Video games based on tabletop games seem to be in vogue at the moment. With Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines 2 and the announcement of Baldur’s Gate III generating a lot of hype, the time seems to be right for The Sinking City, an atmospheric horror-themed investigation game. Based on the lesser known Call of Cthulhu board game, The Sinking City sees the player taking the role of Charles W. Reed, a private investigator and veteran of the First World War as he travels to the fictional town of Oakmont, Massachusetts to seek reasons why he is plagued by horrific visions. Reed quickly discovers that the citizens of Oakmont are also troubled by the same visions, as well as other threats of a sinister and supernatural nature.
The game is set in the 1920s and unashamedly embraces the hard-boiled themes of that era of fiction while blending in a strong dose of creeping, Lovecratian horror. The city of Oakmont absolutely drips with ambience, from the murky lighting to the semi-constant rainfall and the looming, old-fashioned New England architecture. The graphics are extremely impressive, and the animation is very fluid. Even the horrific monsters are fascinating to look at. Getting caught up in the many mysteries lurking about the beautifully well-realised town leads to quick and easy immersion.
The town itself is half-inundated after an otherworldly event known only as The Flood. This means that many of the streets need to be traversed by boat. Doing so can be a little awkward at tight corners, of which there are many, but the other option is swimming in waters infested with any number of nasty things, so taking the time to learn how to steer is worth the extra effort.
At times, the player may need to don an old-fashioned diving suit and take a trip underwater. These are some of the most unsettling sequences in the game, as the ambient sounds, underwater lighting effects, and the shadows of things twitching just beyond the edge of vision give a profound sense of claustrophobia and helplessness as the player lumbers slowly towards the destination.
The main gameplay elements recall other investigation or detective games, such as L.A. Noire or developer Frogwares previous work on the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series. The developer has used that experience to good effect, as the outcome of the quests depends on how well the player has managed to pick up on various clues hidden in the crime scene and evidence. The developer has said the goal in each investigation can be reached in multiple ways, so if the player gets stuck at any point, they have the freedom to move on to a different quest. Sometimes, evidence for the problem quest will pop up, or the player will have a sudden epiphany on what to do next.
The visions experienced by the protagonist have a gameplay application as well, as Reed can use his visions and investigative powers to reconstruct crime scenes and gain insights into the events. However, doing so costs Sanity. Some disturbing scenes or monster encounters can also drastically cut the player’s Sanity, and this, in turn, can affect perception of the environment, causing the player to overlook or completely misinterpret what actually happened. Total Sanity loss is fatal, as the protagonist descends into suicidal insanity.
In addition to conserving Sanity, players need to also conserve ammunition. Though encounters with supernatural creatures often involve the need to unload a gun into them, bullets are also used as currency in Oakmont, as bullets are more valuable than gold in the nightmare-infested town,. The player can barter for useful tools or weapons, but will need to remember to keep some bullets aside for those inevitable run-ins with tentacled horrors.
The result is a balancing act with the player trying to conserve Sanity and ammunition while delving into the secrets hidden within the town. The Sinking City has many layers, with much to be unravelled in the dark, dripping streets.
The setting is well-served by the music, which is mostly subdued and ambient, serving the mood well. Of particular note is the voice acting, which is great, particularly on the part of the protagonist. Reed’s voice actor does an excellent job of portraying his various moods, giving a convincing performance of a troubled, world-weary war veteran.
The Sinking City is one of the best Lovecraft-inspired games available and, despite some slightly awkward controls in places, the game is brilliantly crafted. Fans of horror will love its atmosphere and those who enjoy investigative games will quickly become absorbed in the depth offered by the gameplay. Those who loved L.A. Noire or Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, and players of the tabletop game, should definitely give thought to picking this title up.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.