One of the most influential games from last generation was BioShock. It may have been marketed as a first-person shooter, but it was all a masquerade. Really, it’s a ruse to introduce some heavy ideas and philosophy to gamers. You can’t imagine many of the Call of Duty crowd voluntarily choosing to learn about the ideas of Aldous Huxley or George Orwell. However, through BioShock, they were taught about some of the dystopian, utopian, totalitarian, and authoritarian ideas of these authors’ work. Since then, pretty much any game that had some big ideas was labeled the next BioShock. It almost got to the point of being a cliché. Well, ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce the next BioShock, The Sinking City.
A Lovecraftian adventure
The Sinking City may not have such high-brow influences as Huxley and Orwell, but it is steeped in the work of H. P. Lovecraft. This American author is best known for his gothic-horror and fantasy fiction. It isn’t based on any particular one of his works, but there are clear elements of ‘Call of Cthulhu’ and ‘Shadow over Innsmouth.’ The author’s penchant for weak-minded people being controlled by outside influences is a central conceit here. Fortunately, some of the author’s ideas on race (he was a white man in the 1920s and 1930s) are not reflected. Some strong racial themes are running through The Sinking City, but they are very much in-line with modern-day thinking. In fact, some of these ideas cut very close to real-life. For instance, there is one group espousing the motto ‘make Oakmont great again.’
While BioShock was a first-person shooter with adventure and RPG elements, this is very much an adventure game with some shooter and RPG elements. You could actually make your way through vast swathes of the game without ever shooting anything. In fact, because ammo is so sparse, running away is often a very sensible tactic. The lack of ammo and slow shooting mechanics give this a bit of a survival-horror vibe. What is at the core of this game, though, is an old-school adventure game that requires you to find evidence and clues. These then lead you to the next puzzle for you to solve. This will be familiar to anyone who has played Frogwares’ brilliant Sherlock Holmes titles. In fact, the developer has decided to keep their deduction and mind palace mechanics from those games.
Adventure, atmosphere, and analysis
One of the best elements of BioShock was the atmosphere and world that it was set in. This is also a particularly strong point for The Sinking City. Oakmont comes across as a brilliantly creepy, dilapidated version of Venice. About half of the roads are underwater and require you to either use a boat or hop on a ferry to reach dry land again. It is possible to swim, but creatures below the surface will quickly attack you. Fortunately, you will nearly always be able to find a boat, just where you need one. The city is foggy, often raining, and feels oppressive. Praise also has to go to the development team’s art designers. Everything seems weathered, used, and lived-in. Even in the more up-market areas of the map, nothing is pristine, and it all fits together brilliantly.
The actual stories that the game tells are also a particular strength for The Sinking City. I found the central plot to be gripping, and it had enough twists and turns to keep me on my toes. Some of the side quests were highlights, though. They not only help to flesh out the world and situation that you find yourself in but introduce some great characters. One of my favorites was the story of a singer whose mouth had been sewn shut. It was quirky, intriguing, shocking, and gave you a great insight into the traditions and people of Oakmont. They’re not all flawless, but the more generic fetch quests are definitely in the minority. The writing in The Sinking City is definitely a cut above the average game. The dialogue feels natural and reveals character as much as exposition.
There’s quite a lot of content on offer here. If you only do the main quests and don’t struggle with any of the puzzles, you could probably complete this in 12-15 hours. Most gamers are going to be looking at 20-40 hours, depending on how many side-quests and how completionist you want to be. You can also extend the game by just going into some of the infected areas and trying to take out as many Wylebeasts as you want. I do like that this is an option. However, the combat doesn’t quite stand up to that level of scrutiny. There are also enough alternative decisions throughout the game that I’m intrigued to play through the game again to see what differences they create. If you’re looking to get all 1000 Gamerscore then you going to need to achieve all three endings.
The frame-rate in The Sinking City isn’t very steady with drops fairly often. That said, this isn’t a very action-heavy game. So, luckily, it doesn’t do much to tarnish the overall gameplay experience.
Throughout The Sinking City, you’ll also notice some stutter and pop-in as you traverse city. Along with that, Character models have been downgraded as well. The Nintendo Switch version loses texture quality in the skin and clothes pretty significantly. This is probably the most jarring part of the Switch port. You talk to a lot of characters in The Sinking City. During this, the camera is really close-up, showing off every ugly detail of the character models.
All of that said, the game isn’t unbearably ugly. I would even go as far as to say it’s quite pretty in some areas. The lighting effects specifically impressed me a handful of times. Luckily, it’s no Resident Evil: Revelations 2 for PlayStation Vita situation. In other words, textures weren’t completely wiped from the game to get it running properly on the Nintendo Switch hardware.
I found myself totally drawn into The Sinking City. The game has been on my radar ever since Frogwares announced that their next game was not going to be a Sherlock Holmes title. Moving from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for their source material to H. P. Lovecraft seems to have given the team the freedom to try and stretch their legs. This is not the kind of game that requires a rock steady 60 frames per second. However, if Frogwares could fix some of the pop-in and screen-tearing, it would be helpful. At the end of the day, it was the story that got its hooks into me far more than the action. The adventure it takes you on paired with the atmosphere are what set this apart. Well, at least differentiates it from the rest of the BioShock wannabes.
Release Date: 12 September 2019
No. of Players: 1 player
Category: Action & Adventure
A review code was provided by the publisher.