Something is wrong in Oakmont. It’s clear the moment you step off the boat. The city does not appear on any map. It never seems too stop raining, and the people… well, the people are strange. The Throgmortons, one of the city’s Grand Families, have faces that resemble those of apes to the point that others in town openly talk of it. The Innsmouthers, refugees from the town of Innsmouth, have fish-like features, and are viewed with open hostility by much of the local populace. Since the Great Flood, an unnatural occurrence that has no scientific explanation, a good chunk of the city has been underwater. Strange monsters, known as wylebeasts, prowl the streets. Some, spiderlike creatures with long legs, wear the skins of cats to blend in. At first glance, you might mistake it for a cat. Then you notice that it has too many legs. Others resemble many arms fused together, their center an open mouth of teeth. And others are worse, monsters that resemble people. Simply walking the streets is dangerous. Money has no value here. Everyone carries a weapon, and commerce is conducted with bullets.
Into this strange and unnatural place steps Charles Reed, former Navy diver aboard the USS Cyclops and private eye. He comes to Oakmont haunted by visions of monolithic, unknowable beasts sleeping beneath the sea, of collapsing in one place and waking up in another, of men whose faces change into tentacles. He comes to Oakmont looking for answers. He’s fresh off the boat, distrusted as a “newcomer” by everyone. He begins his task searching for a missing person and a failed expedition into the sea where divers went looking for the cause of the flood and found only madness.
"Reed can rely on more than his wits to get things done. At the push of a button, he can enter Mind’s Eye. In Mind’s Eye, Charles can see Omens that will guide him to other clues, and access memories implanted int certain objects"
Frogwares is probably best known for their Sherlock Holmes games, including Crimes and Punishments (which I had the pleasure to review) and The Devil’s Daughter, which was less well-received, and their fingerprints are all over The Sinking City. The most obvious similarity is the focus on solving cases. Like Holmes before him, Reed is a private eye, though 1920s Oakmont is much different than Holmes’ London. The gameplay is very similar to the Holmes games. Reed receives a task, be it a main quest or a side quest, and heads out to discover the truth.
There’s a lot of ways to do that. You can interview witnesses, find items at the scene, head to the newspaper archives to find articles, scour police records, or enlist the help of experts at the city’s hospitals or university. These clues will help you figure out what to do next – the game doesn’t give you anything beyond overall objectives for an investigation such as “find this person” or “discover what happened here” – open up new dialogue paths in conversations, or made deductions that will tell you more about the city and its inhabitants.
But Reed can rely on more than his wits to get things done. He’s been touched by the madness that envelops Oakmont, and while that comes at a cost, it also provides benefits. At the push of a button, he can enter Mind’s Eye. In Mind’s Eye, Charles can see Omens that will guide him to other clues, and access memories implanted int certain objects. Is the screen starting to shimmer? Hear a slight ringing? You should probably go into Mind’s Eye and inspect that item you just picked up. It might show you something, though I can’t promise it will be pleasant.
"Reed also has access to Retrocognition, an ability that allows him to see things as they happened in the past if he finds a tear in reality. Once you find all the scenes scattered around an area of interest, the game will ask you to put them in chronological order."
Reed also has access to Retrocognition, an ability that allows him to see things as they happened in the past if he finds a tear in reality. Once you find all the scenes scattered around an area of interest, the game will ask you to put them in chronological order. Getting it right reveals more clues. Clues are stored in the Mind Palace and can be combined to form new pieces of information and make deductions based on what happened. Thankfully, the game will inform you if you have or have not found all the evidence (including the key evidence) in a specific area, allowing you to make sure your decisions are made with as much information as you can.
As you solve cases, you’ll have to make choices. Will you turn over a murderer, or do you believe that what he saw drove him mad, and was not in control of his actions? On the one hand, the other men who saw what he did were driven mad by it. On the other, his method of violence seems too precise for a man struggling with sanity. Will you return men affected by madness during their underwater expedition to the surface, or leave them to die? On the one man, they’re still men. On the other, the madness is contagious, and these men are clearly in the service of powers you can’t comprehend. It’s often little piece of evidence – one character fears another, the last person with this kind of madness spread it to those around him – that make the decisions tough.
The choices you make matter, though the game does not judge you on them or tell you what the right answer is. You don’t fill some sort of meter or gain special rewards for doing this. You’re simply left to make them as best you can, and see the fallout later, if you see it at all. Reed can only work with what he has, and the smallest bit of information can make a big difference.
"Monsters abound, and you’ll have to manage both your health and sanity if you want to get out of Oakmont alive."
As you investigate main and side quests, you’ll have to navigate Oakmont itself. The city is enormous, split into multiple zones. Some are above land. Some are flooded, requiring a boat to navigate. The city is populated and impressive in scale, but it feels artificial, too. There’s little sense that the people here are really going anywhere or doing anything – the only time this isn’t true is when you see another boat navigating the city’s waterways – and you can’t enter many of the buildings and houses. You also spend a lot of time running back and forth between areas, even if you use the game’s fast travel system. Oakmont drips atmosphere and everything about it is unsettling, but it might have benefitted from being a bit smaller. By far the scariest areas are the ones that are quarantined by wooden fences and boxes. You can enter these infected areas, but they’re dangerous. The people in them are no longer human and will attack you on sight. You can cut through them – I did once, heard a noise, saw an enormous, deformed monster that looked like it had been Frankensteined together from multiple bodies, and got the hell out of Dodge.
Thankfully, Reed is more than capable of defending himself. He starts the game with a single pistol and a melee attack, but you’ll gain access to more guns as you progress. You’ll also find items like gun power, shell casings, bandages, which will allow you to craft bullets, anti-psychotics, and health kits, among other items. This is good, because you will do some fighting. Monsters abound, and you’ll have to manage both your health and sanity if you want to get out of Oakmont alive. Health is straightforward, but sanity is trickier. Staring at monsters, getting glimpses of the Old Ones, or even looking through your Mind’s Eye drains it. As it decreases, Reed will start to see visions of people and monsters that aren’t there. You’ll have to take care to stay both healthy and sane.
While The Sinking City does feature combat, I’m sorry to say that it’s one of the game’s worst aspects. Guns don’t feel powerful, mostly because they aren’t loud, and your melee attack feels weak. This makes sense, to a certain degree – you are just a man against eldritch horrors, after all – but that feeling of fear and helplessness shouldn’t come at the expense of the combat feeling good. Thankfully, most combat can be avoided, should you choose to do so, and the investigation element of the game is fun.
"Reed gains experience that can be spent upgrading his combat abilities, how many materials he finds and can hold, health, sanity, or even his ability to gain experience. As an RPG system, it’s not particularly deep, but it does add a sense of progression to the game."
Whether you solve cases or kill monsters, Reed gains experience that can be spent upgrading his combat abilities, how many materials he finds and can hold, health, sanity, or even his ability to gain experience. As an RPG system, it’s not particularly deep, but it does add a sense of progression to the game, and gives you a reason to complete side quests and kill monsters that you might otherwise avoid.
The game’s presentation is a mixed bag. The writing is pretty good, but the graphics leave something to be desired, even on higher settings. Textures, especially in water, pop in and out, and certain models, be they environments or characters, look cheap. The Sinking City is a budget game, and it shows. The game’s map is also atrocious on a mouse, requiring you to hold down a button to scroll or use the movement keys. It makes locking on to points of interest tiring (you can pin clues to the map to guide you), and far more difficult than it needs to be. However, what it lacks in visual polish and game feel it more than makes up for in art and sound design. Oakmont is legitimately creepy, as are the people in it, and it’s a scary place to be. It’s little details – the way your boat is called Cyclops II, even though Reed is the only person who could know what that means, or how so many people walking the street shamble along, their clothes covered in blood. The audio design helps here; ambient noises are used to great effect and the creatures sounds like they’re from another realm. I was scared playing the game more than once, which is a tribute Forgwares’ ability to nail down their setting and their understanding of the source material.
Whether or not you get on with The Sinking City will depend upon what you want to get out of it. If you’re looking for a game with strong combat, intuitive menus, and great graphics, you’re out of luck. But if you want to be immersed in a frightening place with strange people and solve mysteries based on Lovecraftian horror, Oakmont might just be a city that you want to visit. Be careful, though: you’re off the edge of the map, and the Old Gods move beneath the waves.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Excellent art and sound design (outside of the weapons). Genuinely scary. Does a good job conveying Lovecraftian horror. Solid writing and a compelling story. Solving investigations is fun. Complex choices. A big city to explore.
Graphics are just okay. Adding things to the map is clunky on a mouse and keyboard. Combat doesn't feel all that great. The city can feel artificial.