I have not had that much exposure to H.P. Lovecraft’s work. I know that he created some tentacle-endowed deity called Cthulu and that, interestingly, he worked as Harry Houdini’s ghostwriter. But in the modern age of remixed and inspired cultural properties, I have grown to know Lovecraft less by his portfolio and more by what he represents. Horror. Fear of the unknown. The failure to comprehend what cannot be comprehended.
This is what initially made The Sinking City so appealing to me. I tend to not go for horror in my video games, but these kinds of story insinuations in a 1920s mystery RPG is something I can get excited about. It also comes at a time when big-budget titles are saddling their narratives with derivative multiplayer and DLC extensions. This usually makes for storytelling that is either too complicated or so neglected to be unworthy of any mention. The Sinking City is a single-player experience which you are meant to enjoy by yourself. Alone. In this dark, twisted world where the shadows tower above you and seem to take a life of their own.
It turns out the shadows are indeed doing their own thing. The Sinking City has become available on the Nintendo Switch and I got a chance to try it out. Forward note, I am just going to focus on the gameplay experience and its overall execution on the console. For a more insightful take on the game, check out Brad’s review published at launch. He has some interesting things to say about the deployment of Lovecraft’s ideas.
With that said, let’s talk calamari.
At first, my major concern was readability. The game utilizes text via both world navigation and evidence, which are both essential components of your mystery-solving experience. I am happy to report that all is well with that. The font is large enough to be clearly read. Your map of Oakmont, Massachusetts comes equipped with a zoom function, so you can get a closer look at the many street names which are essential notes when solving your cases. You make extensive use of a Mind Palace feature in which you connect the dots and come to conclusions based on compiled facts and calculations. This is but one component of the character and story interface. You have the lore, your casebook, map, and inventory all neatly arranged and easy to get a handle on. The only problem is that it all feels sluggish. There is a distinct delay when hopping between menus and navigating too quickly only makes it more apparent.
Diving (heh) into the world and its occupants, Charles Reed is a man with rough edges. Literally, there are stray pixels that manifest on his shoulders and arms when he changes direction. Given the smaller resolution, he is (when stationary) very handsome. His eyes are alive. His movements when he’s interrogating someone are fluid, as is also the case when he’s running at full pelt. Given how his walking speed oscillates according to how far you sway the cons, he can feel very abrupt to move around at first. You get used to it and soon you are traversing the flooded streets of Oakmont with ease. The third-person perspective is steady and gives a clear view of the situation. This is something which is great when in combat, and which is sadly made irrelevant by the fact that the combat gameplay is the worst thing in The Sinking City. I would not be able to take down the so-called beasties without the included automatic targeting. Dealing with monsters and bad guys that move erratically, using a gun that has a slight roll to its positioning, would be impossible without it. It is in this regard that I miss the good ol’ mouse and keyboard. Although with that said, the combat is sporadic and the greater game is about collecting clues. The procedural nature of the main storyline combined with the numerous side quests is compelling, while at the same time being more laid-back and less about immediate high-stake action.
Slotting the Switch into the TV Dock fixes some problems while summoning others. Increasing the display size means that space is broadened, making all the details more noticeable and accentuating them to a greater extent. It’s a catch of 22 fish as while that the world looks great and the environments are showcased to their full conceptualization, the port does terrible things to the characters’ faces. It is here that one will find dead sets of eyes and, Cthulu forbid, dialogue that gets away from people’s mouths. Seriously, it shocks me how the facial shapes fail to sync up to the syllables.
However, something I noticed in both displays was the shine of water. While the texture is fluid and you can make out the element of depth, the light reflected on the waterways of Oakmont are overexaggerated in certain weather conditions. Yes, you may get a glimmer from the full moon when the sky is clear, but not to the point that it looks like you’re piloting the Cyclops II along a river of milk. And these kind of problems can’t be justified as being but a facet of our hero’s deluge of delusions. It doesn’t look good to anyone.
While The Sinking City is an RPG right up my alley, its execution in terms of both gameplay and visuals are stunted. You cannot shake off the feeling that it was not designed for the Switch, and that’s not just in how it is rendered. Detailed world progression like this can be difficult to pull off in this manner. In this case, it does start to flounder after a while.
Last Updated: September 13, 2019