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‘The Sinking City’: One Step Beyond Madness

Published by Bigben Interactive and developed by Frogwares, The Sinking City looks set to place a fresh emphasis on two long-neglected aspects of Lovecraftian videogames; discovery and investigation. The recently revealed details about the mechanics and systems of these processes of revelation, including the time-warping retrocognition feature, have reaffirmed my decision to name The Sinking City as one of my most anticipated games of this year.

As we saw with Cyanide Studio’s Call of Cthulhu in late 2018 and the ill-fated Alone in the Dark games, adapting this particular intellectual property to gaming platforms has proven especially difficult. Perhaps that’s a problem with the source material itself being so inherently unusual (even by the standards of gothic horror) more than a failure of creative ambition on the part of previous development teams that have tried to tackle Lovecraft’s loosely connected sequence of nightmarish narratives. All-too-often, developers try and bend Lovecraft’s work to their will in the hopes of creating barely adequate gunplay-based action titles only to fail repeatedly. The unspeakable monstrosities of the Cthulhu mythos are not your common or garden variety of ferocious interdimensional beasts. Able to sculpt the very flesh of reality and drive even the stoutest soul to the darkest recesses of madness, they are in essence a manifestation of the twisted whims that bubble beneath our civilized facades. For the most part, they require a more subtle approach; but it never hurts to pack a shotgun, just in case.

Frogwares are best known for their popular series of critically acclaimed Sherlock Holmes games, and the experience they’ve garnered over the years is on proud display in their latest offering. The developers have paid close attention to the central force that drives any good mystery story. The gradual acquisition of clues, the methodical piecing together of information, and the thrill of dawning understanding are central components of what give great works of detective fiction their cultural longevity. No one can resist solving a good puzzle, but in the cursed city of Oakmont there might be some puzzles best left unsolved.

All great detective stories share a common factor: the non-linear potential for discovery. As such, Frogwares have made absolutely sure that the player’s experience as war veteran turned detective Charles Reed, and his struggle against insanity from without and within will be as freeform as possible. To invest players in the actual mechanics of solving a mystery, there are no objective markers on the map and no task will ever be as straightforward as it might seem. The simple act of traversing the city and encountering its many unconventional inhabitants will slowly reveal different clues that will guide players to uncovering the method behind the madness afoot in this twisted version of 1920s America. In-game advice to help players navigate some of the more convoluted elements of the plot will be available, but purists will no doubt want to turn off those hints. As such, some evidence will be obvious enough that there’s a clear indication of how to proceed, but other clues will need a more thorough investigation.

The retrocognition system is one of the primary tools in Reed’s analytical arsenal. If you want an idea of how this system works, then think of detective vision from Rocksteady’s Arkham series of games but with a supernatural twist. The boundary between dimensions in Oakmont is frayed at best, and fractures in time give players the opportunity to take a glimpse beyond the veil to piece together events as they transpired. Searching through the archives of various institutions and talking to law enforcement officers, allows players to gather crucial hints that will help them determine who or what is behind the various macabre crimes that plague the city. Even though you might not be sure about exactly what to do next, there will always be something to point you in the right direction; it’s just a matter of finding it, and then probably wishing that you hadn’t.

Keeping track of all that information might be a task that could drive even the Great Old Ones to madness, but thankfully The Sinking City provides players with just the right tools for the job. The Casebook functions as a journal that updates as Reed fleshes out the details of his various objectives. Couple that with the mind palace system, where players are given the opportunity to work through the information they’ve gathered to determine who they believe is guilty or innocent of all manner of occult atrocities. The outcome of each case depends entirely on the evidence that players collect, the information they obtain, and their own interpretation of the facts as they stand. No matter who Reed decides to accuse or absolve of each crime, rightly or wrongly, the outcome will have a measurable impact on the wretched lives of the inhabitants of Oakmont, and on Reed’s own quest to rid himself of his burgeoning insanity.

The attempt to explain the otherwise inexplicable has always been a central thread of Lovecraft’s fiction, and The Sinking City is promising to be the most faithful adaptation of the mythos released to date. Fans of survival horror games who might be newcomers to the Cthulhu mythos will find this game to offer captivating and intriguing variations on established genre mechanics and narrative systems. For devoted fans, Frogwares’ most ambitious game thus far, might just be the Lovecraft game that they have spent years saying forbidden prayers for. Whether or not those prayers are answered remains to be seen, however. Initially slated for a late March launch, the developers elected to push the release date back to June this year. Such delays are often a cause for concern, but hopefully, the extra time allows the talented Ukrainian developers to solve any late-stage issues and add that little extra polish needed to make this a truly memorable game. If initial indications are anything to go by, then gamers on PC, PS4, and Xbox One can look forward to taking the plunge into The Sinking City on March 21, 2019.

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