There are some things that should never be found. I wish I’d known that sooner...
H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos surrounding the old gods is something approaching mainstream in today’s world; a lot of people seem to want a piece of that Cthulhu pie. The latest adaptation of this universe into video game form comes from developer Frogwares, previously known for various titles based on Sherlock Holmes. The Sinking City is an attempt at bringing their mystery-solving prowess into a small port town teeming with shadows, secrets, and madness. Among many others, one specific question seeks an answer: how do you adapt something that’s supposed to be imperceivable into a visual medium?
In The Sinking City, players take control of Charles Reed, a World War I naval veteran who became a private detective upon his return. He has travelled from his home city of Boston to the small town of Oakmont in order to investigate a number of missing persons cases alongside terrible visions he himself has been suffering from. He is quickly wrapped up in a number of mysteries as he discovers Oakmont is not exactly what he had expected. The city has been cut off from the mainland by a persisting flood, and terrifying creatures known as wylebeasts have begun to infest various parts of town. Unrest is growing between the people of Oakmont and refugees from the nearby town of Innsmouth, and those sent on an expedition meant to discover the cause of the flood and the plague of madness it brought have mysteriously disappeared without a trace. It’s up to Reed to discover the answers to these mysteries, among many others.
The gameplay flow of Sinking City is very slow paced, though this should not exactly be considered a bad thing. As a game built around piecing together the different parts of a mystery, the focus is on finding evidence and recreating scenes, allowing you to figure out where you’re supposed to go or who you’re supposed to talk to next. Cases are long and feature multiple steps before they can be cleared, and this fact brings up the first of Sinking City’s flaws: Oakmont is huge and unwieldy to travel through. Long stretches of the game are spent walking at a tediously slow pace, with a run that’s only just a tad bit faster. Navigating your way through the city is also a hassle, as the lack of a minimap will constantly have you bringing up your regular map, which takes a solid two to three seconds to pull up every single time you do so.
Sinking City also does not appear to have any interest in helping the player figure out their next step, and while that is usually one of its good points at certain times, it did lead to me getting incredibly lost with what I was supposed to be doing. At one point, my investigation had led me to learning about a spot in the open water that was significant, and the prompt implied I should grab a boat and sail out there myself. I had remembered seeing a boat at the pier, and headed straight there only to find that this particular boat was not the one the game expected me to use, leading to a large amount of aimless wandering to find where I was actually expected to go. It’s these kinds of frustrating and tedious walls that continually appeared in front of me, impeding the experience I should have been having.
These problems pale in comparison to Sinking City’s largest flaw, however: the game is not even remotely well optimized for the Switch. Constant hangs, long load times, slow moving menus, and extremely aggressive render distances make the game an incredibly hard sell. Textures look dull and characters have lifeless eyes that seem to be directly avoiding the person they’re talking to, with Reed seemingly spawning back into the scene and falling slightly to the ground after conversations. These technical issues affected me constantly and made it difficult to play for long periods of time.
Overall, The Sinking City is a fairly okay detective game, with an intriguing supernatural mystery taking place in what is obviously a lovingly-crafted environment. It does some interesting things such as using bullets for currency, causing the player to have to weigh the options of fleeing from or killing a threat. The sanity effects caused by being in disturbing situations or using Reed’s investigation abilities too much are cheesy but mainly unobtrusive and add a charm to the game I did not expect. Nonetheless, even with these fun aspects, the significant technical problems and boring traversal of Oakmont make me hesitate to suggest the Switch be your chosen platform for visiting this doomed town.