I have no idea how most people play stealth games, but for me the genre is mostly about one thing: taking out guys. What is my mission in a given? Deus Ex or Metal Gear Solid level? Stop a war? Save the world? No. It’s sneaking around a compound, not waking people up and piling them up before I leave. Because of this specific standard, Gloomwood is arguably one of the best new stealth games out there.
Gloomwood Launched in early access on steam last month, and I’m still undecided; I spent a few hours working through the first of (I think) three current areas. The project is strongly inspired by the Looking Glass Tradition of games, in particular Thief – the developers, part of a collective called New Blood Interactive, registered the domain thiefwithguns.com to get an idea of where it came from. But it’s simpler than those games, where the emphasis is less on powers and weapons than navigating environments and enemies.
Gloomwood plays his secrets close to his vest, but basically you’re a stranger in a hostile city full of maybe-human figures reminiscent of plague doctors. You’ve got a cane sword and revolver to fill with hard-to-find bullets, as well as a briefcase to store bottles to throw and create distractions. You’re almost always outmatched in head-to-head combat, so your best option is usually to maneuver behind unconscious enemies, stab them with your sword, and hide the bodies. Plus, you can grab keys and cash from them, pass through vents and other hidden paths to get around them, and overhear conversations that tell you a little more about the world.
If you’ve played Thief or Dishonored, many of the mechanics here will look familiar
If you played Thief or dishonored, the stealth mechanics here should feel familiar. Your protagonist can avoid being seen by leaning into corners and staying in the shadows, and you have a ring with a gemstone that tells you how visible you are. People can hear you running over metal and other loud surfaces. Levels are full of climbable ropes and ledges, breakable windows, and other non-obvious traversal options. Enemies trudge around in predictable patterns unless you warn or distract them, so much of the game consists of finding a safe hiding place and waiting.
But there are a few tweaks that make the experience feel different. You can only save by traveling to gramophones scattered across a level, which increases the sense of risk, although they are placed generously enough that you don’t lose huge chunks of progress when you die. According to the “guns” portion of the game’s field, you can shoot at enemies as a last resort, although it’s loud enough to warn anyone nearby. Unlike many stealth games, the only weapons I’ve found are lethal weapons, which encourage fighting through a failed stealth attack instead of getting precious about pacifism. The game also adds a bit of dark souls-style shortcut release, giving you the satisfaction of reaching the tantalizing other side of a locked door and opening it.
Gloomwood adds a sense of risk and despair to its classic formula
Gloomwood is not ready yet and has its share of Early Access rough edges. The game’s spaces have an eerie and evocative design so far, but they’re still a little lacking in atmosphere, not quite as weird and unique as their Y2K-era inspirations. The ambient lighting doesn’t always seem consistent with your light gem’s signals, so you can stand in something that feels like a shadow but still be visible or vice versa. I noticed every now and then that I could see the manufacturability of from thieves levels, where you can do things like cover hard surfaces to make them quieter or put out torches to create your own dark spots. And while I enjoy the light, storytelling touch, I could use a few more goalposts and rewards to encourage full exploration of a level.
Despite, Gloomwood is a satisfying series of spatial puzzles that a terribly specific but surprisingly difficult to satisfy itching. I look forward to exploring the rest of it – and maybe one day even spending all those coins I stole from the enemies.