed about the game is that the sound was out of sync in the initial cutscene, which doesn’t give a great first impression. Things in this regard didn’t improve much as I progressed. Graphical glitches, long pauses for button presses, seemingly random loading screens when walking down the street and one full on crash on a regular Xbox One. There are a lot of technical issues here that marred my enjoyment of the game at times. The pause when opening the map was particularly irritating, as you need to open it quite often due to the lack of a mini-map. It’s only a couple of moments each time, but it’s just long enough to be annoying. Characters popping in, in T-pose, monsters clipping through scenery and frame drops, especially in combat, all conspire to make this an unenjoyable game.
But, somehow The Sinking City didn’t prevent me from carrying on in spite of all this. The story and atmosphere were more than enough to make me want to overlook the technical mess just so I could experience more of the bonkers world and often unsettling atmosphere. I constantly wanted to know more, to find out who would survive my decisions and what was actually going on in Oakmont. Whilst this might not be something that everyone will be satisfied with, if you are able to put up with a pretty messy technical aspect, the narrative side of the experience more than makes up for it. I love a good story and every quest in The Sinking City had an interesting mystery to solve. Dive into the madness!