The Sinking City (Nintendo Switch) Review

By Rudy Lavaux 12.09.2019

Review for The Sinking City on Nintendo Switch

Developer Frogwares is primarily known for its long running series of Sherlock Holmes games, which are all rather well regarded amongst fans of games in the adventure/investigation genre. The developer worked on other games of course, but that franchise is what they're best known for. Those have been on occasions ported to consoles, including the Nintendo DS with Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Mummy, an already very impressive port of a PC game to the humble handheld. Other Frogwares titles were also ported to other systems, however that particular achievement is an important one to keep in mind to understand the mind-set behind the port of The Sinking City to the Nintendo Switch. This time though, the title at hand is not a mostly pre-rendered game, but a rather massive open-world, and fully real-time 3D adventure, with all the bells and whistles one can expect from a modern title. Was this a success?

Charles Reed, the protagonist of The Sinking City, is a US navy diver who survived World War I and is now a Private Investigator in Boston, MA. He suffers visions and is blessed, or cursed depending on one's perception of it, with psychic powers allowing him to see into the past when examining scenes. This is however accompanied by disturbing visions of underwater beings and monsters. A letter he received in response to his queries on such visions to one Johannes Van Der Berg, leads him to Oakmont, MA. Upon his arrival, the city is already partly flooded and with the flood came monstrous and deadly creatures that attack people on sight. As a result, the only currency of value now in the city is bullets, not dollars.

Funny enough, despite the fact that people know of their existence, the atmosphere of the city is not so much of dread towards them, either from a lack of consideration for it in the writing stakes, or maybe intentionally because the whole city is being driven to madness by the proximity of those hellish creatures which have psychological effects on people. It's never really made clear, but it does provoke a surrealistic feel that can be indeed attributed to Lovecraft's works falling a bit more into the fantasy genre rather than horror as it is traditionally accepted. Lovecraftian horror is indeed a very specific thing, driven more by the fear of the unknown, instead of plainly horrific displays of gore and scenes of panic deriving from them. In that regard, The Sinking City nails it perfectly. In fact, the Lovecraftian themes and use of sanity effects are eerily similar to Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, although the latter put more emphasis on action and destroying evil God-like beings, and not so much on investigating them. For fans of the GameCube game, there are indeed some similarities to draw in the themes, and even a bit of the atmosphere, but no more than that.

Before going into what makes The Sinking City tick, it is important to understand the type of game that it is. It does indeed blend together elements from multiple genres, and therefore is a bit hard to classify. For all intents and purposes, however, it belongs mostly in the exploration/investigation genre, since this is what most of the time spent playing is focused on. Then, of course, the overall atmosphere, events and themes fall into the fantastic/horror genre, being not a direct adaptation of but heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This is however more of a surreal game than a horror one, which just happens to pack a damp, misty, cold atmosphere to it that fits the themes it touches upon. Coupled to those elements are the third person combat, involving firearms and melee weapons, and a character progression system that can be best described as "light RPG."

Screenshot for The Sinking City on Nintendo Switch

Exploring Oakmont can be done in multiple ways, from basic on-foot movement to using motorised boats to cross the flooded lower quarters of the city, and finally by fast travelling between phone booths after they've been discovered. Oakmont is a rather large town indeed, divided into districts with each of them having their own theme and slightly different atmosphere. Few buildings can be entered, and this is meant to be allowed without any load times. On Switch however, walking the distance to a building's front door may not always allow the system enough time to finish loading the inside. As a result, occasionally, and especially when running around like a madman to get to a destination as quickly as possible, walking up to a door may trigger a black screen for a few seconds with a tentacled white logo in the corner indicating that the building is still loading, before finally being put back in control as if nothing happened - an unfortunate technical distraction indeed.

Investigating the different scenes is a typical affair. Walking up to bodies or documents or points of interest, and interacting with them at the press of 'A' adds information to the player's casebook, as well as the lore section. This helps gaining a better understanding of the characters, the city itself, the monsters that inhabit it, or even the mythos surrounding the god-like tentacled creature behind it all. However, this game's important selling point is how investigation is handled. It is indeed up to players to trace their own path through the game, quite literally "piecing together" evidence as it is added to the game's "Mind Palace" section, and drawing conclusions from there, even sometimes opening the path to multiple possible resolutions of cases that can affect the outcome of individual events, such as letting a person live or sealing their deadly fate. Bringing a case to its conclusion involves jumping between places in search of clues and there again, the game won't hold the player's hand or at least not much.

If a hint suggests that a missing person is for example seeking medical aid, it's up to the player to find those possible locations where they could have gone, and then mark it themselves on the map to orient themselves with that manual objective marker. Even then, finding said person might not be easy and may require interrogating doctors or perusing through their files to locate the person that fits the profile. It should come as no surprise, being a Frogwares creation, that this is the part of the game that's handled best. It does require a lot of reading and paying attention to what people say, which they may never repeat again - but the automatic filing of those hints and bits of information, which is really the only and thankful bit of hand-holding this offers, makes the experience a pleasant one, at least if the themes and atmosphere it has to offer are in sync with your own tastes.

Screenshot for The Sinking City on Nintendo Switch

Combat is another part of the game, but one with a much lower focus. Enemies can be avoided altogether most of the time but not always, especially when monsters are inside a building that Reed must investigate thoroughly for clues. In all other cases, avoiding confrontation is recommended since ammo is so rare and works also as a currency for other purposes. Lastly and quite frankly, melee combat with a shovel does not work well at all. Monsters tend to be swift creatures that don't stay in one spot for long enough for the shovel to hit its target, so running is more often than not the best option. Discovering new places, defeating some of the monsters roaming the city, or bringing cases to a close grants experience points which can be put towards unlocking new skills for Charles Reed, improving his carrying capacity, strength, stamina or even sanity. This is the "light RPG" part of the game, which has the merit to exist and to give players some ways to make combat a bit easier to survive through.

For those unaware, or only looking into this game now that it is out on Switch, The Sinking City is an Unreal Engine 4 title that came out on PC, PS4 and Xbox One first in June 2019 and took a few extra months to be downported to the hybrid handheld system. Like other UE4 titles ported to Switch from more powerful systems, this one obviously had to undergo some cuts in resolution, frame-rate, assets quality, and some effects being dialled down a few notches for the whole experience to fit and run at an acceptable level of performance. From Frogwares' own admission, the goal with this port was to bring it to the portable system without sacrificing any of its all-important artistic vision. For the most part, that claim is indeed successfully delivered on. On Switch when docked, The Sinking City appears to be a fixed 720p title that uses the typical UE4 Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing solution, giving it a softer overall look than on other platforms. Texture quality is paired back, which also explains the smaller file size, and the render distance of "level of detail" objects is greatly reduced, which results in some very noticeable pop-in when those appear close to the player.

Another thing that can be attributed to the use of UE4 on Switch and which does seem to crop up often in those titles... is input lag. It is noticeable on this one, just as it is on titles like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on the same platform. It is very subtle, but those sensitive to this sort of thing won't be able to help but notice it. It is not as much of a hindrance as in a game focused on action and accurately timed jumps and attacks like Bloodstained, of course, but it's there nonetheless. It's particularly noticeable when using motion controls to aim, which otherwise was an inclusion specific and exclusive to this Switch version.

Screenshot for The Sinking City on Nintendo Switch

Then, rarely, quickly panning the camera around does tend to show some polygonal models being loaded back in at the last split second, showing some white, empty areas for a fraction of a second before being replaced by what was supposed to there. This aggressive culling of geometry outside of the camera to save on performance is something frequently seen in UE4 games, unfortunately, but only happens rarely, in some "blink and you'll miss it" moments. The last area that does show significant signs of being paired back is the quality of characters' scalps and facial hair, as well as overall foliage, which are all much lower resolution than on other platforms. Another upcoming Switch title that exhibits this very strongly for example would be The Witcher III. Portable mode showcases all of the same settings and simply seems to be rendering at a hard to pinpoint but fixed sub-native resolution probably in the neighbourhood of 480 to 520p.

Both modes cap the frame-rate at 30 and this is mostly met, but sees drops essentially when new assets are being streamed to memory at the same time. The worst level of performance ever encountered always seems to be right after the initial loading sequence, on a fresh bootup, as the game finishes loading distant scenery elements that are far away from the player. Outside of this, this is stable enough to be enjoyed with just the occasional dips from there on out.

As a docked experience, it will obviously be better enjoyed on more powerful machines, but the same can be said of any multi-platform Switch game, really. It is an acceptable experience in the dock for those that can't afford to play on more powerful machines, the same way that it would still be an acceptable experience on lower end PCs for those that can't upgrade their rig. Then as a handheld experience, it is the only way available to enjoy it in that fashion so there isn't really any competition there for comparison. Investigation games do however tend to lend themselves pretty well to that type of play, and The Sinking City is no exception in that regard. Overall then, while this Switch adaptation is an appreciable effort indeed, this new version does not fix some of the problems already found in previous versions: chiefly pop-in, dodgy collision detection, and lengthy load times. The latter does tend to be a mainstay of downports to Switch, though, and more tied to the hardware's use of SD cards and low memory bandwidth and CPU grunt than to development prowess. With that in mind then, the Switch version performs within the usually expected boundaries, regarding load times.

Screenshot for The Sinking City on Nintendo Switch

Cubed3 Rating

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10

The Sinking City succeeds at its main areas of focus which are exploration, investigation, atmosphere and storytelling. All of those likeable elements are kept intact on Switch and while visual impact is overall expectedly lower than on other platforms, the promise of a preserved artistic direction is kept for the most part by Frogwares. It is still perfectible however in its implementation of combat and overall controls, which still do feel rather janky at times. At time of writing, this feel of roughness coating what is otherwise a good experience at core, holding it back on Switch as much as on the other platforms, even if some extra work went into the audio department to make things feel more authentic.

Also known as

The Sinking City

Developer

Frogwares

Publisher

Frogwares

Genre

Horror

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date 12.09.2019   North America release date 12.09.2019   Japan release date 12.09.2019   Australian release date 12.09.2019   

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