Atmosphere is one of the most important elements in any game, but it doubles its value when horror titles are in question. No doubt that other genres use the atmosphere to their advantage, but oftentimes the environment in a horror game can make or break a game. The Sinking City, developed and published by Frogwares, nails its atmosphere in ways plenty of other titles do not even get close to.
The Sinking City is a love letter to Lovecraftian Horror fans in so many ways you’d almost think the writer came back to write the game himself. Taking place in a fictional, 1920s version of Oakmont, Massachusetts. the player takes control of Charles Reed, a former US Navy sailor turned investigator who journeys to this city from Boston. He was told by Johannes van der Berg how many people have been experiencing nightmarish visions, not unlike the ones experienced by Reed himself, instigating the trip itself.
Upon landing in Oakmont, you immediately understand why the game is called The Sinking City. The various districts in the city are all heavily affected by The Flood, a phenomenon where many parts of the whole map are underwater. This Flood is what has presumably sparked all these visions and otherwordly creatures and apparitions which many people are experiencing, and is therefore believed to be the cause of all the paranormal activity affecting Oakmont.
In The Sinking City, being an investigator, you take up plenty of cases in order to learn whatever is plaguing the city while at the same time helping Reed to achieve his primary objective of getting more information about the nature of his visions. Early on in the game, you will find out how extremely scarce and limited resources are, meaning you will need to loot any and everything you come across to aid your chances of making it out of each encounter alive.
This is where side missions come in. Oakmont being in its current state, the economy has failed and civilisation has returned back to the original ways of acquiring goods – bartering. Bullets specifically have been given paramount importance in the city, meaning people will be paying up in ammunition and scrap resources. These resources can then be crafted into a number of options, namely more ammunition, traps and health and antipsychotics.
The latter is incredibly important when Reed’s sanity is plummeting into dangerously low levels, as you will begin experiencing nauseating visions as your world will slowly plunge into darkness. Unlike other games, if the sanity meter is empty you will not die straight away, but will instead find yourself in pitch black with a monstrosity chasing after you. It is surely a sight to be afraid of, as you will feel you are losing your sanity just like Reed is ingame.
The mission system in The Sinking City is very neatly implemented in the game, thanks to its strong use of its map. Objectives are not shown on the map, but instead, you are given the whereabouts of where you need to go in terms of street names and which section of Oakmont you need to travel to.
You can then pin this objective on the map, to where you believe you have to go so that you will have a mark on the map to show the desired location. There is a specific pin for every piece of information you uncover, meaning you will never find yourself having to trade off some pin for another. The map will also show normal streets and flooded streets, by colouring them in grey where it is land and blue where the road is underwater.
Travelling throughout the whole of Oakmont is no issue, however, thanks to the multitude of boats scattered around each flooded street. The handy map, which can be brought on screen by pressing the touchpad, will show any and all information currently discovered, including areas where you have found all the evidence, areas where only key evidence was discovered and even areas where you still need to look well into.
The map will also highlight Infested Areas, which are streets or minor regions where the creatures will run wild, and which you should stay away from as they are incredibly dangerous to face.
Fast Travel points in the form of telephone booths are also accessible, reducing significantly travel times between one point to another. These booths have to be manually discovered by the player, meaning exploration is rewarded further when locating one of these points.
Similarly to other investigative titles, The Sinking City features a “Mind’s Eye” feature, where Reed can tap into paranormal powers to help him unearth clues and events impossible to the human eye. Mind’s Eye can help in finding clues from everyday objects such as knives, photos or other mundane items, and can also recreate whole events, mainly under crime scene circumstances.
This will also be of great help when searching in locations where you have been tasked to find evidence, as you will then be able to get clues previously inaccessible. Through the mind’s eye, one can go back to the time where the crime has taken place, and align the steps one after the other to uncover the facts.
Reed will also have access to a set of upgrades, designed along a skill tree and unlocked with Knowledge Points. These knowledge points are awarded on achieving the target experience shown to the right of the Skills screen, and can unlock any of the currently accessible abilities. The skills can only be unlocked after the previous skill has been opened, so you can plan ahead and select which path to invest in before selecting your build up.
Experience in The Sinking City is earned through a number of ways, namely exploration and finding new locations, finding evidence and finishing cases entirely, so early on it is quite easy to rack up some knowledge points as exploration is essential and some side cases are solvable relatively quickly. This will enable you to slot some skill points in areas where you feel you are having difficulty, and thus feeling like the game is giving you additional help where needed.
We have touched briefly on the atmosphere in The Sinking City, but it would be a shame if we did not delve into how Frogwares have created such an eerie Oakmont. Everywhere you look, you can see people foraging for goods, a clear sign of how the city has been thrown into disarray, with few establishments or shops still working. A fairly common sight in the city is seeing people fight with each other, oftentimes without any reason at all.
Heck, it’s not the first time I saw people threatening each other with shotguns, only to walk away and hear the shots resounding in the distance. It’s as chilling as you can imagine, and you’ll want no part of it for sure. I tried playing the hero once and jumping in the middle of a fight, but you get no reward out of it, so better just move on.
The residents of Oakmont are as un-welcoming as ever, and they will be hostile to you whenever you either run to them or be seen brandishing a weapon in their proximity. Many civilians who you’ll have the displeasure of speaking to will also be referring to you as “newcomer”, which very early on in the game will reveal itself to be a negative connotation rather than a good one, as many residents will show their resentment towards you openly.
Even your own clients, Mr. Throgmorton your primary example, will treat you with hostility, almost as if they want none of your business even though they are still asking you to work for them. Police stations and inns will reserve similar treatment to you, but at least they will still let you access their services, mainly the archives.
Researching the archives is another key element in acquiring information in The Sinking City, and can be done for example at the Oakmont Chronicle, which is the local newspaper, or the Police Station. Researches are divided by establishment – the Chronicle will have headlines and news pieces, the Police Station will have crimes and other illegal affairs and the Hospital will have the log of the people currently admitted.
This is once again one of the most fun elements of the game, where you will get to uncover clues according to your own intellect and not to the guidelines which the game imposes on you. Surely one of The Sinking City’s greatest achievements is the sense of reward whenever each small discovery is made, such as getting knowledge of a patient being hurt and checking out the local hospital for more information. It puts you in the shoes of a proper detective, which is all one could really ask for in a game similar as this.
The Sinking City overall thoughts
Frogwares have created an experience that is as immersive (pun intended) as it is interesting and filled with lore. Locating clues and deducing each small hint to solve cases gives a very rewarding feeling, one which will keep giving out that sweet dopamine to continue uncovering and unravelling the mysterious tale which wraps Oakmont and Charles Reed altogether. If you’re an avid Lovecraftian or investigative games are up your alley, don’t even think about it. Get the game now.