I am a huge fan of H. P. Lovecraft, one of the first authors who blended science fiction and horror. Lovecraft was a master of doing this, and his stories are not hack and slash affairs by any means. In fact, for most of them, the horror is a very subtle thing, only revealed at the very end of a tale, or perhaps only implied. True, in one of his stories an entire village transforms into monsters to hunt down an invader, and a couple movie monster type of encounters do make an appearance in a few of his tales. But overall, Lovecraft was able to create a chilling atmosphere without resorting to a base level horror like one might experience in today’s slasher films. I’ve always considered that a great mark of a horror story, being able to make a reader feel uneasy or frightened without resorting to jump scares.
The Call of Cthulhu (CoC) pen and paper role playing game, published by Chaosium, is named after the king of the elder gods in Lovecraft’s pantheon. Just like how many of Lovecraft’s stories differ from other tales of horror, so does the role-playing game. Unlike something along the lines of a Dungeons and Dragon’s game, a lot of the gameplay in a CoC module involves researching everything from natural history to the nefarious crimes of yesteryear. I had one game master who was a bit of a purist who used to say, “If you are shooting your guns, then you are doing something wrong.” In fact, many of the players in a CoC game don’t actually get killed, but go insane because of gathering too much forbidden knowledge.
The reason I bring all that background up is because I was very pleased to find that The Sinking City game follows that same pattern as the CoC role-playing game, and by extension, the Lovecraft mythos. Not that all you do is stand around and research stuff in The Sinking City, though that is a critical part of the game, but those elements are included. The game also does very little hand holding. With a pen and paper CoC game, if the players don’t actively go out and find what is going on, most of the time nothing happens. The Sinking City is like that too, and I am sure that a few gamers used to being spoon fed quests and adventures will be turned off by this style of play.
Comparisons will of course be made to the other Lovecraft-inspired game that came out last year, Call of Cthulhu. When I reviewed that game, I said it got closer to a CoC pen and paper RPG game than any other title I had played. And, at the time, that was true. But I have to say, The Sinking City has got it beat, by quite a lot. That is not to say that The Sinking City is a better game. In many ways it’s far less polished, with both a clunky crafting and extremely weak combat mechanic. But it does set the mood better than any title that has come before it, and feels most like a game that Lovecraft would have approved.
You play private detective Charles Reed as he travels to the island town of Oakmont to find the source of the terrible visions he’s been having. Other people in Boston have also been having these nightmares, and later disappear, only to end up at Oakmont. The town has recently experienced flooding and half the streets are underwater, and the rest of it is sopping wet. You can almost smell the stinky brine as you wander down its dark and twisting, rotting streets, and you even have to take a small boat to get around in some places. Unlike others who have followed their dreams to the island, Reed has some special skills that will come in handy. First, he is a detective, so he knows how to investigate. Secondly, he is an ex-navy man, a diver, which also comes into play in some chilling underwater sequences. And finally, he has the supernatural ability to see the psychic energies of violent acts and events of that nature that happened in places a long time ago.
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Using your supernatural power is probably the biggest advantage you have in the game. It lets you investigate crimes and other dark dealings to both help your own cause and also to do jobs for people around the island. You can even construct a picture of what happened before, and then find clues that conspirators and other shady characters have left behind. It also costs you sanity whenever you engage in that kind of activity, so you need to use it sparingly.
As I mentioned before, The Sinking City does not hold your hand, not at all actually. When you get a new case or a piece of information to investigate, you have to mark the location on your map by finding the cross streets talked about in your clue. Then you have to navigate over to that location, and finally, investigate what you find there using normal observational skills, talking to people, and sometimes employing your supernatural ability to see events of the past. You also have a “mind palace” that you can go to when you want to think about a case and try to piece clues together into new leads. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, but makes you feel good when you finally figure things out.
At one point I had collected quite a bit of information about a case, but didn’t know what to do with it, or where to go next. Reed suggests in a bit of a monolog that the local newspaper might be able to put the pieces together. So first I had to find where the newspaper office was, mark it on my map, head over there, and then go inside. When I got there a reporter wanted to interview me about why a Boston detective would be in Oakmont. I gave her an interview (and earned a PS4 trophy) but then she could not help me with the archives other than pointing the way. Once I got to the archives desk, I had to put together three search terms that would return a valid result for my case. Of course this is not how real research works, but it’s a good game-like representation. It actually took me quite a few tries to find what I needed, which directed me to a new location. Well, it did not direct me. It gave me the bare bones information which I had to put on my map, navigate towards, and so on.
This slow pace for The Sinking City is a welcome change from all the in-your-face shooters that masquerade as adventure games these days. I realize that many gamers might get frustrated. It’s very possible that some players wont know what to do next at different points and will feel stuck. So clearly, The Sinking City is not for everyone. You have to be a very methodical gamer who does not mind thinking about things before acting, and having a slower paced game overall.
Honestly, I could have loved The Sinking City even if they left combat out of it. I realize that you cant have a game today it seems without combat, but it’s just very poorly done here. My first encounter (other than a tutorial type fight) was with a gangster (of a sect that looks like fish people) who was trying to stop me from investigating my first case. He ran up to me and at first I thought it was an NPC I was supposed to talk with. But then he drew his gun, took a shot and missed me, and then ran off. I actually let him go and kept investigating. Then later I found him again upstairs in the building I was searching. His foot had gotten stuck in a nonexistent hole in the floor and he was kind of running in place, obviously glitching. I walked all around him and got no reaction, so I ignored him again. Only eventually, he got unstuck and shot me, this time doing damage. I returned fire and he kind of winced and stopped moving, only he wasn’t dead. So I had to shoot him again to put him down. Then his body kind of disappeared. It was all very strange and unpolished for a finished game, and broke the atmosphere quite badly.
There are areas in the game where there is a lot of combat too, and you almost have to fight strategically. That is all well and good, but combat is really bad with poor aiming mechanics, weak weapons (especially in the first part of the game before you earn combat experience perks) and enemies that are both omnipotent (you can’t break line of sight with them as they will keep coming straight for you anyway) and also glitchy, getting stuck on terrain and sometimes moving through objects and walls. Then in the back of my head I keep hearing my old game master and thinking that if the developers are spawning lots of monsters to fight in a Cthulhu game, that they are doing something wrong.
I enjoyed my time with The Sinking City quite a lot. Action oriented gamers will detest the slow pace of the game and the requirement for really thinking about puzzling investigations. Like Lovecraft’s stories, The Sinking City is not for everyone. But for those who crave a more cerebral kind of horror experience, The Sinking City has the power to really unnerve you as you bask in the game’s dark and humid atmosphere. It might even truly scare you at times, but all in the name of fun.