A shipwreck on a mountain top, a flying tentacle beast, and psychotic hallucinations of skin melting off people's faces. With an opening as eerie as this, it wasn't difficult to get swept up in the bizarre intrigue of The Sinking City, the latest from Frogwares--a studio that's known for its work on the cult favorite Sherlock Holmes adventure games. But any lover of H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos should find these motifs familiar. It's the sort of stuff that makes these tales of eldritch abominations and the unfortunate souls who discover them so captivating. Attempting to unravel these mysteries kept me thoroughly invested in my demo of The Sinking City, but it was the unsettling world and its potent realities that gripped me the most.
Set in the fictional half-submerged city of Oakmont, Massachusetts during the 1920s, you play as Charles Reed, a troubled WW1 veteran and private investigator traveling in search of a cure for his persistent hallucinations. But the moment The Sinking City begins, this task becomes far more complicated. Mysterious creatures known as wylebeasts infest Oakmont's streets, and worse yet, the city is embroiled in a tense race war between two grotesque human-animal hybrids. Even the normal humans who occupy Oakmont have their own personal prejudices against outsiders and the hybrid races.
The first hybrid I met was a wealthy man named Robert Throgmorton, whose ape-faced appearance threw me off-guard. Aside from Charles' initial hallucinations, everything I'd seen up to that point felt grounded in a semblance of reality. But talking to Throgmorton changed all that--at least until he was revealed to be a pompous and repulsive being whose xenophobic and eugenics-fueled rhetoric disgusted me. Suddenly, my disbelief came barreling down to an ugly reality that was all too true to life.
My first case had me trying to find Robert Throgmorton's missing son in exchange for information about Reed's mysterious visions. The search took me all around the Oakmont Pier where I mostly interviewed suspects, searched crime scenes, and gathered evidence. Exploration and investigation in The Sinking City are incredibly open-ended, challenging you to chase up your own leads across the game's large world as opposed to being told where to go. At times, my investigation was disturbed by otherworldly forces, as portals into a spectral realm opened up in and around crime scenes. I even began to hear voices speaking in tongues to me. All the while, more hallucinations spawned on screen--a phenomenon determined by your exposure to disturbing imagery found in the world.
This is what The Sinking City seems most effective at, shocking you and forcing you to suspend your disbelief only to reveal a darker, more grim reality underlying its haunting surrealist visuals.
Oddities like this occurred often, but the stories I discovered in their midst remained the same: violence and murder as the result of an ugly cycle of intolerance and greed, whether intentional or not. This is what The Sinking City seems most effective at, shocking you and forcing you to suspend your disbelief only to reveal a darker, more grim reality underlying its haunting surrealist visuals.
As I explored Oakmont's flooded streets and pieced together clues, I couldn't stop thinking about the unnerving racial conflict discussed in my conversation with Robert Throgmorton. His family despises another hybrid race known as the Innsmouthers, who are migrants that are fish-like in appearance. However, that hatred is shared on both sides, as the Innsmouthers aren't above equally hateful beliefs and behaviors. And each one I met wasn't shy to let that fact be known.
The end of my first case inevitably forced me to make a choice: incriminate an Innsmouther in the murder of Robert Throgmorton's son or let them walk free. Without spoiling it, the facts set before me made that choice incredibly complicated. I ended up choosing the latter, but I still find myself second guessing that decision, even now. But with one mystery solved, there opened up numerous others that all seemed to dive deeper into all of society's worst tendencies and the grander, mysterious phenomenon that potentially play a part in fueling them. This is still a Lovecraftian mystery, after all.
The Sinking City's bleak world and characters suck you into its bizarre, yet grimy tales of otherworldly urban crime. The surprisingly convincing racial conflict the game sets up colors the storytelling in a way that's both haunting and engrossing. While this isn't the first time we've had a backdrop like this in games, The Sinking City's surreal depiction of 1920's-era racial prejudice and violence was undoubtedly its most standout quality for me; clumsy shooting mechanics and somewhat glitchy animations notwithstanding. Whether or not the game makes good on the social commentary it introduces, The Sinking City has at least piqued my interest--even if playing it may mean enduring an ugly cycle of violence that calls to mind the worst of what can still be seen today.
The Sinking City is set to release on PS4, Xbox One, and PC on June 27.