The Sinking City Review: A Suspenseful Masterpiece in the Age of Jump Scares

The Sinking City
(Photo: Bigben Games)

The Sinking City is a brilliant entry in the horror genre that is borderline perfect not only for longtime fans of H.P. Lovecraft, but also those who may have never read any of his works. No prior knowledge of Cthulhu and the like is necessary to enjoy what developer Frogwares has put together, but it never hurts to be aware of just how sideways things can go when supernatural forces are afoot. In the age of jump scares, this title shines through without having to get in your face to get a rise out of you. The lingering horrors that go unseen do well enough on their own.

For starters, The Sinking City is gorgeous in nearly every way imaginable. From the decaying city to its peculiar inhabitants, both native and supernatural, the developers spared no expense at creating a beautifully detailed environment that is almost as encapsulating as the bizarre forces trying to take hold of you and everything around. Catching a pleasing sunrise might even make you forget about all of the troubles at hand, but it won’t keep them at bay for long.

The game is set in the fictional city of Oakmont, Massachusetts during the 1920s. A mysterious flood has ravaged the area, bringing with it a ton of unknown forces that present mysteries galore. The creatures themselves are as odd as one would expect in a Lovecraftian horror title, but they do pose a challenge and make life more difficult. Thankfully, their presence does not hinder investigations in a way that makes any given situation seem impossible as there is a good balance regardless of difficulty selected. Speaking of which, I would recommend keeping investigation assistance on. While it does provide a helpful hint here and there, it doesn’t hold the player’s hand.

Players take on the role of Charles Reed, a former US Navy diver who became a private investigator after the war. Strange powers have taken hold of Reed, which coincidentally come in handy while performing investigative duties. Mind’s Eye allows one to see what isn’t there, Omens can guide players to new clues, and Retrocognition presents players with the ability to see and understand critical events that took place. All of this will help with gathering evidence, which players can piece together in the Mind Palace. This furthers investigations by helping players reach conclusions. However, different choices will be presented, which lead to various outcomes.

The mechanics of The Sinking City are simple enough to get a grasp on. After a couple of cases, the tools at Reed’s disposal become almost second nature, enabling a deeper immersion into the story itself. After all, all of this investigating isn’t for nothing. The title features a solid tale with many mysteries to uncover. It is quickly learned that the residents of Oakmont weren’t exactly peaceful prior to the flood, but the water and its peculiar forces have only made things worse. It’s up to the player to get to the bottom of everything, including their own visions that they’ve been having. In addition to this, each side mission is a tale in itself, offering players plenty to work with and much to explore.

Where The Sinking City truly shines, however, is in the fact that it doesn’t guide you along the way. There are several different outcomes based on the choices you make throughout play, some being a bit easier than others. This all comes from the investigative work you do throughout Oakmont, inspecting various locations, questioning the residents, using the powers mentioned above, and more. However, all of this is done on your own, in that the only things marked on the map are key locations such as the police station, university, et cetera, as well as infested areas. If investigation assistance is on, it only offers the most basic help possible, but it can be turned off if one would like to experience the game entirely on their own. Other than that, it is up to the player to piece together clues in order to figure out where they need to go and who they need to find. This only adds to the immersion of the game, and it truly draws you in.

The Sinking City2
(Photo: Bigben Games)

Getting around is quick and easy, depending on how you go about it. Most of the streets in Oakmont are now water, but there are small boats everywhere to help get around when walking doesn’t cut it. This also provides a good way to explore the city grid and get familiar with all of the locations. Additionally, there is the ability to fast travel after the appropriate phone booths are found, making quick work of getting around.

While traversing the different areas of Oakmont, players will come across a wide variety of folks that are local to the mysterious city. There are fish-people, witches, cults, and more that are not happy to have the newcomer that Charles Reed around, and they won’t hesitate to let you know that. This is not only apparent in how they treat Reed, but also in how they view each other. Given the era during which The Sinking City takes place, there is plenty of hostility towards minority groups, and the developers do not shy away from this. They do note before the title screen that while this mentality was and is still wrong, it’s important not to forget that it happened.

What simply cannot be forgotten in the game are some of the bugs. During my playthrough, I did not encounter anything that could be considered a game-breaking bug, but more along the lines of chuckle-inducing bugs. The majority of the issues centered around NPCs and them disappearing randomly. I also encountered one character that was sitting at a desk and typing, only she was hovering above the desk and typewriter. Again, none of these issues broke the game in any instance, but they did sometimes break the immersion.

The very nature of The Sinking City, however, is no laughing matter. There are strange visions plaguing the minds of many, people are at odds with one another, disgusting creatures are everywhere, a myriad of mysteries require solving, and much more. To think, this is only what takes place above the water. Taking a dive is only part of the story, but the water is so integrated with what’s going on, it may as well be the entire tale, and that is not a bad thing at all.

The Sinking City provides top-tier gameplay in the psychological horror genre, and brilliantly blends beautiful surroundings with a terrifyingly haunting and mysterious presence. Horror fans, especially, will want to pick this up at their earliest convenience.

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Rating: 5 out of 5

The Sinking City is set to release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on June 27th. A Nintendo Switch version is expected to release this year. A code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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