Review: The Sinking Island (PC)

The Sinking Island
Developer: White Birds Studio
Publisher: Microids
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 8/12/2008


This is one of those titles I picked up on a lark. Sinking Island originally came out in the middle of 2007 in Europe and I never really heard too much about it. I was curious because it was a Microids game, who I have missed for the past few years as they haven’t had anything published stateside (Encore however has started publishing their titles for US gamers with this and Dracula III, albeit in VERY small quantities). I knew it was coming to the DS for Europeans sometime in late 2008, and I assumed I was just going to be importing it since DS games are region free. Then I noticed that Microids was letting people download the games directly from their site. That combined with the fact Sinking Island was made by White Bird Studios, who I recently interview about their upcoming release based on the Nikopol graphic novels, and I decided, “Eh. Why not?”

I’m not really an impulse shopper, especially with video games, but it’s supporting both a publisher and developer I liked and besides, my copies of Murder in the Abbey and Dracula III were pushed back a bit, so I needed to review SOMETHING.

So how was it? Did this obscure little game turn out to be worth my $29.99, or was it doomed to go into the same pile of games as Heavenly Guardian where I kind of wish I had my money back?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Let’s get this out of the way right now. The Sinking Island is easily the best written mystery game I have ever played. Not Still Life. Not Déjà vu. Not Who Shot Johnny Rock or Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. It’s this one right here. From the second the game started until the credits began to roll, I was riveted to this game. The twists and turns were natural and realistic and there were several times I thought I knew who the killer was going to be, only to be given a red herring pointing me towards someone else or proof that gave my prime suspect a decent alibi. The characters are very realistic, have exceptionally detailed back stories and you really develop emotions like disgust, pity, or shaudenfraude for them.

The tale starts out with the most basic cliché of murder mysteries and takes it to levels never seen in electronic entertainment before. Jack Norm, a police inspector to an island in the Maldives where eccentric billionaire Walter Jones has seemingly died from a fall out of his wheelchair into a rocky crevice below. It soon becomes apparent that foul play was involved, and Jack must figure out who killed him. There are ten people currently staying in Jones’ soon to open island hotel – all of whom have a deep personal disdain for the late magnate. You have three in-game days to solve the murder – if you can.

As I said, the game sounds basic, but there is so much investigative work and a level of detail into each of the characters’ lives that it blew me away. The game felt as if I was watching an exceptionally well done movie and it’s pretty much convinced me to buy every Jack Norm game that White Birds ever puts out.

It’s hard to go into more detail about the plot without spoiling it, and I’d rather you go and buy it either directly from Microids’ website or order it from Encore. If you are a fan of those dimestore pulp novels or the old noir style mysteries, you owe it to yourself to pick this game up. It features one of the best realistic stories you will ever find in gaming.

Story Rating: Unparalleled

2. Graphics

Although not as good as the plot, the graphics are stunning. The backgrounds and locations are beautifully rendered are took my breath away. It’s by far the best wind and water effects I’ve seen in a video game. To see each branch of a palm tree move or the realistic lightning coming down on a cloudy moonless night – simply amazing.

However, the character models are a bit of a letdown. Don’t get me wrong, characters like Jack, Hubert, and the like all look very real. They are some excellent character models. However there is a problem when you get to the women. You’ll realize very early on that the team was unable to craft long hair. The either didn’t know how or were just unable to. This was a common problem in the days of say, the PSX or Saturn. It was hard to make long hair not look crappy. However this is 2008, and you can definitely tell the hair issue from a decade ago is at foot here. As well, characters also can have a slightly blurry line around them. The models are placed on top of the backgrounds, and where the two meet can create a jaggie sort of effect. Other than these two issues, the characters are nicely done and are quite enjoyable.

One thing I love is that characters show their emotions. You know how in most games how there is little to no change to facial expressions? Not here. Faces actually change in real time based on the emotion and words being conveyed. I love that and it’s a little detail like that which 95% of developers miss that helped me fall in love with this game.

There’s a bit of slowdown at times where a lot of characters are on screen and more than one is moving. This struck me as odd because I was playing Sinking Island on a top of the line machine. Even if I adjusted the aliasing or the graphics level, this continued, leaving me to feel it was a flaw in the game itself.

Overall the graphics are quite nice. The character models have a few issues, but the backgrounds and location designs are simply amazing and I hated to see it end.

Graphics Rating: Very Good

3. Sound

This is one of the best voice ensembles I’ve seen in a video game in a long time. Even a certain mute island girl, is well done when she attempts to make noise. Each actor spoke their lines with believability and emotion and they really helped to round each character out. I think my favorite actor was Kolio as e sounded an awful lot like Mike Dorn to me. I just kept picturing the island chief being played by “I. M. Weasel.” It’s too bad the download didn’t come with a manual listing the actors, as I’d love to credit them all. If I had any complain at all, it’s that Hubert was supposed to be French as the narrator pronounces his full name with a decidedly French accentuation, but everyone else pronounces it American-style. Still, the actor does a commendable job so I’ll overlook this tiny little error.

There are not a lot of sound effects in the game, but what are here ranks amongst the best I have ever heard. From the crash of the surf to the cracking of a building’s foundation, I can’t stress how cinematic this game feels. I suppose the used Russian condoms though were a bit much…

For those of you who love the aural aspects of a game, you’ll adore Sinking Island. It’s exactly what I would want from a dramatic game grounded in reality. You could take just the audio bits of the game and have a wonderful radio drama.

Sound Rating: Unparalleled

4. Control and Gameplay

Although Sinking Island is an Adventure game, and it has the same basic trapping of pointing and clicking your mouse for all activities, the game is dramatically different from nearly every other adventure game I have ever played.

For one, there aren’t a lot of brain teasers. The only one I can think of off the top of my head involves a book case and a secret door at the very end of the game. There’s also not very much related to the standard of collecting weird items and use them in strange ways to advance the plot or get by some challenge. Instead this game involves collecting clues, recording conversations with the suspects, dusting for fingerprints/footprints and generally doing straight up detective work. The only real item combinations come from things like collecting the aforementioned fingerprints and them comparing them to ones you found on a rifle or Walter Jones’ wheelchair and seeing who is a match. This still keeps Sinking Island within the usual trappings of an Adventure game, but manages to make it feel fresh and new.

Another really neat thing about the game is that the entire case is summed up as a giant puzzle under “progression.” Each piece of the puzzle can be earned by solving the overarching question connected to that piece of the puzzle. You answer the question by collecting information and clues and them putting them together in a rebus like manner. It’s a lot of fun and it definitely still challenges your brain, but again in a way VERY different from your run of the mill Adventure game.

Controls are exceptionally solid, as is standard for this genre. You move the cursor to where you want Jack to move and then click it. Click it twice to make him run. When the cursor turns into a magnifying glass, click on it to examine things. When it turns into a speech bubble, click it to talk to people. It’s very simple, but a lot of fun.

One of the really neat things about Sinking Island is that there are two ways to play, and both involve an internal clock that only the game can see and keeps track of. The first way to play is Adventure Mode. This is your standard game, but at times your character will get hungry, or calls from his wife, or need to sleep. The kicker is “Race Against Time” mode. Like in Adventure Mode, jack needs to solve the murder of Walter Jones in three days, but with Race Against Time you really need to solve it within three game days or it ends…rather abruptly. I love this, and it is something Adventure games have rarely ever done. In fact the last time I can remember it being done was with D in which the game took place in two real time hours and you had to beat it within that time span or die a terrible terrible death. With D however you only had the timed mode and that was it. With Sinking Island you can play in either format and have a pretty good time. Both modes have some different twists and dialogue so the game is great to play in Adventure Mode first to get a feel for the game and then you can try race Against Time to see how good you really are.

Aside from the occasional graphical slowdown I mention in a previous section, this is an exceptionally solid game, managing to turn the entire genre on its head and still be amazing.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled

5. Replayability

With an exceptional storyline and two very different ways to play the game, Sinking Island offers you far more replay value then other games in this genre. The game also doesn’t proceed in an exceptionally linear fashion like most point and click games. There are some pieces of information that can only be uncovered on specific days of the game, but you can go through each day in any order you want, as the entire hotel and island are open to you. It’s a very refreshing change of pace from a lot of these games, and will make sure that you can come back to the game months or even weeks later and it won’t feel stale.

Replayability Rating: Enjoyable

6. Balance

Sinking Island can be a difficult game at times, but that’s because you need to wrap your head around the very different style of gameplay. Instead of having a tiny amount of items to use in weird and unusual ways, you’ll have at one point 100 items, dialogue pieces, fingerprints, show prints, and the like to have to shuffle through to find the right combination of pieces to unlock the puzzle piece. It’s a really cool bit, but I can definitely see it becoming a source of confusion for people who are used to the more generic point n’ click title. Thankfully, all the combinations are quite logical and once you get into the right frame of mind, you’ll find putting the rebuses together comes pretty naturally.

I will say that Race Against Time is a lot harder then Adventure Mode, and that it really makes you work for your win. You’ll probably have to play it a few times before you can solve the case if you haven’t played it in Adventure Mode first. Especially if you don’t memorize the fastest ways around the island. Still, it’s that level of challenge that will appeal to the ardent Adventure gamer.

Either way, if you’re looking for a fun challenge, Sinking Island can certainly provide it.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

Sinking Island is just one of the thousands of Adventure games out there. It’s one of hundred from the mystery sub-genre. However, it manages to add a lot of new things to the genre, such as how you progress through the game and solve the mystery. It also brings back a mode I’m only seen in one other Adventure game before with the Race Against Time option.

Although the story has a lot of familiar pulp trappings, it’s still very well done and deserves to be listed amongst the best mystery games ever made, if not THE best. It’s that level of quality, mixed in with its innovation that helps make Sinking Island stand out a bit from the other games in this genre.

Originality Rating: Above Average

8. Addictiveness

I was really sucked into this game. The only other games that hit me like this were The Lost Crown and Endless Ocean. I just wanted to keep playing. Stupid need for food and sleep and other basic human requirements to live. A game I never intended to play just wormed its way into my top five for the year. Pretty impressive.

I’m at the point where I’m planning to inflict this on my staff because they tend to be less…enthusiastic about indie titles, but damn it, this thing is so good I want to make sure it at least earns a nomination or two at the end of the year. Seriously people in terms of pure storytelling, this is the game to beat

Addictiveness Rating: Unparalleled

9. Appeal Factor

And here we see the only real flaw with the game. It’s an indie title. It’s pretty much a one shot play through for the average gamer. You have to use your brain instead of your hand-eye coordination. It’s a thinking game with a lot of walking and detective work instead of killing demons or shooting things from a first person perspective. It’s only for the PC. These things shut down Sinking Island for a lot of gamers. Factor in the fact Encore is doing a pretty bad job of getting this to stores (Even Amazon is expecting its shipment in September!) and you have the perfect formula for failure.

However, smart gamers will go to Microids’ website and download the game (Without tax. Vive le France!) and get it that way. If you can live with a more cerebral game, you’ll find Sinking Island to be one of the best written and most enjoyable Adventure games you’ve ever played, if not one of the best games period. It’s smart, beautiful and the mood the game sets is unlike anything I’ve played before.

Most gamers will sadly pass Sinking Island by, as I almost did, but like me, if you DO give it a try, you’ll probably adore the damn thing.

Appeal Factor: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

One thing that really impressed me was that Microids allows you to download games from their site multiple times in case you get a new computer or want to burn it to a disc. I love the level of trust these guys give their audience unlike certain stateside PC publishers that put software on their games that are supposed to protect their property but actually do severe damage to your system.

Although there are no extras or bonus items for this title, you are given a solid game that will last you a dozen hours or so. I really appreciate the extra mode thrown in as an attempt to give the game a sense of Replayability, which is something very few, if any, Adventure games offer. This really showed me White Birds dedication to not only the genre, but its fans. Awesome job and it truly deserves to be rewarded.

Miscellaneous Factor: Good

The Scores
Story: Unparalleled
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Unparalleled
Control and Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Enjoyable
Balance: Good
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

The Sinking Island is easily one of the best games I’ve played this year, and it is neck and neck between ISI and The Lost Crown for not only the best Adventure Game, but also the best story in gaming for 2008. There nothing this game does wrong, and so much that it does better then the big “A” name titles put out by the larger publishers. It’s beautiful, well-written, stylish, boasts a great cast of actors, and is easily worth your $29.99.

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