Frogwares’ The Sinking City could be the game to bring the shadowy, grotesque world of H.P. Lovecraft to life in all its tentacled and sanity-shattering glory.
Frogwares is best-known for their Sherlock Holmes adventure games as well as Magrunner: Dark Pulse, a Lovecraft-themed action puzzle game, so it’s no surprise they would want to combine these themes in a larger, deeper and open world game.
“We’re all big fans of H.P. Lovecraft.” My play guide smiles as he begins.
The Sinking City is set in the 1920s in a flooded, decaying seaside fishing town called Oakmont. Painted in a palette of gloom with a side hopelessness, Oakmont bears all the hallmarks of classic H.P. Lovecraft settings. It is largely isolated and forgotten by the rest of the world and its inhabitants are unwelcoming to outsiders. Moreover, they seem curiously immune to their obviously decaying condition.
You play as Charles W. Reed, a private investigator who has been experiencing chaotic, dark visions that call him to Oakmont. Even with an already haunted and fragile grasp on reality, Reed must solve the mystery of what his visions mean. And Oakmont beckons with answers.
Welcome to The Sinking City
My gameplay demo began with a brief tour through the streets of Oakmont, a festering cesspool of a seaside town isolated from the world and mired in flooded streets, rain, dark alleys, and off-putting, inhabitants of questionable mental health and motives. You can travel on foot or fast travel between parts of the city. Some parts of the town are so flooded that you can only travel the streets in a small boat.
A distraught woman asks Charles to help her find her husband, Harry. After a brief conversation, Charles takes the case and accepts the (probable) widow’s ring as payment. (Does anyone really expect a good outcome here?)
He could have chosen not to take the ring, but detectives need to eat too. How and what you choose to pursue has a direct effect on the game, which itself has multiple possible endings and outcomes depending on your decisions. Save often.
“It’s a game about making choices, and those choices have consequences,” my Sinking City guide explains.
With only an address of the husband’s last-known whereabouts, Charles sets off—and with nary an objective marker to aid him. The Sinking City does very little hand-holding apart from recording necessary clues in your journal. My guide consults the in-game journal for the cross streets of the address, travels there, and then looks for the correct street signs.
In other words, don’t expect simple pop-up navigation aids and quest markers. The Sinking City is a type of detective game after all, and Frogwares wants you to actually do a little detecting. You may even want a physical notebook to play the game with—a decidedly “old school” twist.
And similar to AAA open-world inspirations such as Deus Ex, there can be multiple paths to any given objective. After arriving at the apartment where the husband was last seen, Charles has to figure out how to get in. Fortunately, there appears to be an entry on the second story he can reach by climbing up to a balcony.
Entering the apartment, we find a photo of the woman that hired us and (presumably) her missing husband, Harry—confirmation that we must be in the right place. It’s a ramshackle apartment; it doesn’t look like it has been inhabited for some time. Eventually, we find some curious symbols painted on a wall.
Charles photographs the symbols—one of the skills you’ll frequently use in your investigations. (He’ll later take these to the Oakmont librarian and consult archives to learn more about what the symbols are, and perhaps where he can find more information.)
After he regains his sanity anyway. During the investigation, Charles stumbles upon a lot of blood. Lots of blood. And then something happens… maybe a psychotic break? The screen warbles and distorts. The insano-meter (my name, not theirs) rises.
Mental trauma is a constant threat in the game, and experiencing gruesome things (monsters, dead bodies, etc.) causes a few clowns to leave Charles’ circus. And then the monsters appear—bizarre, tentacled horrors.
“You don’t really know if these monsters are real or not, but you have to deal with them just the same or you can die. You can run, hide, or fight them until your insanity level drops to normal.”
A few shots from a pistol and a lot of running away later, Charles survives the encounter and his sanity stabilizes. Exiting the apartment he fast-travels to the part of the city with the library, which is staffed by a sole proprietor whose lips are literally sewn shut. (I guess that’s one way to ensure quiet.)
Research tells us that the photographed symbols are none other than the Eye of Dagon. And further research into Oakmont’s history indicates the fish market may be somehow tied to it and worth investigating further. Did Harry join a cult, or was he the victim of one? We head off to the fish market to find out more.
At one point in all this running about Oakmont, my guide decides to take a boat down a flooded street. The back (or perhaps backs, or maybe tentacles) of large, shadowy bodies briefly surface. They’re as tantalizing as they are menacing, another hint at the lurking horrors just below Oakmont’s fragile surface.
Eye of Dagon. Fish markets. Lurking horrors. It’s a Lovecraftian cornucopia.
At the fish market we meet and talk to a man who is either a little fishy himself (literally, as in greenish, scale-like lesions on his face) or just has an indeterminate skin disease. Conversing with him we learn that Harry (the man we’re looking for, in case you forgot), perhaps went into the basement below the fish market, so we head there next.
In the basement, there’s clearly an altar of some kind, soaked in bloodstains. Odd symbols adorn the room, including the Eye of Dagon. Clearly, these are the trappings of a demented cult. Something unsavory has been going on.
Someone cold-cocks us and takes us down.
We awaken bound, surrounded by cultists.
They begin to close in…
And then the f*cking demo ends.
The Sinking City launches March 21st 2019 on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.
I definitely liked what I saw at E3 2018. The Sinking City looks to be one of the best translations of Lovecraftian themes to a video game I’ve seen (although I kind of wish it was in an FPS viewpoint). Oakmont is thick with atmosphere, colorless and bleak but as intriguing as it is menacing.
With roughly 30+ hours of investigations to solve, it may well be the deep, Lovecraftian-styled game we’ve been waiting for.