Fans of HP Lovecraft’s work should feel pleased lately. After years of crop failure, not only the warmly received Call of Cthulhu has been released in the last year, but also The Sinking City has its premiere. It is a horror action adventure game by Frogwares studio, known primarily from games about Sherlock Holmes. Although theoretically their latest production is not set in the Lovecraft universe, it is easy to get confused, because the world of The Sinking City and its mythology are torn from his prose alive. No wonder – after all, the game was supposed to be called Call of Cthulhu at the beginning.
For licensing reasons, several plot elements had to be changed, but with the naked eye you can see that Cthygonaar in the game was originally supposed to be Cthulhu. It is because of him that Charles Reed, a private investigator, comes to the flood-devastated Oakmont, officially searching for the source of the increasingly frequent outbreaks of mass hysteria. His real goal, however, is much more personal – he tries to get rid of the visions that haunt him with the scrolling theme of an underwater city. His investigation will allow him and us to discover all dark secrets hidden by the inhabitants of Oakmont. A harsh climate of hopelessness and human helplessness against a cosmic, indescribable force oozes from the monitor. Its degenerating influence on the city and its inhabitants is visible at every step. Flooded streets full of bloodthirsty eels, soaring monoliths hiding buildings in their shadows, or even wild, shapeless beasts emerging from under the ground, are already a natural part of life in Oakmont.
Absolutely every plot of The Sinking City plot, even the most bland and boring one, turns out to be a great story that allows us to get to know the paranormal reality of the game world better. Sometimes it may seem that Oakmont is a cursed city, because the amount of evil in it is downright terrifying. Not only will we learn about the effects of ancient prophecies that the fish-like refugees of Innsmouth know surprisingly about, but we will also be given an insight into local rituals and beliefs. The plot sucks irretrievably and it is without a doubt the best element of The Sinking City. In addition, from time to time, the game forces us to make an important decision for the story, which can significantly affect the future of the city. We’ve got all the evidence we’ve collected to help you, but that doesn’t mean the choice is easy. The options presented to us are far from black and white, so in effect we have to choose between the lesser and the greater evil, and it is absolutely fantastic. It is a pity that in the end it turns out that none of our decisions mattered the slightest, because the ending seems to be written in a hurry and without an idea that the game deserves.
The gameplay itself is quite typical of adventure games. So we find the right locations and search them for clues. It is noteworthy that The Sinking City takes place in an open world. According to the creators’ assurances, it was supposed to give players the opportunity to independently find other places important for the investigation, based on the collected evidence, conversations with residents and information unearthed in the city archives. The intention was only up to us to decide how the investigation would proceed. In fact, however, the game still remains a linear title, and the next addresses that we have to visit are given to us on a tray. Oakmont itself does not really encourage exploration. The designs of the individual locations are really good, but apart from admiring them on the world map, there is not much to do, so the best option is to run from the telephone booth to the telephone booth, which are used for fast travel here.
The investigation turns out to be quite schematic and it almost always looks the same. We enter the building, clean it of monsters, and then, after gathering appropriate clues, we guess the chronology of events related to the investigation based on Charles’ visualization. The latter is a gift or a curse that our hero received with his visions. In addition, it can also recreate short scenes related to individual items found at the crime scene, as well as unmask the illusion, thus discovering hidden rooms or further evidence. I will not say, it is all very pleasant, and putting together the next pieces of the puzzle gives a bit of satisfaction. The problem is that routine creeps into the game very quickly, because we have to repeat the same steps in dozens (worse, often looking almost identical) locations over a period of several hours. Fortunately, The Sinking City fully compensates us for this hardship with a fantastic story, and it also happens that we will be surprised by some unusual view in a seemingly ordinary building.
Also, the combat system in assumptions is not bad at all. The game turns into a shooter for a moment, offering the player several types of weapons to choose from, including a shovel for use at close range. You even gain experience for which you are rewarded with skill points, which you can spend on the possibility of carrying more ammunition, reduced damage from falls or even a chance to save components while crafting. The problem is that the fight turns out to be quite trivial very quickly, and you can emerge victorious from the vast majority of battles using only a shovel. In fact, only a machine gun came in handy from time to time in the case of a closer encounter with a tougher opponent. Grenades, Molotov cocktails and traps might not exist at all, because whatever I would use – the shovel turned out to be the best option. As an additional obstacle, we must take care of Charles’ mental health at all times. As soon as its indicator drops too much, imaginary monsters will start attacking us, the screen will obscure the vision of characters walking towards us, and our entire surroundings may become dark. Therefore, it is recommended to always have a few doses of psychotropics in your possession, which will help us get rid of nagging visions for a while.
I also had high hopes for underwater sequences, when, after putting on the suit, we descend to the surface of the ocean. Being a bit familiar with Lovecraft’s prose and understanding that also in The Sinking City, evil is sleeping somewhere in the depths, with the eyes of my imagination I saw fantastic scenery full of indescribable horror. The game approached it only once, because, unfortunately, most of these moments are limited to a more or less complicated path to the cave we are interested in, avoiding the squid attacking us and the air escaping under high pressure from the cracks at the bottom. First of all, I regret that visually it is completely bland there. It gets more interesting only closer to the finals, but until then we can only admire the brown rocks, sand and the occasional large octopus.
One cannot fail to mention the terrible technical level of The Sinking City. On the original Xbox One, the norm are sudden and visible drops in the number of frames displayed, textures not being read on time, or even NPCs materializing in front of our eyes without animations yet initiated. It also happened several times that some elements of the environment suddenly began to glow bright green, which somewhat destroyed the illusion of being in a gray-haired, depressive Oakmont. And the mass of loading screens. Literally everything is loaded here, including every building that we want to enter. What’s worse, the reason for this is that the game just didn’t have time to load its insides. Where did this conclusion come from? Well, some locations, such as the hospital or the police station, are visited relatively often during one game session, and whether or not the loading screen appears is completely random.
All of these handicaps by no means make The Sinking City a bad game. This is a pretty good production, with no significant flaws apart from the aforementioned technical problems, but also with most of its components being good at best. You probably have already noticed that the leitmotif of this review is falling into a routine resulting from the need to constantly repeat the same activities for several hours of play. For this reason, I believe that The Sinking City would gain a lot if the creators focused not on quantity but quality. The game could be half as long and it would be better for it. I would like to be able to give this title a higher rating, because I had a really good time, and the well-written plot and difficult moral choices allowed me to turn a blind eye to all its imperfections, but unfortunately 7 is the maximum score I can honestly admit.