The Sinking City feels like a soggy, nightmarish version of L.A. Noire, a comparison developer Frogwares proudly acknowledged when I spoke to them at GDC. It's set in the 1920s and stars Charles Reed, a private investigator working in the fictional, waterlogged city of Oakmont, Massachusetts, which was nearly destroyed in a flood caused by Lovecraftian deities. Hence the fish-people walking the streets and the horrible visions which regularly assail Reed. Simply adding Cthulhu is an overdone twist, but The Sinking City applies Lovecraftian lore in interesting new ways.
My demo begins in a rundown apartment in uptown Oakmont. From what I can tell, there are no nice apartments in Oakmont. Half the city is underwater, and the half that's not looks like it only recently surfaced. Decay and disrepair literally drip from every banister and street sign, and the entire city looks damp and withered. In this gross, dilapidated town, Harry Evans has gone missing, and his wife wants me to find him. Almost immediately, I have to make the first of many decisions: I can do this job for free, or I can accept Mrs. Evans' wedding ring as payment. I'm in a giving mood, so I decide to do it for free. Looking back, this was a mistake.
What didn't happen next is especially important: a bunch of objective markers didn't pop up on my map. In fact, I didn't see a single blinking objective in my entire demo. The Sinking City expects you to do more than just follow automatically-placed UI markers. Instead, I had to dust off my reporter's cap and start interviewing. I ask Mrs. Evans a few questions and she tells me Harry is a fisherman who works out of a cabin on Old Church Road in Salvation Harbor, one of Oakmont's seven districts. I pull up my map, which is meticulously labeled with streets and shops, scan down to Salvation Harbor, set a marker of my own, and head out.
Rather than a car, I hop in my boat. There are more rivers than roads in Oakmont, so several places can only be reached via water. It's a short ride to the cabin, but long enough for me to spot some tentacled somethings in the water. Note to self: keep your hands inside the boat at all times and keep your eyes forward. Wouldn't want to rear-end Cthulhu.
The door to Harry's cabin is locked. Luckily, the half-sunken Jalopy out front is still tall enough to use as a staircase up to the second-story porch. The Sinking City is fundamentally a third-person action game that puts investigating above actual action, but you can still climb up some parts of Oakmont. There's a scrap of an article from the Oakmont Chronicle on Harry's desk, and Harry's the author. Funnily enough, Reed jots this down in his leather notebook as I take real notes in my heavily scribbled GDC notepad. I've always enjoyed taking and referring to notes while playing games, but The Sinking City's in-game evidence system feels like more than enough to keep cases orderly.
I head down to the basement and find a body. Harry? I don't have time to check. The moment I spot the body Reed launches into a horrible fit straight out of Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. The room around me starts to fall apart. I catch glimpses of the Lovecraftian beyond as tears in reality arc across the walls, and worse still, I'm not the only one peering through them. Hideous, spindly creatures climb through the rifts and crawl toward me as I scramble to load my shotgun. I put two slugs into a couple spiderlings reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Alien, then reload to dispatch a humanoid in Dead Space necromorph cosplay.
Once they're all dead, Reed calms down somewhat, but something's still not right. The body I found isn't Harry but now it's highlighted, and so are a few other details in the basement: a bloody sack, a symbol scrawled in blood on the wall, a man's silhouette. The devs explain I have to determine how these details connect in order to close this nightmare rift. Assigning a chronological number to each highlighted detail, I deduce that the silhouetted man moved the body in the sack, dumped it in the basement, then hid the sack in the corner, and suddenly I'm back to reality. I snap a picture of the symbol on the wall and get the hell out of the basement.
The newspaper clipping is my best lead so I head to the office of the Oakmont Chronicle, which is marked as a utility on the map. I speak to the woman in the lobby but she doesn't know much. All she can do is direct me to the paper's archives and suggest I check the library. I pull out the newspaper clipping and quickly find the article it came from. It's about Harry's dealings with the Innsmouthers, a group of half-fish, half-human people which immigrated to Oakmont after the mysterious flood. It's clear Harry is fascinated by them and they get along well, but that's all the article tells me.
I'm running out of options, so I bring the picture of the bloody symbol to the library. Joy, the woman at the desk, has even less to say than the paper clerk on account of her lips being sewn together. Either Oakmont has strict laws or being loud in the library is seriously frowned upon. A bit of digging reveals that the symbol is sacred to the Innsmouthers. Remembering that Harry is a fisherman, I head to a well-known fishery run by Innsmouthers.
The fish-man out front is terse, unfriendly, and doesn't take kindly to my questions about Harry. He tells me he last saw Harry heading down to the fishery's basement, and that Harry was infamous for talking trash about Innsmouthers. That doesn't line up with the emphatic article Harry wrote, so I call the fish-man out. He cracks and mutters something about a group of men tailing Harry into the basement. I sprint past the Innsmouther, reload my shotgun, charge into the basement and find… Harry Evans. And Mrs. Evans. And several angry-looking Innsmouthers brandishing revolvers.
A good old-fashioned third-person shootout ensues, after which only me and Mrs. Evans are left standing. She insists she had no choice but to trick me, but I'm no longer in a giving mood, so I have her arrested. Apparently Harry and his pals, or perhaps some higher power that hired them—perhaps Cthulhu!—want me to stop poking around Oakmont. Well, I've got some bad news for them: I had a blast with The Sinking City, and I'll be back for more sleuthing just as soon as it's out. It doesn't have a release date yet, but I hope it's soon.