Video games have enthusiastically mined the oeuvre of gothic author HP Lovecraft, but The Sinking City might just be the most Lovecraftian game yet. Based on two of his stories – Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth – it is set in the city of Oakmont, Massachussetts, in the early 1920s.
Oakmont has suffered a cataclysm that has isolated it from the rest of the American mainland and flooded half its streets – but it’s no Venice. Eternally grim and rainy, parts of it are infested by weird creatures called Wylebeasts that emerged from the sea, and its citizens – who include the fish-hybrid Innsmouthers, the Ku Klux Klan and various religious cults that are equally nasty and deluded – are a hostile bunch.
Into this hotbed sails your character. Charles Reed, a former navy diver who has become a top-notch private eye is troubled by weird visions and nightmares featuring ghastly undersea creatures – and seeking the cause. A thoroughly arcane and bonkers (and therefore authentically Lovecraftian) storyline ensues, tackling a number of the author’s themes – including his naked racism, for which there is a disclaimer as the game loads. At the end of each chapter you must resolve a moral dilemma in a way that doesn’t always favour the greater good of the citizenry.
The Sinking City is stuffed with interesting ideas, only some of which are fully developed. It is essentially a detective game, much like developer Frogwares’ previous Sherlock Holmes efforts, in which Reed must gather evidence, perform old-school research at city archives, use what the game calls his Mind Palace to make plot-advancing deductions and employ his supernatural ability to reconstruct crime scenes.
But Oakmont also presents an open world containing areas infested by Wylebeasts, which must be dispatched with very clunky shooting that isn’t helped by the scarcity of ammunition or opaque ammo-crafting system. Often I found myself surrounded by Wylebeasts without a means of killing them. Reed must often navigate the semi-flooded city by boat, which requires preternatural map-reading skills. You can fast-travel via phone boxes, but you’re only likely to find them all when you reach the latter stages of the game, and the time you spend chugging around Oakmont swiftly becomes a pain.
All of which leaves the impression that The Sinking City is overambitious. If it had confined itself to closed, easily navigable districts, and if Frogwares had placed less importance on combat, it would have been a better game. It’s also technically average, with the occasional drop in performance.
The intrigues that play out between its often bizarre but always interesting characters and factions, and underwater sequences that see Reed in a 1920s diving suit, are highly absorbing. Its narrative puts the boot into religious cults, and Lovecraft would surely not have approved of its ruminations on racism. It also tackles Depression-era deprivation, which is pretty apposite in today’s world. The Sinking City is original, commendably thought-provoking and deliciously gothic, but aspects of it feel either half-finished or ill thought-out. Had it pruned just a little of its ambition, it could have had more than cult appeal.