Bear with me for a second, will ya?
There’s a comic book series written by Mark Waid
for indie Funny Pages
publisher, Boom! Studios
. It’s seminal. It sits alongside works like Garth Ennis’ The Boys
, Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son
(and to a lesser degree Superior
), Alan Moore’s The Watchmen
and Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X
, in terms of its narrative and creative impact on the comic book industry.
Unfortunately its art just wasn't… great
I bring this up because whenever anyone asks for a comic book recommendation, I will always prattle off Irredeemable first. Our very own Joab Gilroy
put me onto it, I put my wife onto it, and eventually our comic book reader club got onto it. (Yep, that’s the level of our nerdiness.)
And we all loved it.
But, the series’ art just isn’t to the standard of the likes of Leinil Francis Yu
, Greg Capullo
, Jim Lee
and Adam Kubert
, John Romita Jr
, Paolo Rivera
or even local legend, Chris Whal
. Among many
Does it stop the books being good? Hell no, just sometimes as a person who enjoys top-notch comic book artwork, it would have been nice had any of the aforementioned helped Waid’s vision come to visual
life. But such is the world of indies, or smaller publishers, and wholly their budgets. And like Cyanide Studio’s Call of Cthulhu
deep-dive into the twisted world of H.P. Lovecraft
with The Sinking City
presents as fantastically ambitious, wonderfully written, spectacularly voiced and utterly borked on the visual plane. It’s almost a crying shame.
"The problem lies in moving through this ‘open-world’, which as quickly as you like becomes a Fast Travel Bazaar. And while fast travel is an excellent convenience, and eventually a necessity, it actually belies the design of the city as it stands..."
The difference between a comic (or written story) and videogames is plainly obvious -- one is static and non-interactive, the other dynamic and wholly interactive. And while narrative(s) -- main and side -- in The Sinking City are awesome, and often crack-like in their evidence and deduction addiction (purposeful alliteration -- Ed
), the problem lies in moving through this ‘open-world’, which as quickly as you like becomes a Fast Travel Bazaar
. And while fast travel is an excellent convenience, and eventually a necessity, it actually belies the design of the city as it stands. Frogwares went to great lengths to draft streets and districts with social hierarchies as a means to “world-build” the district of Oakmont, Mass.
, but unfortunately the tech driving all of this simply doesn’t feed the studio’s vision.
And that’s a key point with The Sinking City. From the outset developer Frogwares makes a point to show you that this is an open world meticulously designed. Context-wise, the city itself, which you’re drawn inexplicably to as Private Investigator, Charles Reed
, has no numbers house to house because its denizens know the city so well, they don’t need them. This means “Newcomers
”, such as yourself, aren’t really given the keys to the city, so to speak. But it’s also a clever way for the devs to have players engaging with the game’s map. Most evidence or clues you’re given will have a cross-road or junction reference, meaning you will need to proactively explore, and early on it’s quite daunting. But like so many other games, this winds up becoming a gameplay loop wrapped in repetition. It’s not all bad, because it’s not often super-clear where you need to go, but once you’ve worked it out, it doesn’t take too long.
"While this works from both a gameplay and context perspective, in that ammunition is scarce and therefore a highly sought after resource, you can just rummage through boxes, find items and craft ammo for yourself..."
What warps this great concept is that while the game-world that is Oakmont is large and switched up from a cultural perspective, moving through each district is a same-same
experience after a while. The city itself is suffering from a flood that struck and has essentially torn it apart. Currency in paper and coin form no longer exists, for some reason it’s all now ammunition. The thing is, while this works from both a gameplay and context perspective, in that ammunition is scarce and therefore a highly sought after resource, you can just rummage through boxes, find items and craft ammo for yourself.
And this is the most problematic part of the world-build side of The Sinking City -- the laws of the game-world versus those of open-world common-sense, versus player starvation just don’t gel. You might be one Rag
shy of being able to craft a grenade, with cloth all around you
, but unless you loot a locker, chest or cabinet with that item in it, you won’t be able to craft it, and it’s all randomised. And while we respect that it’s all part of a larger loot and crafting gameplay lean, these things need to be considered when you’re working with agency in open-world gaming. Moreover, how you gain weapons and items is usually forced through the main narrative, which isn’t a bad thing, but the game proactively urges you to avoid the main quest early on to explore the world of Oakmont. Unfortunately, for much of this you need the shotgun, and it’s not explained to you that doing Main Quest D-1
will lead to getting said shotty.
"The game gives you the idea that it’s “open to interpretation”, but the reality is, it’s very binary...."
The harsh truth here, is that functionally the open world itself is just a broken obstacle you’ll overcome with fast travel.
Additionally, many of the clues and case breakthroughs you need to make come by way of utilising the game-world’s disparate Archive
stations: Police, Library, City Hall, Hospital and more are all resources for you to use to find addresses and close in on cases. If you don’t have that case highlighted though, or even the specific piece of information needed to extrapolate more information from, it won’t declare. The game gives you the idea that it’s “open to interpretation”, but the reality is, it’s very binary. It just has so many moving parts, it manages to smoke and mirror this.
Still, the story here is just really great. Fantastic even. And it’s not the devs’ fault that the issues mentioned above exist, either. Money was clearly a factor. And maybe Big Ben and Frogwares bit off more than they can chew, but I stand by the game’s addictive PI loop; revelation and working out how to get the most out of each investigation is true carrot and string gameplay. And they succeed here. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come together as a whole. There’s genuine desire and ability -- specifically from a writing perspective -- within this studio. And if they were given more dollerydoos there’s no telling how far they could go.
Like, comparatively, the writing on a singular level (not entirely branching, mind), is The Witcher 3
So, if you like lateral thinking, great [branching] storytelling and excellent voice-acting, and can look past a drab, repetitive sheen that is less gameplay heavy and more set-dressing, you’ll still find a gem in this H.P. Lovecraft love letter to the sea, left in an old bottle to wash up on your shore.