Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is one of the most underrated games of the PlayStation 4’s early days. Its blend of personality, detective work, and hard-hitting conclusions should have taken the title much further than it did during a lacklustre 2014. That magic touch was most definitely lost on its open world follow-up two years later, but developer Frogwares hasn’t given up on the concept just yet. The Sinking City is the studio’s greatest game yet, but that only goes so far when the experience is never far away from a technical hick-up.
Something fishy is going on in Oakmont, and that’s not just because of the Innsmouthers that have taken up residence there. After a devastating flood cut the city off from the rest of America, people across the country have been drawn to the district through haunting visions and outbreaks of hysteria. Detective Charles Reed is one of those unfortunate souls, but with all sorts of sleuthing skills at his fingertips, he makes port and sets about cracking open the case.
That is, of course, only scratching the surface of what’s to come, however. Reed quickly finds himself in over his head as the hallucinations that brought him there in the first place become more and more twisted, coupled with an investigation that goes deeper than the streets of Oakmont. The horrors of author H.P. Lovecraft are a clear inspiration, and it’s those bumps in the night that fuel the narrative. Gigantic squids are aplenty, but as Reed succumbs to insanity, so too do the events of the game. You’ll question every scene, disbelieve those around you, and detach yourself from reality. It’s a genuinely intriguing plot that builds and builds without any intentions of slowing down.
While much of that absurdity takes place underwater, there’s just as much conflict to sink your teeth into on the surface. Political and racial tension between the Innsmouthers and Throgmortons adds an extra layer of depth to proceedings that could cloud the judgement of case conclusions. Did this suspect commit a crime for personal gain, or was it to get one over a rival family? It’s not a theme the main plot tackles at every turning point, but it is an issue that bubbles under the surface of almost all decisions and choices.
If you’ve played either of Frogwares’ previous Sherlock Holmes titles on PS4, you’ll feel right at home with The Sinking City. It sits almost in-between the two games: marrying the in-depth and fascinating cases of Crimes and Punishments with the open world of The Devil’s Daughter. Without a single objective marker to speak of, you’ll need to work out for yourself how to progress investigations, where you should be going next, and who could serve up some valuable information.
Reading through clues and documents will give you leads that you can follow up on throughout Oakmont. Thanks to that, it really does feel like you’re conducting your own inspection of the town. When nothing is handed to you on a plate, there’s a great degree of satisfaction to be gained from getting the right man when it’s all said and done.
A lot of work goes into those accusations, though, and it all kicks off at the initial crime scene. Upon arrival, you’re able to freely search the area for evidence and talk to witnesses. Your findings are a great start, but research is in order to find out more. Visiting the likes of the police station for criminal records, the city hall for details on citizens and establishments, or the hospital for patient details turns out to be a very common practise for detective Charles Reed, but it’s one that is always fruitful.
Once all of your proof is in order, it’s time to come to a conclusion. The Mind Palace allows you to connect clues and points together in order to form a definite conclusion – one that you’ll pursue back in the game once you’re done. Its findings are never set in stone, though, as you’re given the opportunity to change how you perceive evidence, potentially resulting in a different outcome.
It’s a feature that hasn’t really changed too much when compared with the developer's previous efforts, but that’s because it provides the basis for some phenomenal sleuthing. Without any hand-holding, you’ll feel like a bona fide private eye as you crack open a case that was dead and buried. The need for a supernatural sense that uncovers a certain amount of hints does feel like a bit of a cop-out at times, but it’s not enough to cause annoyance.
Main cases take up the majority of your time, but the residents of Oakmont are sure to persuade you into a side quest or two. There’s a good amount of content to be found off the beaten path that’ll have you photographing dead bodies, checking up on sick patients, and investigating murders. A solid 15 hours will see you through to the game’s ending, but dabble in everything the city has to offer and you’ll just about double that.
You might be surprised to learn that combat plays somewhat of a minor role in the experience. It’s as clunky and unnatural as it could possibly be, however, so it’s a good job you won’t be dealing death blows all the time. Equipped with the typical pistols, automatic weapons, and shotguns, you’ll have to scavenge for ammo and ensure your shots hit when you take them, but good luck doing that thanks to floaty and inaccurate aiming. Even then, the bullets that do land aren’t in the least bit satisfying due to a lack of weight and power behind the pull of the trigger. The addition of combat is understandable, but its sloppy implementation sticks out like a sore thumb.
What is far more egregious, though, is the game’s serious technical shortcomings in a number of key areas. Constant screen tearing pulls you out of the experience, the frame rate struggles to hit 30 frames-per-second with dips all over the place, and hitches can pause the game entirely for a second or two. NPCs can spawn in the air, appear out of nowhere, and even spawn in a t-pose. Sometimes you’ll need to sit through a load screen before entering a building, and other times you can stroll straight inside.
It’s worryingly inconsistent and a constant source of frustration, but it wasn’t quite enough to dampen our enthusiasm completely. We’re sure that many of these issues will be fixed via post-launch patches, putting the game in a much better state a few months down the line. It has to be said, though – a couple more months of polish and fine-tuning would have done wonders for the experience you’re picking up on day one.
The Sinking City is a captivating detective undertaking that dives into the hauntings of H.P. Lovecraft with a compelling narrative that is sure to question your viewpoint as well as reality itself. If you can look past its presentational shortcomings and mediocre combat system, the plight of private eye Charles Reed is one worth seeing for yourself.