So hold on to your fedora for a second, because things are going to get a little meta.
OK. So back in the early 1980s RPGs were pretty much solely people getting together in small groups with pencils and dice, pretending to be elves and wizards. Then, suddenly, inexplicably, a tabletop game came along where people played 1920s flappers and private eyes, and fought monsters they couldn't beat. And for some weird reason that I still can't fully understand, it was wildly popular.
Oh, I mean, I understand very well why it was FUN. There was this strong investigative thread where your characters hung around in dusty newspaper archives looking up things that had happened in the past in an attempt to understand whatever the mystery of the week was. It was interesting to see the real world cast through a new, strange lens. Not that it was actually new, of course - the world of H.P. Lovecraft dated back as far as the turn of the Twentieth Century - but it was certainly a new way to play RPGs. And while it was fun to a certain class of studious, history-minded nerds (like me), like I said I'm still a little mystified as to its continued success.
Fast forward to today. RPGs are this massive gaming juggernaut that have grown beyond the tabletop. And while 'RPG elements' in a videogame can often mean little more than abilities that get progressively better over time, the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG endures.
Now this is the meta bit. Certainly, there were investigators and detectives in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. But the basic formula of the Call of Cthulhu RPG - introduction to a mystery; investigation with newspaper cuttings, first-hand accounts of sinister goings-on, analysis of clues; infiltration of cultist shenanigans ; fighting and/or fleeing from wobbly monstrosities from beyond the cosmos of time... this basic shape is the hallmark of the RPG, not of the original Lovecraft stories.
So all of this rambling has a point. Because whereas other Lovecraft videogames have been inspired by the works of Lovecraft, the Sinking City is a videogame of the Call of Cthulhu RPG experience. As Sam Spade-clone private eye Charles Reed, you find yourself stepping ashore in the partially-submerged city of Oakmont intending to investigate a series of bouts of insanity that somehow seem to point to the city. What follows is an open-world investigation game where mysteries abound.
Gameplay proceeds like this: Someone asks you to investigate a mystery, and gives you a clue to follow. You travel around the city following up on these clues, you might investigate crime scenes in abandoned buildings, shining your flashlight into darkened corners in search of further clues (and invariably being attacked by mostly-challenging monsters), and making use of your special detective powers (similar to those of developer Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes games, and a little bit familiar to players of WB's Batman games).
In addition, clues can be pinned to the map or HUD to help keep you on the right path, and there are archives in places like the police station, newspaper and hospital that can be used to shed light on an investigation.
For me, getting my fingers dusty in the libraries and shining my flashlight through dingy windows in search of the truth was where The Sinking City really stood apart. The investigation is mostly really fun and engrossing. Occasionally some of the side quests can be a little fetch-questy, and that's not helped by the limited graphical assets and floor plans that can make investigation sites all feel a little similar. The Lovecraftian influence ranges from the obvious to the subtle, but they're everywhere you look throughout the game.
Items are all crafted or found - there are no shops - and while this is supposed to give a feeling of scarcity, you don't really need to be all that careful with your resources. It's a little annoying when you finish a quest and can't carry the reward, so it all just evaporates into nothingness.
But this is all gameyness. The Sinking City lives and dies on atmosphere and story. Fortunately, it's deeply evocative. The gloomy, oppressive dourness of the city captures something of Lovecraft's horror of 'degeneracy' (without the racism). Townsfolk are constantly looking over their shoulders. The flooded streets are choked with floating debris. Sub-basements are mildewy and claustrophobic. disconcerting sounds come from around every corner - some are real, and some are the result of your intermittent insanity.
Sounds, visions, monsters in the corner of your eye... as Reed beholds scary and magical stuff, his sanity decreases, resulting in progressively debilitating effects. Sanity returns over time, so you can just take a breather and stare at a wall for a bit, but if he's too far gone, he might occasionally take advantage of the lull to blow his brains out, so it's a good idea to keep moving.
This feels like a labour of love from a small team. It's an ambitious project that does a few things very right. Open-world is a great choice for an investigative game; it gives that feeling of looking for a needle in a haystack. Sometimes the clues are a bit too straightforward on newcomer difficulty - I would wholeheartedly recommend that you play on Master Sleuth difficulty to avoid just going to get the next clue, and the next, and the next... As it is, they generally still tell you what you need to do next, and usually where, so the sense of making a deduction of your own is rare.
There's a stealth mechanic as well, but I didn't really use it as it was hopelessly useless. For all of these small failings, however, the feeling that you're a detective investigating a series of unfolding mysteries, this is a really solid contender.
The Sinking City is deeply evocative in its oppressive dourness, and stays true to the investigative backbone of Cthulhu. We are presented an open world of horror and suspense that HP Lovecraft surely would have enjoyed investigating.