The Sinking City

FBT investigates the curious case of Sherlock’s tentacle

I was really excited to play The Sinking City. A gumshoe explores a Lovecraft-inspired Open World from the developers of the Sherlock Holmes series; Lovecraft meets Conan Doyle in a free-roam action-adventure? Sign me the Steampunk up.

Aww man I knew it was too good to be true. TSC is one of those games that when described, sounds amazing but when you’re in it, feels flat. Also, I’ve never played one of developer's Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games, but it’s blatantly a reskin. Sherlock vs the Great Old Ones? See, sounds cool, but it’s not.

During WWI, Reed was the only survivor of the USS Cyclops, which mysteriously vanished. After this event, Reed found he had developed paranormal senses and was plagued by strange visions of monstrous creatures. Using his powers to become a PI, Reed began searching for answers, finding himself in a port called Oakmont where a flood has cut off the already isolationist town from the mainland. Others who suffer the same visions are also drawn to the town, and the flood seems supernatural, washing in strange creatures. As the ravaged town deals with the flood, the creatures and its own strange history and politics, Reed must keep his sanity as he searches for answers.

TSC really should be awesome. At first, the town looks incredible. Half submerged, falling apart, you really feel cut-off. The people nearest the port are struggling to cope in the seaweed and stench, battered by the creatures and the loss of their homes. Further inland the population are better off, and a class system emerges. Areas are completely taken over by the creatures, we use little motorboats to get across the flooded streets and everywhere looks dirty, rotting, and dangerous. And that’s before you meet the locals.

The town’s bossman, Throgmorton, becomes our main mission giver as someone also trying to understand what the portentous Flood is about. When you first meet him, politeness stops you from going ‘are you an ape?’ but side missions reveals his dad, an African explorer may well have fooled around with the wildlife. Another group of people resemble fish. I suppose when you have visions and preternatural abilities, talking fish and ape men are no big thing. It’s all great stuff, a weird, surreal place to detective about in. For a bit.

The first problem is the size of it. Oakmont has seven districts, and it can get boring pootling in a boat to cross a street then walking then another boat. There’s no cars or transport, so you spend a lot of time taking in the town, and there’s not a lot to it. A good free-roamer has lots to distract you, be it missions or curiosities, but even a town inspired by Lovecraft feels average and empty, a façade. We have a map, but you will spend most of your time lost.

The locals are suspicious of outsiders so will never give precise details when they do send you on a quest. That feels like the kind of vague clue Sherlock would have gotten, and I guess ‘its over there somewhere’ makes sense, but even people who specifically ask you to check in on someone don’t mark their house on your map, which causes a lot of lost-tourist behaviour as you wander up and down samey streets looking for markings on doors you can interact with.

I’m all for a game in the Sherlock tradition, but you just never shake the feeling this is a reskin. Reed has a ‘mind palace’ where we link up clues, decide who to accuse/what action to take, we can pin clues to areas of the map, and reconstruct crimes in his mind once we’ve gotten enough clues. He also has that sixth sense which plays like a Detective mode. I even find a Baker street. It all works but feels like a Sherlock game’s been repurposed.

In fact, Forgwares had originally been developing the similar Call of Cluthu before being dropped, and released this a year later. It has a sense of budget-ness about it. There’s few NPCs who tend to do the same actions but they're buggy and unintentionally funny; I watched two locals get into a fight then one pulled a gun and shot the other. Cool bit of NPC interaction, except the one shot just wandered off, then a few seconds later fell down, then slid across the pavement to where he’d been shot. Often houses have the same layout – at one stage I spent an age trying to find the mission giver only to realise he was next door. There’s dead sharks lying in the port area, but I find the same model hanging in a fishery and there’s actually only half of it. It still looks great though, even if it's repetitive; if it had been half the size it would have been a much tigher, focused world.

The big sell is Reed’s insanity – let it get too low and he puts a gun to his head; I’d be surprised if it had any ammo in it. Reed can pick up new weapons as he goes along, but you need to find materials to build bullets, which makes fights a costly affair. I rarely had all the weapons fully loaded which added a nice sense of threat when I’d enter a building or infected area. But his sanity is rarely something you need to keep an eye on; instead of adding a level of tension it’s just distracting, as his vision goes wobbly and that’s about it.

To be fair, almost every character or location is based on Lovecraft’s stories, it is deeply steeped in the lore - far more than Call of Cthulhu - you need to know your stuff to make sense of it but really, this is little more than Sherlock having a weird dream. And we have a multiple choice ending which feels a bit Mass Effect 3; all the moral choices we make as Reed come to naught, we just chose when his behaviour throughout the game should be informing the Great Old Ones on what kind of person he is, if he’s the one they’re seeking of all those drawn to the town by the visions.

I’m somewhat ambivalent toward Sinking City. It looks great and does get better in the later third, and some of the side quests are fun. But it’s just lacking energy and drive, feels empty, it’s one of those games where the trailer promised more. I kept picking up other games instead of rushing to get back to Oakmont. It is worth getting in the sales – there’s not many RPGs/Free-roamers set in this kind of environment, it’s just more Sherlockian than Lovecraftian. It feels familiar and that’s the one thing Lovecraft wasn’t.