Back in October of 2018 we were excited to show a trailer of an H.P. Lovecraft inspired game called The Sinking City. It finally came out June 27th 2019, and this month being it’s one year anniversary, we want to take a moment to look back to see how it did or did not meet expectations.
Whether you read his stories or one of the countless works inspired by his cosmic terrors, every horror fan at some point or another has had a chance to peer into the horror filled universe of H.P. Lovecraft. For the longest time his fans have had to deal with the frustration of hearing about this fantastic and terrifying eldritch universe, but never being able to go inside to actually experience it for themselves. Luckily for us modern folks the game developers at Frogwares were able to give us a small taste when they built The Sinking City.
When it comes to horror themed games the story is probably the most important. It is what creates the atmosphere, as well as what makes you relate to the characters so that you can feel the fear and danger they are experiencing. The story of The Sinking City takes place in the 1920s, you play as Charles Reed who is a private investigator from Boston that is investigating why himself and several others are plagued with disturbing visions. Most of the people being afflicted by the visions appear to be completely random, but it’s revealed early on that while in the Navy Charles served on a ship that was mysteriously sunk and as the sole survivor he had been found completely delirious and unable to remember anything. Eventually after extensive treatment Charles was able to mostly recover his sanity, but he discovered that the encounter caused him to develop the nightmarish visions as well as somehow changing him so that he now has the ability to open up his “mind’s eye” which allows him to see hidden clues and even witness visions of events that took place in the past which helped him to become a private investigator.
Charles’ strange visions lead him to Oakmont, an island city recently devastated by a flood that has not only left much of the city underwater, but it’s also somehow unleashed strange creatures from the ocean’s depth. Once he arrives Charles quickly establishes his private investigation business and you spend the game exploring the city as you try to solve the local mysteries while also trying to unearth what ancient force is wreaking havoc on the city and Charles’ mind.
For those that are hardcore Lovecraft fans they will see The Sinking City as a treasure trove of references to his mythos. The Call of Cthulhu is probably the biggest influence which also has the protagonist being a private investigator trying to look deeper into the madness caused by the old ones. The city also pulls from many other sources including The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Dagon, and even The King in Yellow. An interesting thing they made sure to add to the story was the element of xenophobia and racism. As many know Lovecraft has been a controversial figure since it was discovered that in his personal life he had made it clear that he had many negative things to say about immigrants and people of other races. Some people say that those thoughts of his were just a product of his time and there might even be some evidence that he might have changed his outlook in his later years after he became less of a hermit and actually started interacting with others. Either way some people have still found it hard to separate the art from the artist. The Sinking City does a solid job of acknowledging this issue by not focusing on Lovecraft’s issues but instead focusing on discrimination itself through a group called “Innsmouthers” who are refugees that are living in the city and are constantly being persecuted for how they look and how they are seen by the locals as invading immigrants. There is even a faction of the KuKluxKlan in the city that you will have to deal with.
I could spend all day unpacking the Lovecraft mythos, but at the end of the day The Sinking City is still a video game and it would be remiss to not cover the actual gameplay. Unfortunately this is definitely it’s weakest point. If you’re playing on a well built PC it might run smooth for you, but for me and anyone else using a console you’ll find yourself constantly dealing with lags and load screens. Even when you just try to look at the map, which happens a lot in an open world game, you will find yourself waiting for the game to catch up to those simple tasks. Also being an open world you’ll find yourself surrounded by NPC’s that walk into walls and are constantly stuck in a loop like broken records. Ten years ago this might have been acceptable, but we’ve already seen in plenty of other recent games it’s possible to have more realistic NPC’s.
Even the city itself is extremely repetitive. The developers brag that they were able to build a large open world by using a program they called “city generator” that would take environmental elements and mix them together in different ways to supposedly make a unique layout. This saved them the time and money of having to meticulously craft each environment like you would in previous games, unfortunately the city generator didn’t have much of an eye for detail, because no matter where you’re at in the city, you pretty much find yourself investigating the same house over and over again. The final nail in the coffin is the combat mechanics. The combat is infuriatingly clumsy and you find yourself fighting the same tedious creatures again and again.
At the end of the day I can appreciate what the game makers at Frogwares were going for when they created The Sinking City, it is a true homage to Lovecraft’s work, but it’s failure as an actual game makes it pretty clear why it’s gotten such low scores across the gaming forums. If you are a die hard fan of Lovecraft than I would say buy it when it’s on sale and despite it’s clunkiness it will be worth playing through just to see the references to some of your favorite eldritch stories, but for most other people I would recommend passing this one up and letting it sink back into the murky depth of forgotten games.