As a long time H.P. Lovecraft fan, I was pleased to see how lovingly crafted The Sinking City is. The most directly inspired Lovecraftian based game I’ve ever played, the game beautifully brings to life the central themes and lore of the Cthulhu Mythos with immediate, direct citations to the pulp author’s iconic work. Regardless of affinity for elder gods, however, The Sinking City serves up satisfying investigation gameplay, a captivating narrative shrouded in mystery, all swathed in a rich, ambivalent ambiance appropriate for the dark depths of a drowned city. Less seemly are the survival horror elements which are perpetually plagued by clunky combat mechanics, and the tedious world traversal, an initially exciting invitation to explore the world that inevitably overstays its welcome. These issues aren’t enough to sink the game and in the end, I enjoyed visiting the soggy streets of The Sinking City.
The title takes place in Oakmont, Massachusetts, a fictional city along the eastern coast separated from the mainland and half-submerged following “The Flood,” a supernatural disaster. The protagonist, Navy man turned private investigator, Charles Reed, is there in search of answers concerning the nightmares that plague him daily. As madness grips its citizens, Reed quickly realizes that the titular city houses a lot more than just the answers he’s looking for. The game wastes no time submerging the player in the themes and tropes of Lovecraft. In mere minutes the player is on a case concerning lineage, racial bias, and madness, complete with direct callbacks to the short story “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” and the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The game, for instance, alludes to the events of Innsmouth and establishes the preexisting city as neighboring Oakmont, situating the game’s events cleanly within a textual context while still paving its own distinct tale.
The first case introduces the player to the primary gameplay loop, private investigator legwork with a supernatural spin. As Reed, players will collect clues at any given scene, interrogate individuals with needed information, or research events within relevant archives before logging that information in a Casebook alongside information on given side quests and other narrative detours. For cosmic horror, a lot of the detective work is satisfyingly mundane, relying on newspapers, cross streets on a map, and down to earth evidence over the puzzle based play of other games in the mystery genre. Certain clues, however, are only visible in utilizing the “Mind’s Eye,” which can reveal visions of the past, illusory walls, and omens, shadowy figures guiding the player to the next clue. In certain contexts, if enough evidence is inspected a sort of portal will emerge allowing the player to step into a spectral past courtesy of the “Retrocognition” feature, allowing Reed to chronologically sort events. Collect enough clues and the player is able to make deductions and draw conclusions in the “Mind Palace” page of the Casebook, often giving players the choice of interpretation which later shapes the outcome of events. From there, its following clues to the next scene or case closed, collect the reward.
The investigation work is satisfying if a little straight forward save for the occasional un-clicked clue barring progress requiring players to retrace their steps and some overly obtuse archive research which often felt more like guess and check than anything. While proceedings can feel rather routine after a while, particularly since the game follows this same pattern from beginning to end, and events may unfurl predictably, particularly for the Lovecraft initiated, gameplay remained gripping throughout, largely thanks to a captivating narrative overall and engaging changes in scenery.
“Dead Cthulhu Waits Dreaming”
Perhaps The Sinking City‘s strongest asset is its open world setting full of enthralling environments that enhance the narrative and produce boatloads of atmosphere. The briny, seawater-soaked city is suffocated by a dense fog and coated in seaweed, barnacles, and the wastes of the sea, evoking awe, apprehension, and downright dread, particularly when wading through the drowned out streets on a dingy dinghy or diving in the nearby oceanic depths. Different districts bring variety and prevent the atmosphere from ever getting stale while remaining equally as immersive and absolutely reminiscent of Lovecraft’s signature settings.
The strong sense of atmosphere is only enhanced by era accurate details placing the game firmly during Prohibition, roughly the time of the Cthulhu Mythos’ writing. That includes the prejudices of the time and the writer in his time. The game even features a warning at the opening that in an effort to paint an “authentic depiction of that time,” these biases against “ethnic, racial, and other minorities” were included “rather than pretend they never existed.” While the biases at play within the game have less to do with race than fictional lineages, it was a bold choice by developer Frogwares that helps current audiences contextualize the text, the author, and the game in an important way and within their time.
All that said, Its just a shame that the game insists that players get more than their share of these locales with tedious trips between destinations and sorely limited fast travel options. Even on land, Reed runs as if underwater, run here really meaning a shambling jog, and the slog between destinations is often only exasperated by submerged streets that must be navigated by boat. While the flooded streets lined with makeshift docks do give credence to the conceit of a largely submerged city, too often they felt in the way of proceedings and the game’s overall pace.
If the generally sensational setting provides the skeletal framework for the game, than the characters would be there to help flesh it out. In general, the colorful cast succeeds in just that. Each written with a unique voice and well acted, the characters felt tonally and historically accurate all while helping endue Oakmont with life. The only obvious outlier here is ironically an outsider, the protagonist, Charles Reed. Not that Reed isn’t well acted, the character is simply too much of a cliche to see past. Returning to the metaphor, Reed only goes skin deep and there’s no meat or depth to the character for the audience to sink its teeth into. Think of a generic detective type and you’ve got Charles Reed. There’s no real descriptor for him beyond “hardboiled,” to the point that one of the upgrade traits is even called such. That he was a military man might play into the cliche, but is at least a plot device in the overall narrative and explains why the character knows how to dive. Ironically enough, he doesn’t know how to fight, at least not well.
Fish Are Fiends, Not Food
The true cosmic horror within the game isn’t derived from the awakening of ancient, eldritch gods, but from clunky, uncomfortable, third-person combat controls that feel more antiquated than any god Lovecraft ever wrote about (think the original Resident Evil on its original platforms). The game continually warns players that resources are limited and to be conservative with ammo, however, I found myself opting to risk running out of ammo on even the weakest of enemies rather than contend with the absolute nightmare that is Reed’s melee ability. Even upgraded, accurately engaging an enemy with a melee attack felt like more of a struggle than any investigation and often felt like suicide. Luckily, The Sinking City is fairly generous for a survival horror title, and I always had plenty of scrap to craft more bullets, not that shooting ever felt much better. Clever level design, however, often allows the player to gain safe vantage points on the assorted horrors the game throws at you or avoid them all together, thank the Great Ones.
Buoyed by enthralling environments, engaging investigation mechanics, colorful characters, and a carefully constructed world submerged in all the trappings of Lovecraft, The Sinking City stays afloat despite the weight around its neck, namely tedious world traversal and clunky combat and movement. With multiple endings and several side quests, there’s a wide breadth of content to be uncovered within The Sinking City. Though approachable for the uninitiated, there’s more to be enjoyed for those that know the source material, from street names to quotes, to references, to ancient, unknowable horrors. Though anchored by some of its key mechanics, The Sinking City is one of the best Lovecraftian titles in recent memory.