Despite being a writer whose work has divided so many – especially when it comes to the legacy of his problematic views and the running theme of ‘otherness’ in his poems and prose – HP Lovecraft remains the go-to inspiration for anything remotely Gothic or tinged with thoughts of mania and delirium. Naturally, it’s only mere minutes into the opening cutscene that our grizzled and damaged antagonist – private investigator and perpetual hat-wearer, Charles Reed – steps out onto the deck of a ship and spies a squid-headed leviathan drifting in a miasma of madness.
For developer Frogwares, The Sinking City isn’t just taking inspiration from Lovecraft’s vast bibliography. It’s a full-on ode, filled to the depressed gills with references to characters and ideas from across his poetry and novellas. Much like how Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novels melded many of his previous works into one interconnected multiverse, this pulpy mix of investigation, third-person shooting and survival horror happily cherry picks characters from across Lovecraft’s work and plonks them into the same, rain-drenched city off the coast of Massachusetts.
It goes without saying, the Ukranian developer isn’t quite as deft with such amalgamation as King, but despite being a wholly unoriginal idea – a grizzled, 1920s PI searches for answers to his own nightmarish visions – the end result is something that’s both clunky and unexpectedly engrossing. It has its bugs, and it falls into many a cliche at times, but you’re left with a psychological investigation that’s unafraid to present the divisions and prejudices of the author and his characters in a way that represents the era of its setting without bias.
And while the studio hasn’t produced a game for a Nintendo console since the Wii back in 2004, it’s spent the years in between honing its skills in the genre of slow-paced, third-person investigations. As rough as they were around the edges, its most recent (and final) takes on Sherlock Holmes – 2014’s Crimes & Punishments and 2016’s The Devil’s Daughter – showed real promise when it came to combining complex investigations, interrogations and case building. And while The Devil’s Daughter had more action elements than its predecessor, The Sinking City represents a broader attempt to do more than just combine leads in your mind palace.
So it makes sense that at its core, The Sinking City is all about investigation. As a beleaguered investigator drawn to the flooded city of Oakmont – an area that’s seemingly unmappable and almost impossible to find which has all but derailed any attempts at relief aid – you find yourself attempting to solve your own mental trauma following your service in the Great War. With multiple districts to explore – including by boat in order to reach areas cut off by the seemingly supernatural floods – you’ll begin to piece together a connection between the flood, the nightmarish visions and the eldritch horrors that infest the city.
As you investigate more bizarre crimes, witness macabre sights and fight monstrous creatures, your sanity will begin to fray. Represented as a bar next to your health, the world around you will begin to distort and warp, the further you slip into the realm of Cthulhu and co. You’ll see apparitions and otherworldly hallucinations as you transcend from mild mental degradation to full-on psychosis. As an investigator touched with a certain amount of supernatural familiarity, Reed can also use his Mind’s Eye (read: Batman’s Detective mode) to follow the imprint of crime scenes after he’s collected enough clues. In a similar vein to Remember Me, you can even rebuild events then follow trails and clues in order to discover new leads.
Staring into the supernatural abyss doesn’t come cheap, and your sanity meter will start to drain the longer you spend using your other sight. Thankfully, if you flee certain horrors or deactivate your Mind’s Eye, your sanity will start to replenish, but that regeneration does take away from the long-term impact of the things your experiencing. And while your investigative abilities attempt to keep things interesting, the same thing can’t be said for combat. It takes an age to aim any ranged weapon and melee attacks are wildly inaccurate, leaving you with the impression you’re playing an old Resident Evil. Enemy designs are creative, but there aren’t that many variations and you’re left wishing for something with the dynamic threat of Dead Space.
While it’s got many of the less-welcome hallmarks of a modern double-A game – voice acting that ranges from strong to scenery-chewing; character models that can’t sync with their voices; janky character movements – Oakmont itself, and as a result, the rest of the game, effectively exudes a sense of slow corruption and rot. With buildings slowly being claimed by coral growths, structures that have become half-submerged and local citizens embalmed in a persistent melancholy, it evokes the likes of Silent Hill and Rapture; a vessel that’s fallen from grace and into a lesser state, much like its antagonist. There’s always a sense of unease at play, and there are some genuinely shocking moments further into the story, but it’s not particularly ‘scary’ for the most part.
One of the elements that really helps The Sinking City stand out on Switch is the attention and care that’s gone into its porting process. Rather than simply pushing it onto new hardware and hoping for the best, the studio has carefully optimised the build to facilitate a mostly stable 30fps (with the occasional chug). Assets and character models have been retooled to free up space and processing power, but it’s not as big a change as you might think. Some character models have a little more blurring than others, and effects such as water have been re-optimised to avoid sections where you navigate by boat sending the game into a sodden crash.
Additionally, the Nintendo Switch version benefits from all the changes Frogwares has rolled out following the game’s launch on other platforms. If you’ve played The Sinking City before, you’ll notice how gunshots now have improved audio (especially noticeably when facing a nightmare creature indoors), while the downtrodden crowds in Oakmont now move with more believable behaviours. It’s these quality of life changes that really make a difference, especially for a game all about investigating new locations and dialogue-based clues. It also runs smoothly for the most part in both handheld and docked modes, so you don’t suffer any additional sacrifices for using one mode over another.
While it’s carried over its fair share of clunky elements in the transition to Nintendo’s console, The Sinking City on Nintendo Switch is a fully-featured and mostly well-optimised port. The mixture of psychological horror and detective skills is a positive step beyond the developer’s previous work on Sherlock Holmes titles, and while its sanity mechanic doesn’t quite hold up to the likes of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, and it’s not without bugs, it offers an enjoyable if not particularly scary descent into madness and delirium.