The Sinking City, developed by Frogwares and published by Bigben Interactive, is out now for Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC, with a Nintendo Switch version expected later this year. We checked out this new narrative take on the detective genre.
We’ve been keeping an eye on The Sinking City for a while, as it was originally announced way back in 2016 and we’ve seen it pop up during trade shows in subsequent years as well. What always caught our eye was the incredible atmosphere of dread and mystery, which always instilled a “can’t wait to explore this” feeling in us. Luckily, that wait is over, and even though we’ve seen plenty of Lovecraft-inspired works in videogaming it’s fair to say that The Sinking City’s backdrop is among the most interesting of them.
The story in The Sinking City unfolds in a town called Oakmont, which is mostly under water after a mysterious event that caused massive flooding. It’s also caused its residents to be a bit on edge, especially towards newcomers who are seeking refuge there – creating tension on top of the already present social divide in the city. Adding to the mystery, the mysterious flood has also seemed to affect people on other levels, giving them strange visions they can’t rationally explain.
You play the role of soldier turned private investigator Charles W. Reed, who has his own personal history with the supernatural. It’s up to you to unravel the mystery behind what’s happening in Oakmont, after you’re invited there by one of its residents. The Sinking City is an original story that’s merely inspired by Lovecraft’s works, but it’s an excellent one – all of your character interactions help shape your understanding of the world around you, even though there’s always a lingering sense of mystery.
It’s not just the characters and the town that help the narrative, it’s also that Frogwares has inserted plenty of character development for our main protagonist into the story. A lot of his time prior to his arrival in Oakmont becomes more and more relevant as time goes on, and from a storytelling perspective Frogwares has really outdone themselves here.
Speaking of Frogwares – it’s a studio mostly known for their Sherlock Holmes titles. Despite the Lovecraftian themes and supernatural mystery (and abilities), that is something that shines through in The Sinking City. There is less handholding this time around (this game plays more like an open world title), but apart from the supernatural elements a lot of the investigative mechanics are quite similar to those in the Sherlock games. This includes the way in which you piece together the various clues you uncover along the way, so fans of those games will feel right at home here.
Unlike the Sherlock games (which were quite different from the recent-ish Hollywood adaptations), The Sinking City also features elements of combat and survival horror. Perhaps it’s because this is a new-ish concept for Frogwares, but this element of the game felt less polished than the narrative and investigative portion of the game. Transitioning into combat never feels quite a smooth as it should and the enemy AI can be off too, and I immediately thought of better examples that are over ten years old (such as Resident Evil 4).
The Sinking City is perhaps Frogwares’ most ambitious title to date though, and their work pays off. Rather than follow a linear narrative, the game offers an open world environment with a ton of (optional) side quests to really flesh out the experience and the sense that you’re in a living environment, rather than visiting a few places here and there.
Audiovisually, I really enjoyed The Sinking City. The visuals were nice and moody even when we saw the first snippets of footage back in 2017, and the full game maintains this momentum throughout the game. Characters animations during conversations are mostly well done and detailed, though they lack the cinematic flair of something like Red Dead Redemption 2. The same could definitely be said about the action sequences, but despite that I really enjoyed my time in Oakmont – The Sinking City is a nice example of a studio that is branching out while still staying true to what they’re already good at.