Have you noticed that in recent years Lovecraft is a particularly inflated source of inspiration? And what’s more, not just in the videogame field! One of the founders of this wave of Lovecraftian-themed video games is probably that nine-year-old Amnesia that became the horror icon of an era because it cleverly mixed enigmas, walking simulators, tension and cryptic narration. This mix is perhaps the best way to tell Lovecraft and the unspeakable mysteries that surround his disturbing writings. Starting from this premise, how will The Sinking City fare with its open world? The choice to set the game within the city of Oakmont, freely explorable, is not in fact an issue on which to fly lightly.
Being able to develop an open world up to the expectations of gamers in 2019 is not at all simple. A goal perhaps a bit too ambitious for a studio like Frogwares that in the last sixteen years has worked mainly on interactive adventures, including the last Sherlock Holmes. From these premises of ours you will already understand that the open world model of The Sinking City is not simply in step with the times, even if between the quarters of Oakmont it is not difficult to see the passion of the developers.
Each area of the “sinking city” is in fact perfectly characterized and differs from the others, while maintaining a unitary style. A truly excellent artistic work that is also reflected in the quality (always artistic) of characters and scenic objects. Clearly, however, since it is a low-budget production, it was not possible to calibrate the technical level on the artistic one: expect therefore to venture into a city that seems to come from a game of half a dozen years ago, with assets and structures recycled to ‘Infinity.
Those who approach and will approach The Sinking City in the coming days, in all probability, are not particularly interested in the purely technical / graphic aspect of the title, which was already easy to see in the numerous trailers of the last few months. If as a Lovecraft fan you intend to play a title based on the writings of the author of Providence, you look for one thing: storytelling.
The work done by the writers of Frogwares is certainly commendable. The story faithfully reflects the spirit of Lovecraft and the dialogues are never banal. Even the narrative rhythm is compelling and the moments are not rare, during the course of the main plot, in which we will find ourselves in front of important foregrounds for nothing. The interesting thing is that, even if these are obvious crossroads, our choice must be taken on the basis of all the tests that we will have gathered during the investigations but only the last moral and intuitive evaluation will be up to us.
This intriguing system of gathering clues, and reasoning about them, produces a sense of fresh freedom. The world is not black or white, but rich in greenish shades that, at a certain point, will ask us for the bill. The theme of “choice” is indeed pregnant in the narrative fabric and although human (or more or less human) souls are variegated, in the end it will be necessary to make a decision, based almost exclusively on our feelings.
To further improve the narrative component we also think about the numerous secondary missions scattered around the game world, which fit very well into the context without being forced as often happens. Clear, with all these crossroads, sometimes some minor inconsistencies catch the eye, but these are defects that are often found even in productions with AAA budgets. Absurdly, it was the endings (of which we will not talk) that left us particularly disappointed: if throughout the adventure the choices are realistic and well inserted in the narrative context, in the instant immediately before the end of the game, we are asked to choose between three different endings. We do not arrive at a final based on the choices made previously.
However ideally this might seem a reasonable strategy and in harmony with the rest of the production, it actually turns out to be incredibly lackluster. We arrive at the final point, at the height of pathos, and almost on two feet we must decide how to conclude the whole long adventure with three possible conclusions: each of which leads to a film that leaves something to be desired. In short, even if you think like us and consider the endings to be the essential component of a story, you will be disappointed. But if on the contrary, you are more attracted to the journey rather than the destination, then The Sinking City could be for you.
First, however, some thorny gameplay issues need to be addressed. As you may have already guessed The Sinking City is an ambitious game, too ambitious for a studio like that of Frogwares. It is a game that from the first moments reveals itself to be old, incredibly old, and not only from a graphic point of view. The movement system, the gunplay and in general the animations are very woody.
Even the very structure of the missions, net of the narrative that we have already had the opportunity to praise, is incredibly dated and repetitive. Being a Lovecraftian game, it is taken for granted that the protagonist, Charles Reed, is a private investigator. An investigator with mysterious nightmarish visions that take him right to Oakmont. This occult power has infused the Charles Reed also a sixth sense that allows him to find hidden clues and reconstruct past events.
So then our task will be reduced to: taking the mission, going to the place indicated, finding all the clues, discovering a new place and starting over. Initially the system seems well thought out: the indicators do not automatically position themselves on the map, but we need to look for the name of the street to reach on the map; to continue in the missions we will be asked to do research in the various archives scattered around the city and once we have gathered the clues on a scene we will have to reconstruct what happened and put together the ideas to elaborate a sort of conceptual table that allows us to draw our own personal sums.
In short, a gameplay that would have all the credentials to be innovative and fun but that eventually gets lost in a glass of water: everything is too repetitive and excessively simple, with parts clearly trial and error that you can simply solve by trying the few combinations without connecting two neurons. A wasted opportunity of biblical proportions that from the middle of the game begins to become heavily unbearable, with a reduced gameplay to go from point A to point B substantially detaching the brain.
From this picture emerges a game only potentially splendid. We know that you will have read and heard this sentence a million times: it is intelligent but it does not apply say the professors. This time, however, the result really makes the heart cry: there are really a lot of original, fresh and exciting ideas in The Sinking City, but none of these has been done properly, so much so that they are paradoxically boring.
And so at this point let’s go back to the initial question: is the open world structure adequate to tell a story to Lovecraft? Absolutely yes, but in this case the problem is simply technical: a budget that is too low does not allow you to develop a good open world, under any circumstances! Above all, perhaps, when in the middle we also throw in innovative and ambitious ideas that we are unable to support.
So who should spend their money and their time to play The Sinking City? Well, simple: fans of Lovecraftian stories or atmospheres that love storytelling, are not afraid of games that are old from an aesthetic point of view and of gameplay, they manage to hold up well the boredom of mechanical repetition and abhor well-made endings. I mean, I don’t think there are many people out there who match this identikit … or are we wrong?