Among the studio splash screens of development team Frogwares and publisher Bigben Interactive, a disclaimer greets players when booting up their latest game The Sinking City. It’s unlike most disclaimers seen at the beginning of video games. While damning the racial apprehension from both H.P. Lovecraft, and the society of which he lived in, it alerts that these tensions will be rendered in The Sinking City authentically. Rather than the developers pretending they never existed. This is the first of the many facets of Lovecraft’s work and spirit that’s illustrated with feverish attention to detail. Making The Sinking City, Frogwares’ strongest literary detective outing to date.
Frogwares is a unique voice in the games industry. The Ukraine-based development studio found a niche in bringing English literature from the likes of Jules Verne and Bram Stoker to the world of video games. Eventually diverting their full attention to putting out titles that centred around Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character of Sherlock Holmes. These titles gradually improved upon themselves with each iteration. As every entry found its balance more and more, between a heavy-handed narrative mystery and flashy action set-pieces.
Which leads us to The Sinking City, a game which is separated from other seminal Lovecraftian games such as Bloodborne or Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Frogwares has specifically set out to make the purest H.P. Lovecraft experience, with the objective of crafting a game which adapts Lovecraft’s works first and foremost. This is achieved by combining his worlds, thematics, and writing style into a sole captivating narrative that follows private investigator Charles W. Reed.
Reed is a war veteran, tormented by nightmares he is attempting to decipher by travelling to The Sinking City’s open-world setting of Oakmont, Massachusetts. While being a fairly standard psychological-horror protagonist whose baggage is expectingly going to be unpacked throughout the main story, the delirium of Reed is palpable. Just as soon as he’s off his restless boat trip to Oakmont, he’s thrown headfirst into a series of cases that center around everything from the occult, the amphibious people of Innsmouth, and a collapsing social order that uses bullets as its primary currency. These various mysteries enrapture Reed as the city quite literally sinks beneath his feet.
Horror from the depths
Horror in The Sinking City is balanced in ways that aren’t typical for other Lovecraftian expressions. Executing its terror with facets of the gruesome and grandiose primarily. A lot of good cosmic horror mostly shies away from presenting the opposing force, relying on the fear of the unknown. Yet from the opening cutscene of The Sinking City, Reed is already presented with entities that stretch the limits of player’s imaginations. This cacophony of unfathomable creatures is fully realized while progressing through the story, as enemies continuously terrify with their unflinching variety. Cultivating a tense experience that culminates into one of the most engaging third-person horror experiences.
The pen is mightier than the sword
Accompanying the creatures is a sanity gauge that must be looked after. If Reed spends too much time around a maligned murder victim or using his supernatural senses, his perception of the world around him shifts as he succumbs to his own psyche and kills himself. His sanity must be managed in tandem with the primary gameplay draw of The Sinking City found in crime scene investigations. These multi-faceted mysteries are best enjoyed by adjusting the difficulty off of the default of “newcomer,” as piecing together different objects of importance with events is the most satisfying part of the game.
Yet, the least satisfying part of The Sinking City seems to be its action. As it largely seems that in The Sinking City Frogwares doesn’t want players to use bullets. The shooting mechanics are clunky compared to other third-person action titles, and the use of ammo as a currency discourages pulling the trigger as well. However, this is never a frustration with combat situations being few and far between and the ability to use your (fairly overpowered) shovel to dispatch enemies. This is a narrative mystery game primarily in the vein of point-and-click adventure games, and among its ambitious moments of action, its efforts were best served on the writing.
To know an artist and fully understand their work, you have to not just have an adoration for their pieces but also recognize their flaws as a human being. Due to the sheer literacy and research from the developers at Frogwares, The Sinking City is a piece which understands the anxieties and depravities of the late Lovecraft. All while still revelling in the masterwork of horror he accomplished, which wouldn’t have been possible without these faults. Fluently posing new questions and queries that ponder our human existence among his specific brand of cosmic horror.