The Sinking City sees you stepping into the boots of Charles W. Reed during the 1920s. Reed is a P.I. sent to the flooded ruins of Oakmont in search of answers about the haunting visions plaguing him. It's a relatively simple setup, but within minutes of making it out of the Oakmont Port, Reed finds himself tangled in a tale of rival families in a town overcome with gruesome monsters and shrouded in mystery. The opening moments of The Sinking City set the scene wonderfully. From the haunting imagery of a Lovecraftian tentacled monster to the green hue of an otherworldly ocean, the game bears more than a striking resemblance to its inspirations.
Frogwares have clearly 'borrowed' more than a few things from H.P. Lovecraft's stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Whether you're a fan of Lovecraft or not, it's highly likely you'll see plenty of parallels to other movies and games. That said, having that familiarity with the source material is not required to enjoy the game. For that, you're going to need patience... A whole lot of it too.
Before the game even starts, you'll be greeted by a message from the developers stating "Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft The Sinking City depicts an era in which ethnic, racial, and other minorities were frequently mistreated by society. These prejudices were and still are wrong, but have been included for an authentic depiction of that time, rather than pretend they never existed." It's no secret that Lovecraft had some extremely questionable beliefs, but seeing this message piqued my interest. I thought to myself, "will Frogwares address these issues?" I didn't have to wait long for an answer. The game dances around these topics like a cat avoiding a bath. That said, I don't need my games to carry political messages. We get enough of that in everyday life, and for me at least, games are my favourite way to escape.
Debris and refuse litters the streets, but its readily apparent that Frogwares has had to cut back on the level of detail and textures for the Switch port. The whole game has a sort of 'vaseline on the lens' quality to it. It's something we've seen before plenty of times with the Switch already as developers make these concessions to squeeze their games onto the little handheld. Luckily, the art direction and design feel both oppressive and bleak, matching the overall tone of the story perfectly. The Throngmortons are a leading family and look like they've just stepped off of the set of a Tim Burton-directed Planet of The Apes movie. Sticking true to Lovecraft's stories, the family's unique features are the byproduct of his father shacking up with a royal family. Clearly, this family had one too many late-night trips to the zoo. The Sinking City has some good writing, and the voice cast does an admirable job of portraying the peculiar residents of Oakmont.
Modern gaming has made us accustomed to a certain level of ease of use. New missions markers are typically added to your map and directions will be laid out clearly. The Sinking City goes against this, perhaps more than any game I've played in the last decade. After talking to a character or picking up an important document, you'll have to physically open your menu, read that evidence, and then determine where you need to go next. A note may tell you a suspect often hangs around an old house on the corner of two particular roads, You then need to open your map, find the streets and place a custom marker on the area you've deduced.
It genuinely shocked me having to pay such a massive amount of attention to the evidence gathered and having to do things I'm used to games doing for me. It will absolutely be off-putting to a lot of gamers, but it does help to pull you further into the feeling of inhabiting the world as opposed to merely playing in it. Similarly, when working a case, evidence may not always line up immediately. Sticking to the studios' strengths, you use Reed's mind Palace in the menu to link pieces of information together to build your case. There's no punishment for getting this wrong as the game simply won't let you link conflicting evidence together, so you're free to experiment with abandon.
During a quest where I investigated a murder, I eventually found my lead suspect. Confronting him about the grizzly deed prompted a choice where he bribed me not to tell anyone of the discovery. I, of course, accepted the offer and not quite being satisfied with his paltry offering of four bullets, I quickly turned heel and did what any upstanding citizen would. I snitched on him with a smile on my face and his bullets clinking in my pockets. Having the freedom to do things like this with conversation choices is always fun, and I'm glad Frogwares included it.
Where The Sinking City starts to flounder is the moment you have to start exploring and making your way from one area of the map to another. The city feels labyrinthine and is a chore to explore. Unmarked barricades will have you checking the map every two minutes (also to mark those dead-ends manually) when simply having to travel more than five blocks. Due to the flooding, many of the city roads are submerged in water and have to be navigated by boat. Getting around in the boat is mostly straightforward, but you will find yourself occasionally getting caught on unseen debris and edges. You will thankfully unlock some fast travel points, but at no time did I find myself starting to feel familiar or comfortable with the layout of the city. Some may argue that this could be a design choice to further the feeling of helplessness in the game, but when it just leads to frustration, it's hard to see how it could have been intentional.
When you're not navigating the city and solving cases with your brain, you'll occasionally find yourself coming up against monsters and human enemies. Considering Reed's war history, I assumed he'd be proficient with firearms and the art of combat. Unfortunately, the game's controls feel sluggish and imprecise. I tried every sensitivity level but never found anything close to a sweet spot. Small enemies often move around so fast that lining up a shot with the Joy-Cons felt like trying to swing a baseball bat underwater. I shot more bullets into the floors and walls of Oakmont than I ever did into the creatures terrorising it. Ammo is scarce already, and when eighty percent of my shots missed, I found myself gripping my console a little too tightly. Coming up against monsters will see Reed's sanity bar depleting. When this happens, strange visions and hallucinations will appear on the screen, and the camera will get that horrible fisheye effect as it warps and distorts. I've experienced mild motion sickness in a handful of games in the past, but for some reason, when playing in handheld, I often had to look away as soon as the effect started. It's unlikely it would affect many, if any people the same way, but I've never experienced a physically ill-feeling that strong in a game that quickly before.
It's a shame that traversal and combat feel so tedious in The Sinking City as its story and setting are genuinely intriguing. Its unique way of making the player do all of the hard work is both refreshing and frustrating at the same time. Die-hard fans of Lovecraft and his themes will likely enjoy their portrayal enough to look past its insufficiencies, but anyone else will likely lose interest long before the credits are due. The Switch is probably the worst way to play due to the graphical cuts and performance, so I'd only recommend playing it on Switch as a last resort.
+ Wonderfully bleak atmosphere and world.
+ Investigative gameplay feels fun for the most part.
- Graphical and performance issues.
- Controls are sluggish and imprecise.
- Loss of sanity effect made me feel physically ill.