How many open-world games in the past five or ten years have benefited from being open world? I mean truly benefited, rather than just adding a few extra hours of gameplay time (that ever-misunderstood concept of “value for money”)? Open-world game design can be terrific for immersion and even storytelling, when used well. But used poorly, it can cramp the style of even the most stylish video game.
The Sinking City is a stylish video game, and a game that has no business being set in an open world. Coming to us from Frogwares, best-known for its rather good Sherlock Holmes games, it’s another detective game - but this one’s set in an open-world city, beset by Lovecraftian nightmares and creatures. Conceptually, that’s a fun idea; in practice, it’s a complete mess, whose messiness would be nearly entirely cleaned up by cutting the open-world elements altogether.
Welcome to Oakmont, Massachusetts: a coastal fishing town whose grim, grey streets are slowly sinking into the sea, and whose citizens are rapidly sinking into madness. Players take control of private eye Charles Reed, who - aside from possessing a laudanum habit and supernatural visions - is as bland a protagonist as they come. Reed is summoned to Oakmont to get to the bottom of the visions plaguing the town, and in the first instance, to locate a wealthy patron’s missing undersea expedition. The truth, of course, is much bigger than some missing researchers, and luckily, the story is bigger than Reed.
Anyone familiar with Lovecraftian fiction will be able to list this game’s broad story points before even launching the opening cutscene. Tentacled creatures, infectious nightmares, sacrificial cults, mad scientists, cosmic portals - they all make appearances in this slice of eldritch horror. But Frogwares has written a story upon which to hang these ideas that’s more interesting than most. The personal feuds between Oakmont’s citizenry are rich and involving, with interesting characters, solid voice acting, and thoughtful uses of the genre. There's even a touch of Dr. Moreau-style animal interbreeding in the mix, which somewhat hilariously rouses the ire of the in-game Ku Klux Klan. Many Lovecraft-inspired stories don’t dig this deep into the human stories behind the cosmic ones, and The Sinking City’s mysteries are frequently a delight to unravel.
It’s the unravelling, in fact, that makes it a delight. Like the Sherlock Holmes games, gameplay and storytelling are interwoven in The Sinking City, with Reed exploring crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, doing research, analysing evidence, and making deductions based on his findings. Where Holmes had his own super-detective skills, Reed has a kind of otherworldly insight he can use to find objects touched by the beyond; most levels are built around identifying pieces of evidence and piecing together narratives based on them. Sometimes, there are multiple possible deductions to be made; the game lets you choose your course of action independently of what you know (or think you know) to be the facts.
Though you can investigate bits of evidence in any order, The Sinking City’s cases unfold in a more or less linear fashion, which is where the open-world issues come in. Ninety percent of the game takes place in small, highly-detailed environments, and there’s almost nothing in the open world between them other than set decoration. Walking and boating between locales serves no purpose except giving the player something to look at that isn't explicitly a loading screen. You can visit the police headquarters, library, newspaper office, and hospital, but they serve almost exclusively as a means through which to access a record-searching UI. There are a few side quests, but since only one case’s icons appear on the map at one time, you’ll barely ever consider them. About the only notably interesting use of the world is that players must find their own way to locations based on directions given by characters - but once you’ve unlocked the nearest fast travel points, those areas might as well be the discrete sections of town favoured by the Holmes games.
Adding to the inherent design pointlessness of the open world is its infuriatingly poor implementation. On PS4 at least, the game is plagued with data-streaming issues, with the engine struggling to load areas as Charles walks towards them even at a leisurely pace. You’ll see egregious pop-in, low-detail stand-in models, missing textures, frame rate hitches, and even random empty loading screens as new environments load into memory. I’ve never seen a less well-optimised PS4 game; it's as if The Sinking City is itself waterlogged. At least a game built up of discrete levels wouldn’t be ashamed of its loading screens; here, you’re made acutely aware every time new data has to be loaded.
The jank doesn’t stop there. Frogwares games have always been more about deduction than action, and The Sinking City, in trying to have it both ways, demonstrates why. Various investigation levels, as well as “infested areas” that hinder passage through the city, are filled with eldritch monsters, which must either be fought or fled from. The game feints toward survival-horror-style combat, where bullets are scarce and must be scrounged or (sigh) crafted, but the combat itself is annoying and rote. Only a few different types of enemy exist, and like the open world, they feel like mere barriers between the player and the meat of the game. I never used most of the in-game equipment or combat skills, and ended up turning the combat difficulty to Easy just to get it over with faster.
On paper, The Sinking City plays to Frogwares’ strengths as a developer. A game where you sleuth out a mystery that turns into a sweeping cosmic horror story should be a slam-dunk for these folks. But inexplicably, Frogwares designed its game in such a way as to lean into its shortcomings, apparently to tick the “open-world” marketing box. The good stuff - the crime-solving, story-unfolding stuff - is great, with interlocking systems that really make you feel like you’re piecing together a mystery, and it’d work fine with discrete levels accessed by map. The open world only serves to irritate.
Perhaps the real nightmare was the world we traversed along the way.