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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: The Sinking Island

The Sinking Island (Game release date: 2008)
An interesting and lushly illustrated mystery plot crippled by boring, repetitive gameplay.

Walkthrough page Buy This Game

Highlights: Well-written plot, nice atmosphere, good artwork. Lowlights: Boring gameplay, time-wasting interface

This game was a real disappointment to me. I loved Sokal's 2002 game Syberia and was excited to see a new release from him, particularly one that appeared to be an art-deco-styled murder mystery. How could you go wrong with that, right?

The answer: Unskippable, slowly animated dialogue. About 40 hours worth of it. The mystery plot in Sinking Island is actually quite good, but the only way to solve it is to slowly walk from screen to screen, slowly engage ten NPC's in conversations punctuated by slow pointless gestures, and listen to them slowly narrate the story, one line at a time. Nothing in this game is interactive. There is only one real puzzle in the entire thing, and you don't even have to complete that one. Even if you figure something out there's nothing you can do about it; you just have to keep wandering around asking everyone the same things over and over until they run out of sentences to tell you and the plot advances. Every once in a while, your progress is interrupted by your character being teleported across the island and away from whoever you were interrogating into either the lunchroom, where you get to watch him slowly eat a sandwich, or his hotel room, where you get to hear him have a long boring conversation with his wife. Then you get to spend five minutes navigating him back to whoever he was talking to so they can finish exhausting their conversational tree.

The sad thing is, I don't even mind games that are 95% dialogue. I could have enjoyed puzzling out this mystery by interrogating the characters 50 times apiece, if only I could have skipped all the walking across dozens of empty screen to get from one to the next, listening to the same long pointless lines of dialogue every time I strike up a conversation, and being randomly jerked away to watch the same 2-minute video of a dude eating a hoagie. This was the most boring game I've played in years, and given that it's based on an actually interesting plot, that's a less forgiveable crime than the murder of the unscrupulous old tycoon was in the first place.

Style: The Sinking Island is a third-person puzzle-adventure game with a 3D point-and-click interface. You control a single character. The plot is an exploratory adventure and there are mystery and science fiction themes. You can play the game either with or without a timer. No manual dexterity is required. Combat and leveling are not elements.

Series: The Sinking Island is a stand-alone game.

Finding The Sinking Island: This game is still in print so you should have no problem finding it in your favorite software store. You can also buy it online.

Getting The Sinking Island to Work: The Sinking Island is a recent game and ought to be plug-and-play. I did not encounter any problems installing or running it on XP. It should even be compatible with Vista.

Hints For The Sinking Island: I do not have a page of Sinking Island hints available at this time. There is a good hints page at UHS which reveals only one hint at a time, so you won't accidentally learn the answers to future puzzles while scanning for the one you're stuck on.

Pitfalls In The Sinking Island: Subtitles are available, but they use light lettering that is extremely hard to read against some of the backgrounds, so this would be a tough game for those with hearing problems, bad speakers, or noisy children in the house. The timed version of the game is very irritating and I would not recommend it to anybody (I gave it a try for the sake of the game review, and there is no added suspense or threat of drowning or anything-- all that happens is Jack's boss periodically announces that if he doesn't solve one particular part of the game within a certain timeframe he will be fired. Artificial deadlines, in other words, which only serve to interrupt your investigations and make the game even more linear than it already is. If you ignore the boss' nagging for long enough, you get a text message informing you you have run out of time and telling you to reload a previous game, and that's all.)

Game Length: 40 hours, only about 2 of which are spent actually playing.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated T (for 13 years old and up) due to a small amount of blood, mild swearing, and some sexual themes. (Nothing sexual happens within the game itself, but the characters do discuss sexual harassment, adultery, and rape.)

Lora's The Sinking Island Review: (So-So)

Plot and Quests: The plot is generally compelling. Despite my intense boredom with the gameplay, I did want to learn who the murderer was, and what crimes the victim himself was guilty of.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: This is a very unchallenging game. All you can do is click on things to make your character announce his deductions, or click on people to listen to them talk.
Characters: You play a pre-assigned PC in The Sinking Island, a detective named Jack Norm. He has a non-annoying but very muted personality and you cannot customize or develop him at all. You don't even have the choice of conversational options to help you feel ownership of his personality. The NPC's are not as deep and fascinating as the ones in Syberia, but they are all well-written and well-acted, which makes the sheer amount of time you have to spend listening to them talk a lot less onerous.
Gameworld: The whole idea of an island sinking under the weight of a building is kind of silly and hard to suspend your disbelief for, but it does make sense on a metaphorical level, and certainly it makes a good setting for unraveling a mystery before its secrets are swallowed by the sea. The unusual architecture and design of objects like the dead man's wheelchair add to the strange feel of the island.
Gameplay: Wretchedly bad. The player has almost no input into anything; you click over and over until your PC and the NPC's have revealed everything and that's it. The half-star is for the ability to at least make your character compare two things and tell you if they appear the same or different (i.e. compare two fingerprints he has found.) That was the only direct action I think I took all game.
Interface: The point-and-click interface is serviceable, but movement is very slow, conversation is frustrating, the autonotes system is a pain to navigate, and you can't skip ANYTHING... not a line of dialogue you've heard before, not an animation of your conversational partner scratching his head before responding to you, not a cutscene of your character eating, not even interface instructions that you don't need because you skimmed the manual already during the lulls in the very first conversation.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): The graphics are excellent and the moody retro setting is a perfect environment for a murder mystery. Some of the movements the characters make are awkward-looking, though, and it's disconcerting that they flap their hands and grimace after every sentence yet still never move their mouths when they talk.

Lora's Recommendations: If you love graphic adventures and have developed a hardy tolerance for doing nothing but watching your character move around and listening to other characters talk, then the attractive art and interesting plot of this mystery game will reward you for your patience. If that sounds even slightly boring to you, give this game a pass.

If You Loved The Sinking Island: By all means play Syberia if you haven't yet. It's by the same game designer, is even more beautiful and intriguing than Sinking Island, and its only flaws are the long pauses and pointless phone conversations you've already proven yourself willing to accept-- only with less repetitiveness! You will probably also enjoy The Longest Journey, another well-plotted graphic adventure heavy on the conversational flowcharts, but featuring some interactivity and a few neat time-saving features like double-clicking to skip to a screen's exit. If you don't mind a darker, creepier theme, the horror adventure The Black Mirror is another conversation-based mystery which is slow-paced in places but is beautifully drawn and paints a compelling mood, including several moments of genuine suspense. You might also enjoy an adventure game based on a classic mystery novel, such as the Agatha Christie games or Nancy Drew games.

For a more detailed critique of the game involving spoilers, plot holes, and impacts Sinking Island could have on the adventure-game genre, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Enjoy the game!

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