Last year, Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game was released. Since Lovecraftian horror games are few and far between nowadays, there was understandable excitement from the horror game community. Unfortunatley, when Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game launched, it was met with largely negative reviews and was quickly forgotten. This trajectory of pre-release hype for a Lovecraftian horror game only for it to be a massive disappointment is the exact same path taken by The Sinking City, and that's not the only thing the two games have in common.
One could be forgiven for assuming that Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game and The Sinking City were related. Both games star private investigators from Boston who are experiencing strange visions that compel them to travel to waterlogged cities full of weird NPCs. Both games feature decent detective gameplay, but stumble in nearly every other area.
In The Sinking City, players step into the (gum)shoes of Charles Reed, a detective with a special ability that allows him to see shadows of past events. Upon his arrival in the flooded city of Oakmont, Reed is put to work solving cases for the town's citizens, which includes people with blobfish heads and others that literally look like Planet of the Apes extras.
The investigations in The Sinking City can actually be engaging. Putting together what happened at crime scenes is fun and finding all of the clues is sometimes challenging. After collecting all of the relevant clues, players then have to piece together what happened in their "Mind Palace" by combining information they think is connected. This leads Reed to form conclusions about how players should proceed in the story, and there is some legitimate player choice at key points in the narrative.
Reed will sometimes encounter enemies when he's out investigating, but the combat in The Sinking City is weak, to say the least, and the game would've been better off without it. Reed has to kill various Lovecraftian monsters and sometimes human enemies using a combat system that seems plucked out of a 90s survival-horror game. Aiming feels off and none of the weapons are remarkable in any way. The shotgun is notable for having no spread and not functioning like a shotgun at all, but that's about it.
When players are not fighting off strange creatures, investigations outside of crime scenes see players search through public records to find character and building locations. They can also talk to some NPCs to get more information. Oftentimes players will get an address for their trouble, sending them off somewhere else to do more investigating.
The gameplay loop in The Sinking City is as follows: talk to someone, get an address, go talk to someone else, investigate a building, get an address, talk to someone else, and it grows tiresome before too long. It doesn't help that some design choices make the process even more tedious than it would have been otherwise. For example, after discovering an address that players will need to visit next, they have to open their map, search for the general location (usually the clues will be something like "X is located on the corner of X street and X avenue"), mark it themselves, and then travel there. Most games would just mark the location automatically for the player, and this doesn't add any immersion or make the game better in any way. It's just extra steps to do something that should be automatic.
Traveling from one location to the next in Oakmont is a chore for other reasons as well. The streets are broken up by deep water that players need to traverse using a boat. All this accomplishes is forcing players to take roundabout ways to certain areas, and again, it's another design decision that achieves nothing except making the game more tedious to play. This problem is mitigated somewhat as more fast-travel points are unlocked around the city, but the excessive load times mean players are still barely saving any time using the fast-travel system.
Excessive load times are just one of the many technical problems that plague The Sinking City. The game features stiff animations, constant screen-tearing, a sub-par frame rate, and clunky controls. Something as simple as climbing onto an object can be a struggle for Reed, and we often found ourselves having to mash the climb button just to get him to do so. A minor inconvenience most of the time, but there were times when it cost us our lives because we were trying to escape monsters.
The Sinking City also has a tendency to freeze, typically whenever players open their map or enter a new area. The freezing doesn't cause a crash or anything too extreme, but it is noticeable and lasts for several seconds before players can get on with whatever they're doing in the game. When players are trying to make their way to a new area and may have to consult the map multiple times to figure out where they're going, it can get really annoying.
The Sinking City is an indie game, not a triple-A title, but other smaller budget games manage to avoid having so many issues and as a result, the game feels unfinished. Anyone needing more evidence just needs to look at its graphical presentation, which suffers from a poor draw distance and pop-in.
The Sinking City's open world of Oakmont, while frustrating to navigate, is conceptually pretty interesting, and we enjoyed learning more about the city and its strange citizens, including a librarian whose mouth is sewn shut and the aforementioned fishpeople. The main story manages to stay consistently entertaining largely because of the game's many creepy characters, though the ending we saw was underwhelming.
While the characters in The Sinking City may be more concerned with the murky waters flooding their homes, players will find themselves neck-deep in a flood of technical problems and puzzling game design choices. Anyone looking for a quality Lovecraftian horror game won't find it here, which is disappointing as The Sinking City was one of the most exciting horror games showcased at E3 2019.
The Sinking City launches on June 27 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. A Nintendo Switch version is also in development. Game Rant reviewed the game on PS4.