The Sinking City – Final Review

In almost all aspects of its design, The Sinking City strives for innovation, and mostly meets with success; some iterative design principles inevitably find themselves within the title, but the very existence of such wide-reaching ambition is indeed commendable. Atmospherically, the title is singularly remarkable – not necessarily beautiful, but abounding in moodiness, the central environment, Oakmont, Massachusetts, being of a brooding sort; all around is grittiness and maturity. Some districts are in considerable disrepair, literally swallowed by water, terrible victims to the Flood, a calamitous occurrence plaguing the city and its residents, while other districts maintain relative affluence, spared of that immediate, tangible devastation – here is environmental diversity, the city different from place to place, yet ultimately united into one neat, cohesive whole. In the northernmost regions, affluence is best preserved. In the southernmost regions, those situated alongside the coast line, poverty and oppression see their most damning expression – matters here are desperate, the people suffering and starving, starving while those above to the north are indulging in comfort and luxury, dwelling in sanctuaries the rising waters have not yet consumed. Here are docks and ramshackle housing – there are sprawling, almost palatial manors, regal in appearance, with ornate, elaborate facades, a projection of the owner’s affluence. Great societal stratification is in place, Oakmont housing the poorer classes, the upper classes, and, naturally, the middle classes – a real microcosm has been crafted here, this stratification true to life; Oakmont is designed expertly, compellingly, with a history seemingly extending back centuries and centuries – much lore is present, lore which is expanded upon in the natural course of exploration. In Oakmont, considerable strivings for realism are present – therein lies the greatest ambition in environmental construction. Ultimately, this ambition is realized – Oakmont, with all its diversity and believability, is a remarkable achievement, possessive of an identity unique, detached from conventional open worlds.  

In addition to clinging to realism, Oakmont and the designers cling also to the stylistic, observable in the lighting, the weather effects, and the bold, dynamic day / night cycle. Weather effects generally are very prominent – it seems raining always, whether that rain is coming down lightly as a drizzle, or intensely as a torrent. This rain, then, brings with it alternating tranquility and oppressive sorrow. The sometimes-swelling intensity of these storms is directly observable in the environments, as puddles form on the streets with great haste; a suitable dew, meanwhile, is rendered upon the protagonist’s coat, another manifestation of the storm. But this rain, with all its atmospheric attributes, is never a constancy – weather diversity abounds. Just as the rain stops, the sun shines through, bright and beautiful, bathing everything in a wondrous orange light, arresting. With this excessive brightness, the detailed minutia of the environments is made more observable – shops, manors, shacks, docks – all benefit from this hue; the city truly comes alive alongside the showing of sunshine. And then, fog returns to dominance, cutting down on visibility greatly, resulting in the most atmospheric of sensations. Oakmont, then, is a place of considerable diversity, and the inclusion of these weather effects helps better convey that diversity, capturing a photo of a city which is organic and changing, always. Errors are in place, though. The game suffers from a very poor draw distance, and while this is explainable when the fog is dominant, it cannot be explained away while the sweet sun is shining overhead – many technical limitations are in place, such limitations extending beyond mere draw distance failings, tinging also texture quality and texture rendering: pop-in is abundant, greatly destroying immersion, which is traditionally intense, perpetually engaging the player.          

The day / night cycle, though, further evokes organic sensations – Oakmont is seemingly a place peopled by real people – or that is at least what the developers sought to convey. With the gradual shifting from sunlight to darkness, from darkness to sunlight, the developers do realize that precise ambition. In the evening hours, NPC presence is reduced drastically, the streets essentially empty, presumably as Oakmont’s various residents engage in a peaceful or horrific slumber, vacating the streets, the docks. Each individual NPC, meanwhile, has been programmed deliberately, the various character models each having predetermined roles – there are street sweepers, beggars, newspaper hawkers, even strange occult like figures donning bizarre garments: much of Oakmont’s diversity is exemplified in this variety of character models. Citizen violence is commonplace – merely navigate about the city for any protracted duration, and instances of violence are almost a certainty, especially if exploring the poorer southern districts of the city. Beyond mere melee brawls, open gunfire also occurs, as when police officers unload their revolvers upon some seeming criminal, the firing of that gun accompanied by no remorse, even as a man collapses to the ground, disappeared forever. The logistical positioning of these various NPC’s further contributes to realism – fisherman are expectantly abundant near the docks, where beggars also have a prominent presence. Similarly, the poshly and smartly clothed individuals congregate in the north, some dwelling in their manors, others attending a rather lavish university, an institution supplemented by an exhaustive library. In this manner, the developers spurned laziness – it is far too easy to spawn NPC’s with arbitrariness – fisherman may be situated immense distances from the ocean, for instance. Not so here. Accordingly, believability surges further still, though a believability again let down by the mentioned technical failings, failings which illustrate the fact that this is not a full blown AAA title – budgetary constraints were clearly in place, though ultimately the shackles of this constraint are loosened, the developers making much of the comparatively limited funds provided them – the game, the game world, are both major triumphs; these technical failings are easily glossed over.

It is within the narrative where The Sinking City is most innovative. Very much a slow-burn, the opening begins in a fairly straightforward, rudimentary fashion, before opening up considerably and dramatically – by the end-game, unparalleled narrative successes are observable. The protagonist, a Bostonian detective named Charles Reed, has long been plagued by distressing, disturbing hallucinations, wreaking havoc on his overall mental health. Hearing that Oakmont, a city isolated and seemingly lost to time, may hold answers to his affliction, naturally he departs. An enigmatic businessman receives him upon arrival, and it is made readily apparent that Charles will be met with repeated adversity, Oakmont’s citizens openly hostile and distrustful of “newcomers,” or any class of people not directly of Oakmont stock – Charles, then, is a literal outsider, meaning his investigation will be an uphill battle, fraught with unneeded opposition. Much of the succeeding narrative is traditional detective fiction, as Charles orients himself in that micro-society, learning of its peoples, its histories, all the while learning more about himself, though at a slower rate. Almost immediately, Charles comes into contact with Robert Throgmorton, an ape-like individual possessive of considerable sway within the city, owing to his placement within one of the city’s three “grand families.” Tasking Charles with the investigation of his own son, recently disappeared, Charles is prompted to descend below the churning waters, forced to don an ornate diving suit for protection against the exaggerated pressures, the complete absence of oxygen. The knowledge obtained by Charles’s search sets into motion the narrative proper, as an explanation for its tragic fate is sought. Charles comes into contact with the mythical organization EOD, seemingly a charitable organization though one harboring deep, manipulative, and self-serving intentions. He will be accused of murder, must set out on a quest to establish his actual innocence. On and on the narrative winds, being of considerable duration. While it is not perpetually engaging – some lulls are present – the length of these lulls is never excessively long; outright boredom is spurned outright, even as the narrative’s length swells and swells, even as it grows more overwrought. The abundance of moral ambiguity, meanwhile, only enhances narrative strengths – here is no black and white, but instead here is grayness, each individual action possessive of positive and negative attributes, simultaneously. As one illustration, Charles is placed into an especially trying dilemma – poison the EOD’s stock of fish – which is freely distributed – or cling to inaction. Poisoning the fish afflicts or perhaps outright kills many citizens. But poisoning the fish deals a sharp blow to an incredibly corrupt organization; almost all moral choices are of this great complexity.  

The game’s narrative is at its greatest when it embraces the tropes of detective fiction – it suffers somewhat when the fantastical and the bizarre are embraced. As has been said, the opening matters are centered around those tropes, well-worn though still very effective. Some fantasy is present from the first, certainly – consider ape-like Throgmorton, or Oakmont’s fish-like denizens, said to suffer from “Innsmouther’s Syndrome.” But greater irregularities are not abundant from the first, though gradually growing more and more commonplace as the narrative its conclusion, whereby the narrative goes astray, the bizarre and the fantastical growing dominant: a radical departure has transpired, and the game is worse because of this shift. It is eventually revealed that Charles Reed is a “seed,” imbued with great power, capable of either destroying the world or preserving it, this designation also explaining the precise nature and cause of his hallucinations, their origination. This marked, singular specialness on the protagonist’s part is rather cliché, but such is the state of the narrative, Charles literally set apart from all of Oakmont’s other citizens. Detective fiction is not exactly obscure, even within the video game industry – consider LA Noire,that masterpiece. Totally obscure, though, are these fantastical flourishes, this embracing of Lovecraftian influences. In this instance, with these inclusions, the developers were again seeking innovation, desirous of crafting a narrative very unlike that which has come before. While the reception of this narrative will likely be divisive, at least the developers sought to achieve something new, to seize upon the works of a gifted, influential writer, possessive of a unique vision and talented world-building – Lovecraft is a just influence, though the appeal of Lovecraftian fiction is not universal, owing to his peculiarities and oddities. If the player is of such a perception, if they view Lovecraft with confusion or disdain, they will gradually grow more and more repelled as the narrative progresses, frustrating when considering how excellent and grounded is the narrative’s opening. Straightforward detective elements are lessened, as ancient Mayan civilizations are introduced, as massive, subterranean vaults and ancient keys are similarly introduced – the narrative loses its way. If the developers clung to Lovecraft exclusively in the realm of world building, seized upon his works to craft atmosphere, the game generally would benefit. Instead, the developers, with more widespread Lovecraftian adoption, craft an inconsistent narrative, one with considerable highs, though sometimes growing incoherent and incomprehensible, such failings only accelerating in the narrative’s closing hours.  

The title’s gameplay, meanwhile, is similarly inconsistent, being divided into two distinct pillars – combat sequences, and more grounded, calmer investigative sequences. The former pillar is a near-universal disappointment, unengaging and uninspired; the latter pillar is characterized solely by repeated, admirable successes and innovations. Fortunately, the former pillar’s negative attributes are minimized, in that combat is traditionally downplayed, being infrequent and oftentimes optional; for the most part, investigations reign supreme. In an interesting, admirable turn, the developers assume that any given player will have the requisite knowledge to solve even the most devious of investigations – here is no hand holding, and the game benefits because of this absence, only heightening the cerebral dimensions and the adulation accompanying success in these investigations. Reflecting this philosophy, little guidance is provided the player, the advice delivered being somewhat cryptic; it is up to the player to dispel this crypticness and make sense of the clues provided. A consistent method of obtaining needed information is related to archive visiting, Charles pouring over the city’s many documents. The city’s larger, explorable building often house such archives, indispensable to success – the prison has one, as does the library, the city hall, even the local newspaper. Visiting these locations, certain parameters need be inputted in a dedicated menu screen, intuitive to use and manipulate. If the correct information is submitted, progress towards the currently accepted quest is advanced – a needed address may be obtained, for instance, while detailed criminal histories or medical records are also obtainable, usable. Again there is the intuitiveness, and while such systems are predisposed to obtuseness and needless complications, here such obtuseness is outright spurned entirely, the game clinging to logic and realism, which in turn cuts down on potential frustration – an excellent balance has been achieved here, the balancing of deep, intellectually challenging attributes and more inviting ones; the game, so perfectly designed, transcends archaicnesss. Similarly, precise locations are never provided the player. Instead, they will be provided information such as, “this location is situated on the corner of this street and that, in this district.” This manner of delivery, again, makes the player think in a fashion which most traditional open-world games do not – here is uniqueness, and The Sinking City is like the antithesis to modern open world game design, which is excessive in efforts to direct the player, main objectives automatically pinpointed on a map or mini-map, as if the developers were uncertain of their players’ intelligence. City rejects these philosophies. 

Combat, while mostly discouraged and disincentivized, still has a presence, for better or for worse; for better, it helps break up the slower sequences of sleuthing; for worse, it is an overall clunky, unrefined affair, rarely enjoyable or rewarding, but instead finnicky and confused. Combat’s discouragement centers around the commanding strength of the opposition, dubbed “wylebeasts.” Abounding in diversity, some are physically unthreatening and aesthetically unmenacing; others are immensely threatening and immensely menacing, some capable of withstanding gunshot after gunshot, even when employing the more powerful weapons like a battle rifle or a close range shotgun. Weaker weapons, like the starting pistol or a supplementary revolver, are essentially ineffective against these hulking monstrosities. Mastering how each individual weapons controls, mastering each individual enemy’s movement patterns and weaknesses, is almost inexplicably unrewarding, when logic says the acquisition of this information should evoke abundant adulation – but it is never to be, owing to combat’s painful basicness. Clunky movement controls, accompanied with periodic enemy cheapness, only heighten combat’s disappointing attributes, all the while increasing relief that these engagements are so infrequent, are traditionally avoidable affairs. True, a basic progression system is in place, intended to inject some life into the combat and game overall – Charles begins with that lowly pistol, before expanding his arsenal to include the mentioned revolver, shotgun, and battle rifle, but also a submachine gun and various throwable weapon; the end game plays quite differently from the early game, in that greater flexibility and freedom are provided the player. What absolutely must be noted, though, are the game’s bold survival horror inclinations: resources are finite and traditionally quite scarce, meaning that each missed bullet is an especially painful occurrence, particularly in the early game when more valuable resources are essentially nonexistent or difficultly obtained.  Additionally, currency systems are completely absent, meaning that all resources are obtained strictly through crafting. Ultimately, a terrible shift occurs: in the opening, the player is extremely tight on resources – survival horror dominates. By the narrative’s conclusion, resources are oftentimes possessed in abundance; survival horror is rejected, to the detriment of gameplay, lessening its intensity. Periodic instances of resource depletion do persist, but they grow increasingly anomalous; the game truly loses its way, and any potential combat complexities are unfortunately squandered, wasted. The lazy progression system, meanwhile, only serves to further illustrate wasted potential, as the vast majority of purchaseable skills are valueless or only situationally valuable, whether speaking of crafting abilities, combat abilities, or abilities which enhance carrying capacities. Most modern games feel the need to include such systems out of expectation, and accordingly the developers included them – here are illustrations of iterative design, and the exclusion of these unneeded, shallow principles might actually be advantageous, providing greater focus.

In its narrative and world-building, The Sinking City meets with repeated, profound successes, though its greatest success is tied to its uniquer identity. In the industry, a rift has gradually emerged, one which seems to be growing in intensity. Now, many smaller indie titles have ample narrative aspirations, often at the cost of gameplay complexities – consider the litany of walking simulators, which prioritize narrative to the last, to the detriment of all other mechanics. But not only does The Sinking City boast these narrative inclinations, but it also includes great gameplay depth and profundity, elevating the traditional indie title; here is no walking simulator. The game, then, is a perfect illustration of the capabilities of a AA developer, showing what commanding creativity can result in; an increase in budget could certainly iron out the kinks – graphical and technical issues may be improved or minimized – but the developers have expertly utilized the funds available to them, crafting a world of singular atmospheric beauty, one with a depth which is also reflected in the characters, all of them – Charles Reed, the protagonist, is not alone in complexity: a considerable assortment of NPC’s are fleshed and well-developed, whereas in so many open-world titles they are nameless nonentities; here, they each have individual stories, individual motivations. Questions of narrative agency are especially problematic in an open-world title, where, traditionally in a short span of time, complete control is invested the player. The world may be on the brink of total devastation, total disaster looming. And yet, the player is permitted leisure time to raid tombs, to go dungeon diving, to grind for experience, these actions contradicting the seeming immediacy of the situation at hand. Reflecting further uniqueness, The Sinking City has little immediacy, the end result being exploration is not clashing with narrative; leisure time is natural, interacting with the world is natural, necessary even. The Flood has struck, will likely continue to grow in its intensity. But for the meanwhile, simple navigation is compatible with the present state of affairs, meaning a certain believability is achieved. Were the secondary content attached to exploration minimized or absent, the game’s central narrative, its abundance of charm, would be cut down dramatically – here is a game where the journey is more than the destination.  

It is only within the realm of gameplay where dramatic missteps are made, such failings principally manifest in the combat systems, inoffensive, perhaps, but painfully basic, a basicness made all the more observable when placed alongside the profound detective sequences. Pepper the enemy with gunfire until they die, periodically retreating as need be to use a health restorative item: that is the extent of the gunplay. Combat efficiency can be influenced by the choice of weaponry, but this does not result in any real depth – rely upon the stronger weapons when they become available; that is the “evolution” of gunplay. Some tension is preserved by the insertion of survival horror elements; it is not always possible to rely upon those selfsame stronger weapons because ammunition for those guns is scarce, or craftable only with ample resource expenditure, such resources already being scarce. But the plurality of ammunition, of crafting materials and health restoratives at the narrative’s conclusion means that survival horror trappings have been totally displaced, any potential combat depth completely disappearing with that tragic displacement. A preservation of these principles would elevate the gameplay in the areas where it falters most dramatically – one simple fix could have momentous consequences. Instead, combat ultimately plays out as any standard third person shooter, unoriginal, though lacking in depth when compared to other games in the genre – herein lies the game’s most iterative construction. Again, though: combat is unintrusive and infrequent, and accordingly does not tarnish or ruin the entire experience, which is traditionally characterized by greatness, originality, and innovation – The Sinking City, so earnest and sincere, has a fast-beating heart. A very lengthy journey spanning some dozens of hours – especially when secondary content is pursued rather than neglected – there is much to offer here, a cross-genre appeal; narrative enthusiasts have much to delight over, while cryptic, puzzle-solving individuals can delight in the overall mission design and world-building, which never outright hold the player’s hands. These attributes can be especially off-putting, particularly in the early hours before the mechanics and complexities are grasped. Accordingly, it is understandable that many players could set the controller down and walk away, prematurely. But those who can persevere for three or four slow hours ultimately meet with a profound, singularly unique experience. The Sinking City has much to say, meanwhile, treating on such matters as personal and societal madness, isolationism and the encroaching nature of society, on guilt, fear, and general exploitation – bold themes are present, and in abundance; all throughout is bleakness and maturity, complete moral ambiguity, the title very detached from conventional black / white decision making. The narrative’s conclusion was perhaps a deflating one, though not to such an extent as to ruin everything which came before. Indeed, at the conclusion – after the controller had been put away – many were the ruminations made, as people and narrative threads were recalled, such recalling bringing about great joy and satisfaction. The Sinking City, then, is remarkably memorable and lasting, morphing into an experience rather than a mere title, one which sometimes falters under the immense burden of lofty aspirations, but one which otherwise bears that burden nobly, effectively, and bravely.  

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