Salvageable when wet: A critical review of “The Sinking City” (2019)

It must have been hard to hold onto your sanity as an East Coast private detective between the wars. At least, that’s what the gaming industry suggests. In 2018, we played as a detective with terrible psychological problems encountering frightening Lovecraftian gods in “Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game.” Last year, we played as a detective with frightening psychological problems encountering terrible Lovecraftian gods in “The Sinking City.” I can’t wait for this year’s installment.

All snark aside, 2019’s “The Sinking City” is a decent dive into the definitely established genre of Lovecraftian detective. You play as Charles Reed, a detective who travels to the island of Oakmont off the coast of Massachusetts. You hope information obtained on the island, infamous for being half submerged in water following a flood, can help you understand or end the nightmares that have plagued you since the Great War. However, the island is being slowly picked apart by different factions, and you’ll have to assist cult leaders, mob bosses and half-mad researchers as you claw your way closer to the source of your nightmares.

“The Sinking City” is nothing more or less than what it claims to be. It is not an action game, as the combat is loose and buggy. However, despite the “run don’t gun” mentality, it’s not really a horror game either. The monster design is fine, solid if not inventive, and there are a few jump scares, but the game as a whole isn’t particularly scary. It’s never threatening, for one, since re-spawns are forgiving and resource collection becomes easier as the game marches on.

Also, the atmosphere is more Halloween spooky than psychologically repressive. Part of the problem is no one seems to care what’s going on. Fish men move in down the street. A cult takes over the basement of an abandoned church. Students from the local university are disappearing. None of these are half-whispered mysteries. They’re items in the community newspaper. It’s hard for players to be frightened by what’s going on when none of the characters are all that concerned.

However, “Sinking City” does fine as detective fiction. Gameplay involves logic and research rather than weird adventure game style puzzles, and it’s nice that the game gives you the intellectual space to gather clues and draw your own conclusions with a limited amount of hand holding. It’s a tidy little system, which is good because that’s what most of the action is. Main quests and side quests come in two varieties: look for clues and make conclusions or navigate small mazes and shoot at things. The former is interesting, albeit slow paced. The latter is acceptable, albeit frustrated by awkward controls and samey environments (seriously, Oakmont is full of tract housing).

So who would want to play this game? Mythos fans. There are tons of cleverly placed references to the works of Lovecraft scattered around the game. There’s Innsmouth and Cthulhu, but there’s also Herbert West and Arthur Jermyn. When was the last time you saw an Arthur Jermyn reference in media? When was the last time you saw an Arthur Jermyn anything?

There are also things that are not genuine Lovecraft but are genuinely Lovecraftian. An unnamed witch cult on a killing spree, a resurrected witch on a killing spree, even the flood that is slowly claiming the city and possibly ties it to ancient prophecies, all feel very Lovecraft without definitely coming from a particular story. Sometimes it looks a little more Twin Peaks than Arkham, but, whatever. That’s not something I’m going to complain about.

“Sinking City” also has an interesting take on Lovecraftian nihilism. A lot of cosmic horror suggests that the waking world is not what you think it is, and it stops at “you have no real power in the universe.” This game suggests that the waking world is immoral and reality might not deserve to exist, a theme that’s carried faithfully through the game’s thoughtful final sequence and multiple endings. Those endings admittedly feel rushed, but they stay true to the downbeat vision, and as a whole the game is a lot smarter in its presentation than some other, more blatantly anti-natalist, horror I’ve read.

I just wish the dialogue was as good as the plot. It is notably inconsistent. There are multiple dialogue choices, so some of acting ends up uneven since the developers don’t know what order you’ll take things. In one exchange, Reed follows up a gruesome description of a woman’s dead dog with a chipper sign off.

The occasionally off dialogue wouldn’t bother me so much except it highlights that Reed is a kind of a crap detective. Clues that certain people are obviously evil sail right over his head. Some of them are presented as mythos in-jokes, which is fine, but Reed has a habit of trying to bully mob bosses when all I want him to do is maintain a stoic exterior.

In perhaps the most blatant example, Reed starts insulting several armed members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. I thought it wouldn’t be the smartest idea for Reed to begin mouthing off to angry white supremacists with guns, but I had no option to deescalate the tense conversation. It always ended in a gun fight.

I get that the developers wanted to make a statement about how bad the KKK is, but I thought the KKK made that statement themselves when they slaughtered a warehouse full of Innsmouthers. And wasn’t the point of the game we have to make ugly and complicated choices, and humanity might not deserve to exist? It seems like a strange place to be making an ethical judgment call. Oh well. Pick your battles, I suppose.

And therein lies the problem of the game. Its pros come with caveats and its cons come with excuses. It’s never a deal breaker, but it’s noticeable when it limits the game. In “The Sinking City,” the water is fine–it’s just shallower than perhaps it could have been.

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