REVIEW – Howard Philips Lovecraft was an author who lived in the early 1900s in the USA, and wrote some of the most influential horror stories of all time. Many videogames have used H.P. Lovecraft’s writing as an influence for their gameplay mechanics, enemy design or even general themes of the story (for example From Software’s Bloodborne). A few developers even tried taking a crack at adapting some of Lovecraft’s story, most of these were more or less successful to a varying degree. There was Bethesda’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, and last year we had Focus Home Interactive’s Call of Cthulhu which we reviewed.
The Sinking City is another attempt at adapting the Cthulhu mythos into a videogame, and in a way, it is probably the most comprehensive game for Cthulhu references. However, it is a horrible videogame, unfortunately, and probably already 2019’s worst videogame. I was so hyped for this, but after playing this game for many days the only question remains is why was this even made in the first place.
The Call of Noir
Frogwares has been releasing Sherlock Holmes games for years, and most of those games were fixed linear adventures, with a few dialogue choices, plus the occasional quick time events. The main problem with Lovecraft’s work is that while it is in the genre of horror, it is mostly a fear of the unknown, based on paranoia, which is quite difficult to adapt into a videogame. So with The Sinking City, Frogwares opted to show the messed up world of Cthulhu through the eyes of a detective haunted by visions about a flooded city. Which actually would work, as you would be forced to uncover these harrowing unknowns things due to the nature of your line of work. Plus they also already know their way around having main characters as detectives, but it still fails on a lot of levels. Not because of the storylines though but because of the gameplay.
The overall story would be fine, as it mostly relies on references and ideas from the established lore of H.P. Lovecraft. The developers clearly know the source material, as they spread documents throughout the world referencing mythical gods, and monsters, bizarre rituals, and mysterious crimes. It just starts a bit too much as an in medias res, with you Charles Reed arriving in the city of Oakmont that has been flooded by water, and filled with super occurrences and entities.
Furthermore, the plot also deals with racism, xenophobia, immigration, and the brutality of man. It is a layered story, which if you complete all of the sidequests will be a treat to read, but a pain to experience. In fact, the story is the highlight of the game, the main story, the choices, and sidequests’ documentation is superb, wonderful, and for real Lovecraft fans will be full of easter eggs.
Eternal rain, eternal Pain
The story takes place in Oakmont, which is a large open world city (made up of several districts), that can be explored freely, and the player can go anywhere as soon as the short introduction is done. After the introduction, the game gives the player cases, and side cases to solve. The player will have to find locations based on their descriptions on the map, as they are not marked on it automatically. Part of the challenge is finding locations on the map as a form of treasure hunting and is an interesting and fun way of traversing the map.
Main cases progress the story and give out new weapons and items, and side cases give extra XP plus lore tidbits. The investigations themselves usually boil down to: Find a secret in a house, collect an item, or figure out how an event went in this particular zone. You also have the Mind Palace, which is a collection of important clues brought together under one menu. The Mind Palace allows the player to connect clues together that reveal possible choices for story-related choices, but other than those parts it is not a useful, especially since the side cases do not make use of this feature. The puzzles are barebones, and I was expecting more of a challenge, and the one other only interesting type of puzzle is the one where you have to figure out the locations of people using archives in buildings. The player also looses out on trying to do the sidequests early, as some locations will be filled with enemies, and in the beginning, you barely have any weapons to use. Those sidequests do not give weapons, or new equipment so as a tip, do those sidequests near the end. Which is a shame because if the sidequests would give actual weapons it would be worth it. Skills themselves do not affect conversations, or the ability to unlock puzzles. They just allow you to kill things faster and have more bullets and health.
In fact, you would expect creative ways to dispose of enemies, or enemy encounters being rare, considering the source material. Instead, enemies are dime a dozen that constantly and immediately respawn as soon as you leave the area. As much as I thought last year’s Call of Cthulhu game had its issue, it handled dealing with supernatural enemies well, and it did not boil down to shooting them. A bit of a spoiler for a sidequest, but for instance in one sidequest your investigation uncovers a Witch that has been terrorizing a couple of citizens in the town. A flashback shows how the Witch is summoned with special mirrors and a blood spells, and that the summoners try to use guns to kill the Witch spirit, but all of them end up being dead even though they had submachine guns and rifles. So as a player and as my character being a detective we would think we would have to find a spell or an object to trap the Witch. Nope, you just use the grenade to blow up the Witch or shoot it. Most enemies and obstacles are overcome by killing them, even though these are supposed to be supernatural enemies, and you are supposed to be a detective, not a super soldier.
Not just that, but even the resources found around the world respawn. So while the game is supposed to be a tense horror game, with low amounts of materials, you can cheese the system to get lots of ammo. The combat itself is horrible, and aiming is difficult, plus the enemies run around in such a way that you end up wasting ammo. It is also not satisfying to shoot the enemies as they barely have any reaction to our shots. The shooting feels tacked on and drags the game’s potential down severely.
It is a game about the fear of the unknown, but the way the game is built just does not make it scary at all. Since you can just go around like Rambo and kill enemies, but those enemies just constantly respawn.
The madness of repetition
So while the previous Sherlock Holmes games were done in Unreal Engine 3, The Sinking City was completed in Unreal Engine 4, but it still ends up looking ugly. It looks like a late PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 game, with animation being stiff, and the voice acting just flat out monotone in most cases. Not only does it look bad, but the developers decided to not handcraft the entire city and use the power of randomly generated blocks with AI!
Which is fine, they are a small development studio, and handcrafting every tiny detail would be mind-numbing for the dev team. However the repetition is so noticeable that it feels baffling, the only difference between some room layouts sometimes is just the lighting itself, or maybe a carpet here or a blood splatter there. The exteriors besides the occasional churches or manors, everything just looks the same. The same grey and brown coloured streets, with the same looking doors or windows. I do not know why the development team decided to go and do a fully open-world game when clearly their strengths lie in a more linear experience. The design decisions make the developers look lazy rather than be an underdog trying to do a unique experience with a limited budget. You can reference the entire catalogue of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, that is not going to make your game better.
A never-ending cycle
I do not understand who this game is made for in the end. The gameplay is just bad, it is playable, but not a fun game to actually play. The story is good, but even that part is shot to hell because of the shoddy voice acting, and stiff animations. The open world does the game no favours. While I can understand that games are not perfect and can have issues, but the price tag for this game is just too much. Even if they patch the technical issues in the long run, it will still not fix the core issues with the game.
+ Interesting story and sidequests
+ Mind Palace is an interesting concept
+ Music is great
– Repetitive design and open world is bland
– Combat is horrible
– Graphics is subpar
Publisher: Bigben Interactive
Genre: Survival Horror
Release date: June 27, 2019