One reason I gravitate towards indie and B-tier games is because they typically can’t afford extravagance. They cut features, reduce scope, and focus on a few key ideas out of necessity. The result is something that usually offers some novelty while being completable in a reasonable amount of time. Sure, they’re not all perfectly-paced—I loved Vampyr, for example, despite it featuring a sprawling city and a 20-30 hour playtime—but you can usually rely on a certain level of focus that’s hard to find in many recent blockbuster open-world games.
Call it the exception to the B-tier rule, but The Sinking City fails to embrace any of the qualities I’ve come to expect from this kind of game. Developer Frogwares has taken the skeleton of its excellent Sherlock Holmes games and shattered those adventure game bones into dust, sprinkling them all over a huge open-world that struggles to hold together. Plugging up the holes is an upgrade tree, crafting system, and horrendous third-person shooter combat.
With a different balance to the recipe, I could see this game’s grab-bag of features as a charming bit of ambition. However, when I look back over the many hours I spent playing The Sinking City, it’s hard to feel anything but fury over the time wasted. The vast majority of The Sinking City, despite coming from an adventure game pedigree, is not about solving mysteries.
Most of the game is spent running from one location to another, using fast travel as much as it will allow, and sitting around in loading screens. Navigating the city is cool at first—it is, in fact, sinking—and you’ll bounce between on-foot and boat travel like you’re in a rotting, decrepit version of Venice. But after a few missions, the traversal becomes a chore.
The open world isn’t impressive in any way. The environment pops in constantly, often failing to adjust level-of-detail on smear-textured buildings until you’re only 50 feet away. The NPCs bustle around the environment for added atmosphere, but offer no meaningful interaction outside of quest characters.
That any amount of time is further wasted on combat and item crafting would be bad enough, but there’s actually quite a lot of it. Combat is stiff and slow. The aiming doesn’t feel great on a controller, and that’s exacerbated by small enemies that jump around constantly. My only solace was that I could craft enough grenades and shotgun ammo to avoid any precision aiming, as long as I tediously looted every new area I came to.
What should be the meat of a game developed by Frogwares—the investigation and detective work—feels not just like a small fraction of the overall game, but an element that was stretched thin by the other systems. The story of The Sinking City is just not very good. The overall plot meanders aimlessly from mystery to mystery, before rushing to one of three choose-your-own-ending 15 second cutscenes.
The individual cases have their moments, but when stretched out over hours of traversal, they don’t have very much to say. More than most games before it, The Sinking City, is playing with H.P. Lovecraft’s entire sandbox, racism and all. Yet, while it displays Lovecraft’s racist allegories and makes a point to finger-wave at them for their obvious problems, it doesn’t go much further in investigating those ideas.
Human-fish hybrids represent this world’s immigrant problem and race war all rolled into one. The game even features a lovely cameo by the KKK, who perform hate crimes on the fish-folk throughout the city. But when the city is also populated by a ton of black people, this depiction of the KKK gets into some murky water. I never came across any evidence that the KKK of The Sinking City also hates black people, and found this to be some pretty shitty erasure of a very real horror.
Speaking of horror, there’s very little to be found here. Despite its roots in Lovecraft stories, there isn’t much unspeakable, unknowable psychological horror in The Sinking City. In fact, by showing a fully-functioning open world with monsters to shoot and coherent dialogue aplenty, this game shows and explains far too much to ever capture the qualities of Lovecraft’s horror. The monster designs are all cartoonish, bordering on comical. And by the time the world starts to feel truly apocalyptic and Lovecraftian, the story is into its final minutes.
There’s a look and feel of exhaustion that permeates The Sinking City. It’s in the sleep-deprived gaze of your protagonist. It’s in the half-baked implementations of gameplay systems and storybeats. In almost every respect, it feels like there just wasn’t enough gas to get this car across the finish line. Had it been scoped better, with a greater focus on Frogware’s strengths, I think we’d be talking about a very different game. Alas, what we got is impossible to recommend, and in fact, I’d implore you to not waste your time on it at all.