Review: Sinking Island
The Phoenix Wright games taught me two very important things about gaming, that detective games could be amazing, and that they almost never were. Outside of those courtroom drama classics it has been terribly difficult to find games that let you gather clues and piece together answers in clever ways. That’s why I was cautiously optimistic while starting up Sinking Island and learning about all the investigative and deductive tools at your disposal. But once I started talking to the characters and trying to make sense of this mess of a story, that optimism vanished fast.
You play as Jack Norm (no that is not a typo), a detective brought to the island of Sagorah (also not a typo) to investigate a murder. Billionaire Walter Jones had been developing a resort hotel on the remote island when he fell from a beachside cliff under suspicious circumstances. With only ten other folks on the island at the time, it’s up to Jack to determine who had a hand in Walter’s untimely demise. To do that, he’ll need to question everyone extensively, comb the island for clues, and attempt to assemble them into answers before time runs out.
The setup of the game frames your task in simple and direct terms. The whole game is about figuring out who killed Walter and why, and poses it to you as a series of ten questions that must be answered. Each answer consists of evidence taken in the form of spoken statements, photographs of crime scenes and events, and key items found around the island. All of this is organized in your Personal Police Assistant, categorized by type with key bullet points listed. There’s also a function that lets you combine related evidence into new pieces needed to answer those key questions.
I was excited to get to investigating after the tutorial dumped all that onto me, so I set about questioning folks around the island. Dialogues are close-ups on the two player models, Jack and his subject, and they gesticulate around with stiff features and vacant expressions. I’m not kidding when I say that Half-life 1 NPCs are more expressive (and less unsettling) than these folks. Their voice acting is competent but whoever wrote the script is not, forcing out awkward lines like “This menu seems utterly appetizing” and made worse by the game allowing you to extend lines of questioning to characters who have no reasonable connection to them.
Horrifying mannequin people weren’t enough to put me off the game, though, so I carried on with gathering evidence. From the crime scene on the beach, there are nearly a dozen screens just to get to the hotel where most of the other characters are and each has to be shuffled across before moving on. They’re generally featureless as well, with zero interaction points to prompt even an observation about palm trees or sand. However, every few scenes there will be an important clue hidden somewhere in the nondescript landscape that you MUST find, presumably by pixel-hunting every otherwise pointless background. The interior of the hotel is even worse, mind you, with entire floors of empty lounges to waste your time.
I still wasn’t fully dissuaded from the game until I tried to answer the second key question. The tutorial question had been no problem, and I needed nine pieces of evidence to answer the next. So I traipsed over the entire island, talked to every waxen mutant I could find, combed scenes for items, and an hour later sat down to assemble the clues. There’s a progress bar under the spot for the items you need that tells you how many you’ve found, and in that hour of endless questions and searching I found zero. Every line of dialog I sat through and every bauble I found was useless at that point in the game, despite their obvious connections to the case. I couldn’t answer the questions out of order, I had to answer that one now, and I needed a very narrow band of items and dialogues I hadn’t triggered yet to do it. Essentially, I had to start over.
At that point I consulted a walkthrough, which put the final nail in this soggy coffin. It turns out the game is timed, and at certain times Jack will need to stop for a meal or call his wife. There are key events and pieces of evidence that you CANNOT GET until these mandatory points are reached. So if you’re investigating too fast you may miss evidence because it hasn’t unlocked yet. I could tolerate a lot of jank up to that point, but being railroaded into finding specific things at specific times in specific orders was a bridge too far. Sinking Island had the potential to be a clever little detective game, but the lengths it goes to in hiding clues and progression from the player are unforgivable.