19/05/2021

๐Ÿ™ The Sinking City (enhanced) | Review | Xbox Series X | 8.5/10 (Ice Cool) | "The Best Lovecraft-Inspired Game Yet?" ๐Ÿ™ @Frogwares #GameDev #IndieGames

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Released to relatively positive reviews back in 2019, Frogwares’ The Sinking City wasn’t exactly a technical marvel, with most of the negativity focusing on the lengthy loading times and visual issues such as screen-tearing and an unreliable frame rate.

I fully intended to play the game upon its original release but it somehow slipped through the cracks and so I had no preconceptions of the title going into this review. I’m pleased to say that this enhanced version of The Sinking City really does seem to solve all the technical problems that it seems people had with the 2019 release and to me, stands up as one of – if not THE - best games based on Lovecraft’s works.

Since I started writing for The Might GF back in 2016, I’ve covered a fair few games inspired by H.P Lovecraft and as you’d expect… it’s been a mixed bag. The one game that my mind always flies to when this conversation crops up is Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, released in 2005 by Headfirst Productions.
Whilst the game was flawed, it completely captured the foggy, oppressive terror of Lovecraft’s writing and contained some set pieces that I found absolutely terrifying - especially the ‘waking up’ scene in the hotel and subsequent chase sequence. Whilst that particular example was an adventure/FPS, we’ve seen everything from walking simulators to turn-based RPGs but the thought of a more open-world game was really appealing to me and it’s the more expansive aspect of The Sinking City and the heavier focus on detective work (I got definite Murdered: Soul Suspect vibes), exploration and mood over combat resulted in the removal and subsequent ritual burning of my trousers.

Good.

Taking place in a mysterious town called Oakmont in Massachusetts during the 1920s, you play Charles Reed, a private investigator who has been tasked to travel from Boston to Oakmont by Johannes van der Berg to discover the cause of the visions he has been experiencing – something that you yourself are familiar with. The game begins with Reed arriving at the Oakmont port and wandering the flooded streets of this surreal, miserable and very Lovecraftian sinking city.

Straight off the bat, I was all in on Reed’s character, he is well-voiced, capable, on edge and absolutely KNACKERED. All of Oakmont’s residents either have highly dubious facial features or even more dubious morals and Reed fits right in with his sunken eyes, sallow skin and world-weary approach, he really does look like he needs a lie-in and a hug, bless him.

The gameplay works in cycles. You choose to either pursue the main storyline or work on some of the ever-present side quests that you unlock as you make your way around the city on foot or by boat - if you need to traverse the large sections of Oakmont which have become completely submerged. Either way, you’ll find yourself having to make your own map markers, using clues from texts and conversations; exploring for clues, piecing together the order of events and scouring the library, hospital and police station archives for clues and key information. This was absolutely the highlight of the game for me.

I never got bored of the sense of putting my own little investigation together and wandering the sodden streets of Oakmont, drinking in the atmosphere. Admittedly, the rewards of bullets, experience points and health kits aren’t that exciting but that almost doesn’t matter because I spent so much time enjoying the lore, reading notes and following quests through to their conclusion that everything else fell by the wayside.

I loved how this isn’t a game focused on levelling up or building an armoury but instead just enjoying the narrative threads. The audio work is a glorious cacophony of nautical wails, aches and foghorns whilst the visuals, whilst slightly dated-looking (although the expressionless, dead-eyed character models actually work really well in this setting), the game engine runs beautifully, like fog across the water. The longest loading time I experienced was three seconds, the frame rate was a seemingly perfect 60fps and everything just felt wonderfully smooth, they really have overhauled these originally more problematic aspects.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues, combat is pretty basic (although enjoyably so, I thought. The clunkiness adds further tension to the claustrophobic fight sequences) and NPC AI is ropey at best with people walking into walls, floating and collecting in weird, glitchy groups. Also, location designs are re-used in certain buildings etc. That said, it really didn’t bother me too much because the aspects of the game that I enjoyed were presented so strongly. If you’ve played a Frogwares Sherlock Holmes game, you’ll be right at home here.

The Sinking City is a game that will really appeal to not only fans of Lovecraft but also those who want a more sparse approach in the vein of Anodyne 2 and the like, games which aren’t populated by constant mini-games, icons, pick-ups and an abundance of fetch quests but feel comfortable in focusing instead on mood, story and atmosphere as opposed to ‘stuff to do’.

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