Originally released in 2019, The Sinking City was delisted after a contractual dispute between developer Frogwares and publisher Nacon in August of 2020. It has been a bizarre journey for the game as it was finally released once again on the Switch and the Origin store on PC. A Playstation 5 release occurred back in February ’21 and now this stealth release on the Xbox Series Consoles has hit today. I never had the opportunity to play it before the original delisting and jumped at the opportunity to give this HP Lovecraftian-style horror detective game a spin. I had heard mixed things about how the game handles the xenophobia and racism of the author. How does this next-gen version of the title hold up, and does the narrative earn the right to tackle such sensitive material?
Cthulhu Holmes: Private Inmurdergator
Frogwares are best known for their work on eight previous Sherlock Holmes games which have ranged from mediocre to excellent in my experience. The Sinking City is a major departure as there is much more of a focus on combat to go on top of your detective skills as Private Investigator Charles Reed. Reed has left his hometown of Boston to visit the fictitious port city of Oakmont, Massachusetts. The game takes place during the 1920’s and Oakmont has been struck by a massive flood six months previous that has left the southern part of the city as half canals. The flood has seemingly caused mass hysteria, and supernatural creatures known as the Wylebeasts that feast wherever death can be found. As madness has begun to grip the city things are on the verge of collapse. It’s a delightful and cheery place for our P.I. to be drawn to, as Reed has been suffering from visions and bouts of madness himself.
Reed has been invited by Johannes van der Berg to try and discover just what is behind all the supernatural goings-on in the city. You quickly run into Robert Throgmorton, a wealthy and ape-like man whom you will work for during the majority of your playthrough as he has access to the answers that your character is there to solve. It’s an intriguing plot full of deep characters that had me gripped through my 20 hours of playtime. Many of the side quests are simple jobs where you fetch an item, but a few are surprisingly deep in their subjective matter and thoroughly satisfying to see through to the end.
The game attempts to tackle the xenophobic bigotry and racism of Lovecraft head-on. The game is full of direct references to some of his more troubling work. Lovecraft made up races of people that were nothing more than a thinly veiled critique of a real-world counterpart. Even with the KKK in the game real-world bigotry and slurs are never used, but it’s obvious to see where the inspiration comes from. Overall the game handles it decently as it attempts to showcase how monstrous people can become when they think they’re “on the right side” due to their awful beliefs.
Come for the Misery, Stay for the Joy of Killing
Oakmont is a miserable place though as it is either always raining heavily or dense with fog. Certain parts of the city are sectioned off as Infested Zones. These are full of numerous powerful Wylebeasts who will eat through your constantly low ammo supplies in no time. Those guns include a basic pistol, powerful revolver, double-barreled shotgun, high power battle rifle, and a fast-firing Tommy gun. There are also fragmentation grenades, Molotov cocktails, and spiked foot traps to use against your foes as well as two types of restoratives. One for your stamina (health) and one for your sanity. If either of these two meters reaches zero then it’s game over and you’ll be almost instantly loaded back to your most recent save or checkpoint. To make sure you always barely have enough of any of these items the game has a basic crafting system and upgrade tree. Both are standard for an RPG but sometimes that is appreciated. It’s quick to make what you need, and it’s easy to understand what upgrades do. No stats to try and do the napkin math on in your head here.
Combat itself feels decent, and the auto-aim can be generous on occasion. The game runs at a 4k resolution and 60 frames per second on the Xbox Series consoles and it felt rock solid on my monitor (which does have variable refresh rate enabled). As ammo is scarce and your character is quick to die to some of the bigger enemies. There is genuine terror when a 10-foot-tall monster seemingly made up of a mish-mash of human corpses starts running at you like a cheetah on meth. I was surprised at how often there is combat and playing the game on normal difficulty is legitimately hard as there is no regenerating health.
There are multiple times in the game where you’ll be forced to head underwater in a diving suit. These take what is already a slow paced game and bring it to nearly a crawl. They go on a bit too long and feature creatures that you can’t kill, only stun with your harpoon. I only died a few times throughout them but by the end it was a tedious part of a game that already featured a fair amount of it.
The Mind Palace
The main mechanic for your detective skills is dubbed “The Mind Palace”. From here you will piece together clues to solve the various main quests the game has to offer. It’s an excellent streamlined version of what I remember from the Sherlock Holmes titles I played in the past and combined with the case journal it makes things the right type of difficult. The map is littered with places that have records you can search and figuring out which place and what keywords to search for never grew old for me. A huge help for this is the much faster load times available on the new consoles. No load ever took longer than 5 seconds with the majority being 2 or 3. As you traverse the city you’ll unlock phone booths which are how you fast travel. For any waterway you’ll have to use a boat to get across to the next bit of dry land, and this part can get a bit tedious after a while. By the end of the main narrative I had enough fast travel points to get almost anywhere in an instant though, and this is how I’ve been finishing up all the side quests that I had ignored before.
There are choices to be made in the game, though none seem to have any influence over the endings you can possibly get. For the most part they’ll determine what you see on the way to those choices. The game offers up three quicksave slots, and if you use one of these at the final area you can quickly see all the endings and get an achievement for each that nets you 75 Gamerscore per. To help make these choices you have access to a few supernatural abilities. P.I. Reed is able to see through his “Mind’s Eye” which allows him to discover events that have occurred in the recent past at the cost of losing his sanity if the ability is used for too long. Tackling clues allows him to use the “retrocognition” skill which has you find various points in a crime scene that you then piece together in a basic way to understand exactly what happened there.
The Sites and Sounds of Historic Massachusetts
The Sinking City is not much of a looker, but it is greatly helped by the aforementioned 4k resolution and 60 frames per second upgrades. The art style is pure dreary sea inspired horror, and the music feels period-appropriate and is well crafted. Voice work is excellent for the main cast with most of the smaller characters being better than I remember in previous Frogwares titles. There were some graphical hiccups along the way. Things such as floating bodies, NPCs walking through the ground, and odd NPC pathing. Routinely the miserable and insane citizens of Oakmont walk at walls, stand there for a second, then turn around and walk into another wall. Various NPC on NPC interactions will replay dozens of times as you walk by and it all serves to remind you that this is a B-tier videogame, no matter how solid it is.
At $50 US if Sherlock Lovecraft Private Assassin sounds like a good time to you then this one is an easy call. The story is solid, the acting is surprisingly good, the detective part of the game is intriguing, and the combat gets the job done. After a long and strange journey The Sinking City is back on an Xbox console and ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.