Frogwares returns with yet another detective game, this time outside of the Sherlock Holmes franchise it’s known for. Instead, we’re treated to a Lovecraftian mystery tale in the form of The Sinking City, an ambitious open-world epic that feels as far removed from Sherlock and Watson as can be.
In it, you play as Charles Reed, a former Navy officer turned private eye who’s drawn to the sleepy town of Oakmont for the same reason as many others: of late, you’ve been suffering from nightmares that continue into your waking hours. In them, you’re in an underwater city, lured by the call of a terrifying — yet alluring — monster with as many tentacles as it has teeth. You decide to use your detective skills — and mandatory in-game detective super-vision — to help not only Oakmont’s citizens but yourself.
If you’ve played a Sherlock Holmes Frogwares game before, the basics are the same. As Reed, you’ll scour crime scenes looking for clues. Piece them together to form deductions and you can use those to eventually solve a case. Often times, you’ll also have to use your intuition to decide upon an order of events that took place at a specific location.
Really, the main difference with The Sinking City is that this all takes place with very little handholding. You’re dropped into your first case without so much as a quest marker and then told to figure it out. It’s refreshing and very rewarding to do so, running about the city of Oakmont learning about it at the same time you’re figuring out The Sinking City‘s actual mechanics.
After finishing an initial tutorial mystery you’re let loose upon Oakmont itself, a city literally sinking. A major flood has swept in, and since the poor town doesn’t appear on most maps, disaster relief is nonexistent. Left to fend on their own, Oakmont’s citizens have abandoned major sections of the town, relying upon small-motored boats to navigate between some areas. Others have been boarded up with an ominous warning that the area is infected; citizens carry firearms and brandish them in mid-daylight, cautioning you that your own is needed more often than not.
It’s really at this point where you can choose to follow the main storyline, drift off into one of several side-quests or simply take a stroll through the town and see what you find. I very much enjoyed the freedom without the game signposting me at every corner. I immediately ditched the main questline to try to help a stranger staying in the hotel room across from mine; I’d never met the person, but a letter left in my own room pleaded me to track down tomes and essentially continue an investigation already in progress.
As part of your search, Reed can interact with environments to pick up clues, speak with citizens for more information and access the local Police Station and newspaper office to try to dig up new leads. Occasionally, elements resembling speech challenges will pop up, questioning your original conclusions or perhaps just setting the stage for you to dupe someone and get ahead. Coupled with all this is Reed’s special second sight, one that allows for a better look into the supernatural happenings impacting the town. The sight is incredibly valuble when piecing together a timeline or when searching for lore-building tomes.
The trouble is, finding a tome usually means you’ll have to engage in combat, and this is one of The Sinking City‘s shortcomings. Spider-like enemies bounce around the screen and are overly difficult to hit with an incredibly rudimentary firing system. A limited crafting system has also been tacked onto the game for some reason; after being told that bullets are the Oakmont’s main source of currency after the flood, it’s strangely easy to find all the components needed to craft more. Maybe the citizens need to scavenge around a bit more rather than aimlessly shuffling through the streets?
At the very least, it’s nice that combat is almost optional; fail an encounter and you’ll likely be able to keep the items you’ve procured as part of it, essentially respawning back at a fast travel-enabling phone booth and therefore bypassing the combat encounter alltogether. Small favours.
The Sinking City is a mixed bag; a riveting mystery that’s far less linear than anything Frogwares has ever done. It’s very rough around the edges however, likely to cause as much frustration as it does enjoyment. Fans of Cthulhu or Frogwares’ past titles will definitely want to go for the ride, while others might want to wait for a week or two — at that point, you’ll at least have some guides to walk you through some of its head-scratchers. Do yourself a favour though and only resort to said guides when you’re well and truly stuck. Be a good detective.
The Sinking City was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.