The Sinking City (Xbox Series S) Review

The enhanced re-release of Frogware’s The Sinking City – for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles – retains the enjoyable sleuthing gameplay and eerie, oppressive atmosphere of Oakmont. However, while it may look and run better than ever, the underwhelming combat and several visual quirks remain untouched. If you have not played it before, this re-release is a great option. However, veterans might find the price too high for a few visual upgrades and DLC that need to be purchased again.
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The Sinking City re-release – now developed and published by Frogwares – gives new and returning players another chance to explore the eerie and oppressive streets of Oakmont, a flooded and isolated town in Massachusetts, USA. If you missed this release the first time, The Sinking City is, first and foremost, a narrative-driven investigation game that plays to Frogware’s strengths. Other elements, most notably combat and crafting, feel underdeveloped in comparison.

Events kick off when former-navy-man-turned-PI Charles Reed arrives at Oakmont, having suffered increasingly vivid visions about aquatic monsters and the destruction of the town. He is looking for one Johannes van der Berg, a philosopher that promises to both assist him in understanding the visions and help him find several missing persons who have fled from the mainland to the town. As a “newcomer” in an old, isolated, and recently flooded town, he has few leads and fewer friends.

Oakmont looks better than ever in this re-release – if you can look past the catastrophic flooding, eel-infested waters, and supernatural wylebeasts.

This kicks off a lengthy adventure, consisting of nine multi-part main missions that’ll send you all over the city to uncover an unravelling supernatural conspiracy. There are also a half dozen side missions with a similar structure. Main events draw on H.P. Lovecraft’s more recognisable works, while the side missions often feature locations and letters that reference some of his lesser-known short stories. As The Sinking City has a fair amount of dialogue, reading, and world-building, it’s a treat for Lovecraft fans. However, everything still feels consistently weird for those that have never read his work.

Oakmont is a strange city full of equally strange inhabitants that, despite being terrified of recent events, accept all the weirdness and the appearance of the “wylebeasts” after the recent flood. It reinforces that sensation of being a newcomer – the people you meet clearly know more than they are letting on – while the player is given the choice to discuss some of the strange things they see, or just let it slide. Reed will also travel to some truly unnerving locations that the locals think nothing of. This eerie atmosphere is one of the highlights and only bested by the Silent Hill games.

Once you’ve found all the required evidence at a scene, Charles Reed’s supernatural abilities allow him to piece together past events to make deductions.

Gameplay primarily revolves around traversing the city – on foot or by boat – grilling quest givers and suspects for information, examining clues, and revealing past events using Reed’s supernatural vision. Once you’ve accumulated enough key information – by piecing together clues to understand the sequence of events or finding a new lead – you can combine clues in Reed’s “mind palace” to make deductions and inform your future responses. As most cases revolve around several characters or factions in conflict with one another, you’ll eventually have to side with someone to access new information (and most characters in Oakmont are ethically dubious at best).

This investigation-focused gameplay loop plays to Frogware’s strengths and is another highlight of the experience. Hunting for clues will unlock new dialogue options and leads. Selecting key search criteria at different city archives can reveal new leads or suspects (think city hall for properties, the police station for criminal activity, and the local newspaper office for past events etc.). Slowly building up enough evidence and crafting a logical deduction in Reed’s mind palace remains great fun throughout. Player choice, multiple solutions for several missions, and three potential endings ensure there’s replay value.

Some side missions are little more than spooky fetch quests, but there are several that’ll take you on unexpectedly creepy diversions with multiple outcomes.

Given the effects of the flood and ongoing societal collapse, Oakmont is a hostile place. Both the wylebeasts and several human factions are out for Reed’s blood. Unfortunately, combat is serviceable at best, playing like a clunky third-person shooter. In theory, you can hit weak spots on enemies to inflict massive damage – think glowing bits or heads – or simply run from the simplistic AI. There were moments of high tension when I was fleeing from a cultist house, my health and sanity so low that suicidal visions obscured my screen, but most combat encounters were simply frustrating.

This awkward shooting is coupled with a basic crafting system to keep you stocked with bullets and health items (Reed’s backpack is apparently cosmetic). As a result, you have to spend time salvaging in abandoned houses, rummaging through containers, and constantly crafting another handful of bullets or a first aid kit. It all feels underwhelming in comparison to the sleuthing, and crafting ultimately just feels extraneous.

Gunplay is fine, I guess, and marginally improved by the higher framerate. That said, it’s still the weakest part of the experience, and constantly crafting bullets gets tedious.

The upgrade system is more fleshed out, with experience points continuously rewarded for solving quests and killing wylebeats (there are even several respawning “infested zones” you can grind). There are three branching skill trees with abilities that’ll make Reed more survivable and lethal in combat, or more efficient and scavenging materials and crafting. However, none are essential or game-changing, so I often went long stretches forgetting I had skill points to allocate.

Exploration, at least initially, is fantastic. Pushing out from the southern docks into central Oakmont, and then to the periphery neighbourhoods feels like stepping into the dangerous unknown. Each area is distinct, with unique architecture, atmosphere, and civilian population. The music, ranging from moody 1920’s Jazz to screeching string pieces during combat, further enhances the atmosphere. Unfortunately, like so many open-world games, the back-and-forth nature of the missions – including several side missions that are simply fetch-quests – ensures traversal becomes tedious before the end. There are several well-placed quick-travel points, but any sense of immersion disappears when you get into the routine of planning optimal pathing between objectives rather than taking in your surroundings.

Unfortunately, The Sinking City re-release still has the ability to swing from beautifully atmospheric to immersion-breaking in an instant. Civilian NPCs, with their odd spawn points and jerky animations, are an issue that has not been resolved.

I’ve got this far without discussing what’s new in this re-release and that’s because the visual upgrades, well appreciated, are limited. Make no mistake, The Sinking City looks much sharper on the next-gen consoles, with upgraded lighting and higher resolution textures, and mostly holds a solid 60fps. The lack of screen-tearing and much, much shorter load times were most appreciated (think 5-6 seconds for the initial load and 2-3 seconds for fast-travel). Unfortunately, two glaring issues remain: randomly spawning NPCs with their jerky animations, and obvious object pop-in when travelling by boat.

There are also three new side missions available with this re-release but, like the original DLC, they must be purchased separately or force you to buy the more expensive Deluxe edition. I understand Frogwares has the right to price their game as they see fit, but not making this a “complete edition” feels like a misstep. Newcomers have a better deal but are still paying almost full price for a 2-year-old game, while returning players have to effectively pay twice (a free upgrade is not available due to ongoing issues between Frogwares and their previous publisher Nacon).

Despite several unaddressed issues, I still found myself entranced by certain locations and pushed on to discover the truth behind Oakmont’s slow and steady demise.

As a result, it’s difficult to assign a single score to The Sinking City re-release. On one hand, you have an excellent investigation game with a compelling setting, cast, and twisting narrative, let down by few clunky gameplay elements. On the other, you have an expensive re-release that I feel should have included all the DLC content as a “complete” package. If you’ve never played The Sinking City before, this re-release is a great option and a way to support the developers. If you’ve already purchased The Sinking City for the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, it’s a more difficult decision as the prior release still looks good and runs better backward-compatible on the new consoles.

The Sinking City (Xbox Series S) Review

The Sinking City (Xbox Series S) Review
7 10 0 1
7/10
Total Score
  • Story
    8/10 Very Good
    Slowly unravelling an ancient conspiracy - and several creepy standalone side narratives - while dealing with the weird and wonderful cast remains compelling.
  • Gameplay
    7/10 Good
    The narrative-driven, investigation-based gameplay remains engaging. Unfortunately, combat and crafting still feel clunky and underdeveloped.
  • Visuals
    7/10 Good
    The Sinking City looks much sharper on the next-gen consoles and holds a solid 60fps, making the exploration of Oakmont a joy. Unfortunately, issues like NPC animations and object pop-in can still break immersion.
  • Audio
    7/10 Good
    There are few standout tracks, but the ambient music and audio enhance the unsettling atmosphere. Voice work is solid - if sometimes overwrought - ensuring all the dialogue you need to work through is an enjoyable part of the experience.

The Good

  • Oakmont’s oppressive, unsettling atmosphere and weird inhabitants
  • Investigations that require actual thought rather than following quest markers
  • Multiple mission outcomes and several endings
  • Sharper visuals, a steady framerate, and much shorter load times

The Bad

  • The combat and crafting mechanics still feel clunky and underdeveloped
  • Jerky NPC animations and object pop-in remain an issue
  • Priced too high for returning players
Total
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