The Sinking City Hands-on Preview – Cray-fish Donovan

May 26, 2019
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Bawston… Bhawstuhn… Boston. God knows how you pronounce it, I say Boston. Why the talk about Boston? Well, that’s where the always-awesome Ray Donovan is from but also where Charles Reed, the grizzled Bostonian detective and the protagonist of The Sinking City is from. He hasn’t had to travel far from home either, now solving mysteries, fighting seafood and getting the living hell creeped out of him in the fictional city of Oakmont, Massachusetts (I just had to Google how to spell that, I’ve also been pronouncing it wrong my entire life).

Frogwares Interactive, developers of The Sinking City have a specialisation in creating detective games. They’ve been doing it for a while now, with the Sherlock Holmes series. While there were certainly times where Mr. Holmes could be facing off against some strange and evil foes, here in The Sinking City you’ll find Charles (and yourself) facing against the much more weird and supernatural. Why has Charles even found himself in Oakmont? He’s had a few nightmares about a city being flooded, about horrible Lovecraftian entities tormenting the world. As any normal person would do, he’s gone to the location of these nightmares.

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During my hands-on with The Sinking City at a recent event held by publisher BigBen Interactive, I didn’t actually get to see the intro of the game. This was my own fault really, I saw the game was free and jumped right on it. This is something I’ve been interested in from the first time I heard about it. I love horror games or just any game that has that psychological edge to it. Something to put me off guard.

There certainly is something about this that gets you in that frame of mind. As soon as I picked up the controls it struck me just how dank the game intentionally is. Or should that be damp?  The city is flooded and, I was shown later, that even Charles had to arrive by rowboat. This is a city that you’re free to explore at will, moving between the downtrodden to the seemingly safe aristocracy. Or not quite. The son of the local bigwig has been murdered. Or has he? Honestly, I don’t know, I was a little perplexed because of the fact I jumped right on essentially after the actual intro.

Still, this did let me go right in and explore the actual city and main gameplay elements, one of which is essentially exploring the city. Charles, being a detective, likes to follow clues to work out mysteries. Where exactly is the broken mirror linked to the murder of this poor soul? We know from one clue that it was last seen in the house of Fnor’shoggon’oth, naturally to find out where shoggy lives, we’ll head to the town hall and look through the town records.

I’m not actually joking here. Well, I am about the names, but not the gameplay. From what I saw and was told about puzzles you solve later in the game, you actually get to do some of the legwork yourself, thinking about things logically and piecing things together for yourself to find that next clue. The game does, of course, have some systems in place to help you along. Two such systems are detective vision as well as Charles’ very own mind palace. Actually getting into a position to use them may not always be the best for you though.

Detective Vision is directly enhanced by your sanity or lack of it. It seems that the further into madness Charles falls, the better his detective skills are, letting him spot more and more clues, even working out the past instinctively. I imagine this is essentially how Opium worked for Sherlock Holmes, helping his brain cross that threshold, letting him see what ordinary folks can’t. Only, the line between the ordinary and supernatural is already blurred here in The Sinking City. As is the line between right and wrong.

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These clues you’ve found, both of your own volition and due to your increasing insanity, can then be combined in the aforementioned mind palace. Will the conclusion you reach be correct? Have you found every aspect you need to find? There’s a decent amount of depth, twists and turns to be found. Not only that, but your conclusions also determine the progression of the story and seemingly how the world reacts towards you. If they have a go at you, don’t take it to heart, the people here are cruel.

The inhabitants of Oakmont are quite varied, to say the least. This is a place where things have taken a change from the normal, both on the human and inhuman side. If it wasn’t made clear from one of the earlier screenshots, you’ll encounter quite a few inhabitants that aren’t entirely human. The ones I’m aware of are fish-men and ape-men. Then you have the humans. On either side, you’ll encounter the unsavoury, from secret cults to the blatant segmentation and outright racism. It all adds to the world that Frogwares are trying to draw you into.

I can’t say you could completely blame the people for being self-centred either. Oakmont is very sparse on resources, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. It’s that bad that the city has gone true post-apocalyptic, using bullets as currency like in the Russian Metro. Don’t forget you’ll need some to fight off the eldritch monstrosities you’re likely to face along the way, though you can scavenge for items and make your own bullets and equipment to help you along.

If there’s one thing to be said about The Sinking City, if it wasn’t already made abundantly clear from my previous words, the setting, themes and the fact that Charles Reed is essentially the most tired, grizzliest and most unhappy person alive, it’s not a happy game. This is made all the more clear by a brilliantly grim and gritty aesthetic, a city where the infected roam the streets, people are at risk from being attacked by a Lobster Thermidor at any moment and you are most assuredly losing your sanity.

Contrary to my near-constant moaning about Ubisoft games, I’m a fan of open-world (or open-city) games. Though I’m a fan when the areas you can explore feel like they have a purpose, where a game doesn’t just have space just for the sake of being bigger. The Sinking City feels like that sort of game, where you have to navigate through side streets, above and below water and altogether just trying to find your way through a dangerous place while helping whomever you can, while there are many areas that expand the story and directly link to the many mysteries of Oakmont.

Can I out and out say The Sinking City will be good or great? No, I can’t. Do I want to play more, experience more of the oppressive atmosphere and environments, all while trying to retain my sanity and actually have to solve some puzzles using my own brain? You bet your deep-fried arse I do. Coming in just one month, The Sinking City will be coming to the PC, PS4 and Xbox One on the 27th of June, with the PC version being an Epic Games Store timed exclusive for one year.

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