The Sinking City Review: Macabre Plot And Meddling Execution

In recent years, fans of point-and-click adventure games haven’t exactly had a lot to look forward too. Bar a couple of exceptions, this genre has mostly died out. Smaller spinoff formulas have appeared, such as the Telltale Games choose-your-own-adventure titles. And among these quasi-adventure games, Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes releases have been some of the more interesting ones. This developer has made a frankly astounding number of Sherlock Holmes games in the past decade and a half, most of which were deeply flawed but still entertaining. However, their repeated return to this topic tells us they’ve found enough of a niche to sustain themselves for more than ten years.

Now, however, Frogwares is spreading its wings beyond the stories of the most famous detective in the world. The Sinking City is their latest release, and make no mistake — it’s definitely their most ambitious one. It sees players getting the freedom to roam around a Lovecraftian open world with a journal filled with twisted cases to solve. This game brings a significant twist on the now well-established Frogwares formula. This time around, the scope is far larger, and the emphasis is more on the action set pieces. While these mechanics aren’t without their issues, The Sinking City is still a mystery worth solving. 

In this game, you’ll play the role of a certain Charles Reed. He’s a private detective haunted by horrific visions. And these have brought Reed to Oakmont, the eponymous sinking city. This town is being devastated by a mysterious flood, along with a bunch of supernatural horrors that its poor population has to fend off. Around the town, you’ll find quite a few influential factions and families, who all have cases that they’d like Reed to solve. In no time at all, the private detective becomes entangled in Oakmont’s local power struggles and politics. And though we probably don’t have to say it, each case presents something not quite ordinary, and nothing is ever quite what it seems. For example, the fish-esque nation of Innsmouthers is giving donations to Oakmont’s starving citizens. But do they have an ulterior motive? It’s upon you to explore that.

After visiting various crime scenes and locations, you’re supposed to gather clues. And much like in the previous Sherlock Holmes games that Frogwares has developed, you use deductive reasoning to piece these together. At the start, you might have nothing but a piece of paper with a name to go on. Nevertheless, it’s upon you to figure out where to start. Perhaps the hospital patient records will reveal a further lead? Or examining the locations and dates in the newspapers could give you another witness to question? These puzzles are quite player-driven, and such deductions are the heart and soul of The Sinking City.

But while the puzzle-solving mechanics were taken straight from the dev’s Sherlock Holmes games, there have been some interesting changes. For example, this time around, there isn’t always an objective solution for each deduction. Sometimes, you’ll have to make a call, only to live with the consequences of what follows. Was this character possessed by an eldritch horror, or are they simply a stone-cold murderer? In the town of Oakmont, both possibilities are equally valid. And if it’s the former, what do you do? Will you report them to the police or let them go freely? From a narrative point of view, your decisions won’t exactly be far-reaching. But in the short term, they can be quite memorable. Plus, the grim theme of this world is well-served by your inability to go through a case without getting your hands dirty at least a little. 

Speaking of which, while the said grimdark theme of The Sinking City is definitely where it shines, the practicalities of the game can often be lacking. For example, traveling around town, though it’s basically an open world, isn’t that fun at all. If you need to get from one part of town to the next, you’ll have to spend an awful lot of time doing it. In many situations, you’ll have to switch between boats and roads. And when you couple that with the fact that there are plenty of places where you’ll have to go, it’s not that pleasant. The travel mechanics simply aren’t that fun, and yet you have to spend a lot of time with them. Sure, fast travel exists, but “fast” is an overstatement. In order to use it, you need to find a phone booth and then suffer through extremely long load times.

While we’re on the subject of lengthy loading times, we ought to mention that The Sinking City has plenty of other technical problems as well. Apart from waiting for areas to load, you’ll also be distracted by relatively regular screen-tearing. This is a problem only on consoles though. And Frogwares has stated that they’re putting together a patch to solve this problem. Still, the immersion is also broken by voice performances of uneven quality, as well as cutscenes that have no business being so bad in a 2019 game. 

On the other hand, it should be noted that these are all problems that Frogwares’ previous titles also exhibited. So if you had fun playing their Sherlock Holmes games, this should be a blast, as it capitalizes on what made those games good in the first place. Plus, it’s fairly well-written — the cases Reeds solves have plenty of plot twists and memorable culminations. As we’ve mentioned, the atmosphere and world-building were done superbly. We’re sure that lovers of Lovecraftian horror will have an enjoyable stay in The Sinking City.