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The Sinking City

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Frogwares
Release Date: Sept. 12, 2019

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Switch Review - 'The Sinking City'

by Andreas Salmen on April 8, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

The Sinking City is a game of investigation and mystery taking place in a fictional open world inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

The world of H. P. Lovecraft has always lent itself to RPGs and video games. It's surprising that it took until 2019 for several of them to surface in short succession with Call of Cthulhu and The Sinking City. Developed by Frogwares, The Sinking City was recently ported to the Nintendo Switch. As a fan of good adventure titles, I was intrigued by the premise but worried, given that the title had several technical issues at launch on other platforms. Unfortunately, the Switch port isn't smooth sailing either, from a technical or a gameplay standpoint.

In The Sinking City, private investigator Charles Reed travels to Oakmont, Massachusetts to uncover the root cause of the visions and dreams that haunt him. What he finds is a small fishing village that has recently experienced a flood. Since then, deformed beings have started attacking people around Oakmont, and parts of the city have remained flooded. Inhabitants are going insane, and Reed's hold on sanity is precarious at best. This situation creates an eerie and mysterious setting that fits extraordinary well for a supernatural detective game.

Frogwares is mainly known for its Sherlock Holmes titles. With that in mind, The Sinking City aims to be the natural evolution of what it does best: adventure gameplay. The Sinking City has an entirely open world in which we aim to solve a series of cases. It's an ambitious undertaking but doesn't quite come together. It's not for a lack of trying, but rather due to an evident lack of time, budget and a relatively small development team for a game of this scale.

Since The Sinking City is focused on traditional adventure gameplay, including the gathering of evidence and questioning witnesses, the story is one of its main pillars. It's a mixed bag, but there are enough highlights to keep the story interesting during the game's runtime. The world is rife with conflict; different families and races are at each other's throats, and racism is an integral part of the toxic environment. The flood does the rest, with entire streets turning into rivers of floating furniture and trash. The writing and dialogue are serviceable, ranging from bad to occasionally great.

The detective gameplay carries the entire experience. Solving cases involves gathering evidence in our case book, either by asking questions or by visiting the scene. Every piece of evidence is entered into our case file and may provide clues about where to look next. What makes this an interesting and engaging activity is that the game never directly tells you where to go but leaves it up to you. Streets on the map are named, but houses aren't numbered. Evidence usually references street names or crossings and leaves it up to us to place a marker and know where to go. It's not complicated or burdensome, but it adds an unnecessary level of fuzziness to the navigation. Occasionally, we may need to identify people and locations by looking through the archives in public buildings, such as city hall, hospitals, or the police station. These simple activities go a long way to emulating the feeling of actually doing detective work.

What makes the casework unique is that we have a special ability: our mind eye. Once activated, it shows us visions of what happened at a crime scene when we inspect the correct objects. This usually means the display of a single image that depicts an event that took place, after which we can revisit the events of the case. We enter something of an alternate plane where we can see three or more events that took place in our current location, so we can order them chronologically to reveal further hints. Similar to the other gameplay mechanics, this is rarely complicated or difficult, and it works well.

All evidence that we collect can be revisited in our mind palace, where we can match evidence to lead to conclusions that we can pursue. Again, it's not a challenging task in and of itself, but it's highly effective at emulating detective work. Different pairs of evidence can lead to different deductions in a case, providing the player with some freedom about which clues to match and follow. There are also a few branching decisions in certain cases that lead to slightly different outcomes. Additionally, the game has a few different endings that are somewhat influenced by your decisions.

The detective portion of the adventure is engaging, fun, interesting, and well thought-out. The dilemma is that an open-world detective game may not cut it on its own. There has to be some kind of risk and reward to keep the player guessing and create interesting situations. To that end, The Sinking City has enemies and combat encounters that are, quite frankly, a chore. I understand why they've been included, but the execution is more than lacking. There are a handful of creatures that may pop up at any time in designated infection zones or in buildings during your case.

We have firearms to kill everything that moves, but no matter how you look at it, the combat is painfully tedious, boring and clunky. Movement in The Sinking City is slow and imprecise, making it frustrating to execute evasive maneuvers or keep up with enemies. Foes occasionally move at superhuman speeds when they evade bullets and close in for an attack. There's an inherent mismatch between the speed and agility of our protagonist and enemy creatures, and that makes the encounters more difficult than they need to be. Even with sensitivity options cranked all the way up and using the Switch's motion controls, combat doesn't feel great at any time. It's a nuisance that pulls down the experience several pegs.

Another reason why combat is relatively uninspiring and broken is the way the inventory is handled. Bullets in Oakmont are used as currency and ammunition, so we can only hold a limited number of bullets. We can craft bullets with ingredients or receive them as payment, but we're always restricted in the number of bullets that we can ultimately carry. It's a clear attempt to introduce more risk and reward, but unfortunately, all it creates is more frustration because too many bullets are needed to take down enemies. When you taking into account their incredible reflexes and ability to sidestep, a considerable amount of ammunition goes to waste. It's a broken system that hinders the experience rather than amplifying it.

The actual traversal of the open world is either done by foot or boat, depending on the street condition. There are several phone booths littered across the map, and once they're found, they can be used for fast travel, which is a welcome addition. There are a few infected areas with monsters to kill, and some supply boxes contain crafting materials, but there is little to do in the world except to take on another case.

While we're on the subject of crafting, the crafting system in The Sinking City is pretty bare-bones. Bullets, grenades, health packs, and traps can be crafted as they become available. Crafting ingredients are found in chests and cupboards around the world and respawn frequently, so we rarely run out of materials. Health packs and remedies against insanity feel rare, but it's a straightforward system that doesn't feel necessary. As hinted, the sanity of our character is important. The sanity is displayed with its own meter next to our health, and witnessing strange or peculiar sights might tip us into insanity and cause weird visions. It's a cool effect, but it rarely gets in the way, especially with the required remedy easily available.

With the good adventure gameplay and frustrating combat, The Sinking City is a mixed bag from a gameplay standpoint, but it's worse from a technical angle. The game is plagued by bugs and technical issues on other platforms, and the Switch version is no exception. NPCs look outdated and lifeless, spawn in and out of the scenery, or clip into objects. UI notification elements occasionally stay on-screen permanently instead of vanishing. The frame rate drops into the low 20s frequently, and the overall visual fidelity is lackluster at best. This is true for both handheld and docked gameplay, but issues like the dropping frame rate aren't as noticeable when the console is portable.

In many ways, The Sinking City had to make concessions for the hybrid handheld, but since the source material already had issues, this is a visually downgraded but similarly broken game. Environments are blurry and won't load until they're a few feet away, and everything looks like it's presented in a washed-out, grayish-brownish tone. Loading times are relatively long, and buildings often have to load separately. The general city layout and design is decent, with different districts and serviceable character models and animations. Throwing all of this together, The Sinking City barely holds together at times, but somehow, it doesn't fully break.

Having said all of that, I still enjoyed a lot of my playthrough of The Sinking City. No matter how frustrating the combat became or how broken the environments turned out to be, I loved doing case work and figuring out obscure deaths or uncovering secret organizations within this peculiar game world. Given all the downsides, this is a game that is difficult to recommend, especially at full price.

Score: 5.0/10

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