First posted on 26 December 2008. Last updated on 07 September 2009.
Benoît Sokal's Sinking Island is a straightforward murder mystery game. The player assumes the role of Jack Norm, a detective sent to an isolated but majestic tower on a small tropical island. Jack's first "mandate" is to find out whether the death of the tower's owner, a powerful and beastly man named Walter Jones, has just been an accident or a possible murder. Naturally, Jack soon finds himself embroiled in a rather complex case involving many different suspects, mostly consisting of his disgruntled family members. To make matters worse, the island is quickly sinking into the sea, and Jack (along with the suspects) must find some way to escape the island before it collapses. All in all, this is not a bad setup, and many fans of Sokal's Syberia will likely look forward to playing this game. However, as it turns out, Sinking Island is rather a big disappointment, with mind numbing repetition, incoherent puzzles, and uneven translation. The best part of the game is its graphics, and even those are stymied by an inexplicable decision to omit lip syncing; instead, the characters simply flail their arms during their many long speeches. Despite some redeeming qualities, this is a game that can be passed on for better titles.
The bulk of the gameplay is spent interviewing the 10 suspects Jack has identified early on in his investigation. Perhaps this is where the problem begins for Sinking Island—with so many suspects, the characters are easily confused. Although the game keeps track of all the clues (including spoken "declarations" and the location of each suspect), it takes time for Jack to trek all over the island and up and down the tower in search of clues. The characters are not particularly interesting either. Jack is the quintessential "brass tacks" investigator with the personality of a manila folder. Most of the suspects are common stereotypes—the offensively stereotyped "native" Colio and his empty-headed daughter, the slimy attorney Nolent, the compulsive gambler Billy, and the slutty Christina. Other characters are less easy to distinguish, but this is simply because they are given less role in the plot and fewer opportunities for development. Somewhat more interesting is the architect, a nervous sort who is in love with the native girl. However, none of these characters seem worth getting to know, and Jack's colorless personality does not make interacting with them the least bit interesting.
What makes matters much worse is the sheer repetition of the dialog. Jack often has to ask the same sets of questions to each suspect, repeating (often verbatim) the same questions (which can last for minutes) over and over again. There is no way to skip Jack's question without also skipping the reply, so conscientious players will likely have to suffer through the whole ordeal. Fortunately, the important replies are automatically stored in Jack's case file, so the game can continue even if the player skips all the dialog. However, that also means skipping the bulk of the investigation that is the center point of the gameplay. There are also a few object based puzzles sprinkled about the game, though these are either hopelessly banal (find a screwdriver to unbolt a desk) or incoherent (click on books in Jones' library to spell a name, even though there are no hints or clues in the game to suggest this).
The interface is often quite unhelpful as well; the mouse pointer may indicate that an action can be performed, but no clues or suggestions about what that action may be. In a particular scene, players must first use a piece of paper on a bottle of flax oil, compare that paper with a pair of gloves, and then take the bottle of flax oil. In another scene, players must use a pencil on a gun to remove it from a corpse; the screwdriver or any other object will not work. In what is perhaps the most illogical puzzle, players must use an Alan wrench to open a paper shredder. Jack seldom if ever gives any indication about what needs to be done, but he will repeat the same long line of tiresome dialog every time the player tries something and fails.
Perhaps the worst part of the game, though, is the "Mandate System" which requires the player to assemble pieces of evidence to shed light on a certain question. Unfortunately, the game seems quite arbitrary about which items count as relevant evidence, and the huge number of possibilities and lack of helpful feedback prevent a trial-and-error approach. Needless to say, only the most patient (and perhaps observant) players will get through these baffling segments. The game also has a few tedious pixel hunts, so it is important to scan each area very thoroughly with the mouse.
The production values of the game are uneven. While the graphics are lush and often wonderfully animated (especially the palm trees blowing in the wind), the absence of lip-syncing makes the frequent interview segments hard to endure. The translation is also spotty; though good for the most part, some lines are obviously bungled. The funniest line is when Jack announces he is ready for food by saying "I need to put something in my mouth" with an odd emphasis on the word "something". Other lines are simply incoherent, but fortunately it is generally clear enough what the script must have intended. The voice acting is fairly good, though again there are few opportunities for dramatic acting. The vast majority of the dialog consists of hesitant and dull responses to Jack's excruciatingly repetitive interview questions.
Overall, I see little reason to recommend Sinking Island. It is dull and repetitive, and the puzzles are either too easy or hopelessly arbitrary. The bulk of the game is spent interviewing suspects, none of whom are really very interesting. The game's only redeeming qualities are its polished graphics, but players will soon tire of watching Jack slowly clamber up and down stairs and across the hotel's spacious floors. Although Sokal is credited as the creator of this game, Sinking Island is definitely no Syberia.