Love or hate him, there’s no denying that H.P. Lovecraft has wormed his way into just about every pop-culture format out there. Films, shows, games, music…he’s everywhere. The man was in no way a perfect writer (or a perfect person), but that doesn’t negate the fact he wrote about a very specific sense of dread and mental trepidations that affects most of us. He consistently wrote in an exhaustive, wordy way that mirrored common themes of obsessiveness that slithered its way through all his stories.
Lovecraft’s most famous story, arguably, was The Call of Cthulhu. Originally published in 1928, it’s also the one that’s been adapted the most over the years – and for good reason. The titular Cthulhu (a giant squid-man monstrosity that causes madness at a single glance) is an interesting creature that is as iconic as it is terrifying.
There have been a handful of games based off of this story over the years. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Eternal Darkness, Alone in the Dark, Magrunner, and last year’s The Call of Cthulhu being the most recent one. The Sinking City is the latest attempt at bringing Lovecraft’s world to an open-world experience and, for the most part, it does so much amazing work with the source material while making some bold choices in terms of gameplay, but then also makes some questionable poor decisions on the way.
You play as Charles Reed, a Navy veteran now working as a private eye and cursed with some pretty bad dreams. Nightmares, actually. The kind we’ve all had that involve giant sea monsters and a city beneath the waves. In search of the source of these sleep-killing terrors, Charles finds himself in Oakmont, a city that just so happens to have had a flood causing much of its streets to be, you guessed it, sinking underwater.
Upon arrival, you meet a Mr. Throgmorton, a rich man living on the island and whose son went missing after returning from an expedition. Throgmorton requests that his son be found before allowing anyone to leave the docks. What follows is your first quest and overall tutorialization of some of the many systems the game has at its disposal, even if they seem more shallow than they let on early during the learning curve. Throughout the game, you’ll have plenty of ways to solve cases, though solutions typically boil down to a few different options of how you should progress.
The typical path for a story begins with someone telling you an address. You must first plug this address into your map manually which is something I’ve never really had to do in a game and its novelty stuck around longer than I expected. The locations are usually in the fashion of “Eastern X, on the corner of Y and Z.” Getting there means popping open your map and scan around for those streets and mark an estimate of where you might think to go.
Sometimes you don’t get an address right away. Often it’s a matter of asking a specific person but sometimes it revolves around you visiting a hospital, a city hall, police department, or library to try and cross-reference a crime, a citizen record, or even a borrower list of a book. The game has what are basically searchable microfiches you’re required to scan through – just infinitely more intuitive than the real thing.
Upon visiting the location, gameplay boils down to either getting a new address, combat or looking for clues in a detective-like manner. If it’s combat, and there’s a fair bit of that, then you’ll find yourself overwhelmed and trepidation early on in the game because you know that bullets are scarce – and even a form of payment in the city of Oakmont. But you’ll quickly realize bullets and throwables can be crafted at any point during combat and even if you completely run out of ammo you always have the ability to melee on command. While this may sound a lot like Silent Hill or Resident Evil, combat quickly turns into more of a hurdle than survival – and easily the weakest part of The Sinking City.
If you’re confronted with the sleuthing side of things, you’ll have a few different avenues to explore, especially with your keen sensing abilities that allow you to see glowing symbols that reveal hidden walls, look into the past through portals and even piece together the events as to what happened at a crime scene. As neat as that may sound, it’s really just a matter of locating these spots and hitting a button to inspect them, thus unlocking their secrets. There’s truly nothing of substance when it comes to “puzzle” solving.
Interestingly, the game features two separate sliders for difficulty: one for Investigation, the other for Combat. So if you’re not so much interested in feeling like a super detective and having everything highlighted for you or let you know that you still have to search for things, you can make that much more challenging if you so wish.
Even still, there’s also a bit of repetition to the insides of buildings that allow you to memorize certain interior layouts and that should help you figure out what’s missing. For instance, I did two side quests back to back and each dealt with a house that looked similar on the inside. I remembered there being an inlet alongside one of the walls so I went into my detective-mode and noticed there was – surprise! – a false wall there. So I guess to make a great detective you only need to remember the great architecture?
That said, it seems that there’s a lot of sour spots in The Sinking City, but, through all of that, I’m still finding a lot of enjoyment out of the entire package and still have the desire to see everything through. Despite all its flaws, that story and the setup is far more engrossing than its initial delivery. My initial excitement for the game was dampened a bit through the first hour or so, but eventually warmed up to its idiosyncrasies in control and combat and unique design philosophies.
I found myself caring for the characters as they all felt unique and separate from one another, despite being ever so close to being stereotypes. As the main protagonist Charles Reed proved to be a surprisingly strong lead, despite being a bit weasley and sounding an awful lot like Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam.
The Sinking City might not be the best introduction to the world of Lovecraft or Cthulhu, but it’s definitely one of the better interpretations of the source material while maintaining unique detective sensibilities. It’s open-world design helps give an illusion of choice that’s not quite there, though it’s clear this is a game more about ambience and style than gameplay, like an honest attempt to mesh the Batman Arkham games with the creepiness of Silent Hill. There’s a lot to unpack here, not all of it successful, but the number of side-quests and creative imagery kept me more than entertained throughout this twisted adventure.