Previewed on PC
Private Investigator Charles Reed is a very tired man. In fact, out of every video game character I’ve ever seen, not one is as visually fatigued as our solemn protagonist. It’s obvious from his demeanour, but it’s more obvious from his horrendously bloodshot eyes. While the fish-people that occasionally pop up in the sinking city of Oakmond are unsettling, Reed’s huge red orbs of cranial jelly are even more so. His eyes are always there, but not once do they look at their target—instead, they’re always peering above them. Charles Reed sees you, but he’s never truly looking up at you.
To be entirely fair to the poor man, it’s not exactly Reed’s fault that he’s the most tired man in existence. While the life of a P.I itself will being many long nights usually dredged in the bottle of something that isn’t supposed to taste as sour as it does, it’s the perturbing visions of eldritch horror that actually keeps him up at night. The fact that he manages to stand tall, investigate crimes and fight otherworldly beings at all makes him a much stronger protagonist than Frogwares’ previous video game hero Sherlock Holmes.
With Reed’s busy life being affected heavily by the nightmares—along with the fact that they are quite spooky—he sets out to find the cause of them. A tip brings him to Oakmond, a city drowned in an ungodly flood that’s left a large percentage of its once large streets entirely submerged. As the name of the game goes, Oakmond is “The Sinking City”. With entire streets lost to the murky depths, you’ll spend a lot of time transporting yourself on a rickety speedboat.
Thankfully, The Sinking City didn’t take a single cue from the systems of sailing simulators. Plopping yourself down in the speedboats at one of the game’s many makeshift ports simply allows for some smooth sailing during our vertical slice. Although, with in-town rumours that vicious monsters lurk beneath the surface, trudging through these waters may result in a horrific experience. We’re told frequently that it’s the world that developer Frogswares cares about the most and it certainly shows. Its streets are full of atmosphere, dripping in the unsettling Lovecraftian faux-madness of unpredictability and boating away from it all is one of Reed’s few freedoms.
With our three-hour demo of the game, boating took on a decent chunk of our overall playtime. Most of that was learning the map; finding optimal routes to avoid danger zones and get yourself back to land appears to be a mechanic that may pop its head in later missions, although we can’t be sure about that.
Most of our time within Oakmond’s creepy, cultist-populated streets was actually spent simply doing Reed’s job. Being a P.I is an incredibly rewarding experience and a smattering of intriguing side quests will allow you to investigate more cases than just the main story. Within the first forty minutes you’ll be solving the murder of an ape-man and, if you choose to, blame it on a fish-man or Innsmouther as they’re locally referred to. It only gets weirder from there.
The more you delve into the grisly crime scenes presented to you within withered warehouses and dingy docks, the lower Reed’s sanity will drop. One interaction with an overwhelmingly charismatic doctor resulted in the ingestion of experimental drugs. My sanity dropped to zero and visions, monsters and my screaming reared their ugly heads.
While the introduction of sanity, boating, combat and crafting all distance The Sinking City from Frogwares’ previous fantastic Sherlock Holmes games, there’s no denying their surface similarities. It’s essentially those previous games but bigger, better and with the inclusion of Lovecraftian eldritch nasties that creep and crawl in the minds of the mad. On a personal level, it’s more interesting. On a critical level, it’s more feature rich.
Frogwares was keen to point out that just because the game includes combat and crafting, that doesn’t mean they’re the point of the game. While every additional mechanic is presented in a polished and enjoyable manner, they don’t take away from the investigative narrative that clearly takes the centre stage. Fighting cultists and the eldritch will be a rare occurrence in sheer playtime percentage but getting into a shootout is still satisfying. Since bullets are your currency in Oakmond, you probably want to converse your ammo anyways although crafting materials will allow you to make single bullets should you desperately need one.
Sherlock Holmes’ previous mechanics have come back in full force here, and they’ll come in handy while you’re investigating a case. Your “mind’s eye” will allow you to see echoes of the past and your casebook will help you piece together your case. However, just because you’ve pieced it together, it doesn’t mean you’re correct. That’s one of The Sinking City’s big draws, the chance to screw up. While a short three-hour demo couldn’t showcase the potential outcomes of arresting the wrong suspect, the possibilities are endless.
From what we’ve seen thus far, Frogwares is truly expanding on the depth that can be offered in a game like this. It’s a collection of everything you’d want from a Lovecraftian game and, with the state of some of its competitors, it may be the best one to tackle Lovecraft’s actual work. While I’m more than sure Reed just wants everything over with so he can have a quick nap, I’m more than excited to see everything else The Sinking City has to offer.