The Sinking City – First Impressions

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The Sinking City, available June 27th, is an investigation and adventure game from Frogwares Game Development Studio. You may know Frogwares from their longstanding Sherlock Holmes series of video games. The Sinking City trades that genius detective for a world of decay and rot in 1920s America, inspired directly by the works of horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Ahead of our full review, we wanted to provide some first impressions of this beast of a title.

In the Sinking City, you’re dropped into the shoes of Charles Reed. Reed is former U.S. Navy, and currently working out of Boston, Mass. as a private investigator. Charles is invited to Oakmont, Mass. by an enigmatic benefactor by the name of Johannes Van Der Berg. His quest? Learn why so many people, himself included, across the country are suffering from strange visions and nightmares. Charles himself even sees these visions in his waking hours, giving him the ability to see echoes of past events. Using this power, your primary task in the game is moving from location to location, investigating strange cases and occurrences.

The Sinking City is not the prettiest game in recent memory by a long shot. This is in part intentional, Oakmont is designed to look rotted and broken. However, many of the textures and animations leave something to be desired. Some great writing easily overcomes this and voice performances, breathing life into otherwise sub-par looking (and animating) characters.

Also questionable is the action part of the game. While the primary gameplay consists of exploration and investigation, Oakmont is also beset by monsters called wylebeasts. These monsters, while initially frightening, haven’t wowed me in the opening hours. Combat is simply point and click shooting, and medkits/ammunition are gained through an unsatisfying crafting system. The game warns you early that supplies are scarce, but in my experience so far I have been near capacity at all times. But combat and skill trees aren’t the core of this game, as noted above.

I’m enamoured with the Sinking City because of its structure. The city of Oakmont is big and wide open, and rather than pepper the map with icons, the game asks you to do the legwork. This means you’ll get a tip from an NPC to check out an office in the northern part of a specific neighbourhood, then it’s on you to find it. From there, you might get a note that your case is tied to a homicide four years ago West of town. Using this information, you might pop into the police archives to find out more about that murder. The result is the first game I’ve played where I genuinely feel like a private investigator.

The game gives you clues and the tools to follow up on them. For each lead, you’ll receive a marker that you can drop on the map yourself. This allows you to mark up your map how you want to. As you gain clues, you’ll put them together in your “Mind Palace” (a fancy way of saying a menu screen). By combining clues, you’ll develop actionable conclusions that often result in interesting choices. Do you turn in the down on his luck fisherman who claims he was possessed when he committed that murder? Or do you trust that his actions weren’t his own and cover for him? My biggest question is how these choices manifest later in the game. If they don’t end up providing real consequences, then their inclusion becomes less impressive.

It’s important to note that H.P. Lovecraft himself was a virulent racist, and his works are infested with his hateful worldview. Most modern interpretations of his stories are careful to separate his racism from his narratives. This leads to a whitewashing that fails to understand why his work was problematic. By contrast, the Sinking City claims to face these issues head-on, both within the context of his fiction, and the game’s positioning in Post WWI America.

Thus far, the results have been mixed. Early on the game seems to be twisting Lovecraft’s typical racist concepts around in an exciting way. Where Lovecraft used fish-folk as racist caricatures embodying everything he hated about non-white, non-European descended people, the Sinking City seems to be casting them as oppressed refugees. I’m curious to see this narrative expand. However, there is much opportunity for Frogwares to bungle this metaphor.

To see how well this game sticks that particular landing, and for the rest of my thoughts on this fascinating title, check back in the coming weeks for our full Rapid Review!

You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.

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