Gloomwood Early Access review: The City gates open at last

New Blood Interactive
New Blood Interactive /

Stealth horror game Gloomwood has technically been cooking in Steam Early Access for the better part of a year, but so far developers Dillon Rogers and David Szymanski have been content with drawing out the appetizer course. With the titular city’s Market District opening in a major update that dropped on July 24, it seems that the game is finally moving to the main dish.

In Gloomwood, players step into the noisy shoes and don the fashionable gloves of the Doctor, a man whose medical credentials seem confined to knowledge of injecting glowing green medicine into himself and injecting shiny sharp steel into others. The Victorian city of Gloomwood is desperately in need of a medical professional: the hunched, spindly huntsmen who kidnap the Doctor at the onset of the game are all afflicted by a hacking cough that would scream “plague” if it didn’t render their voices raspy and rumbling.

With a little help from a mysterious stranger, the Doctor escapes from his bindings and is equipped with a ring that tells him how badly he’s failing at being stealthy (by reacting to light and sound) as well as a sword for giving surprise acupuncture treatments to unsuspecting guards.

After a brief, guided tutorial explaining the basics of stealth and combat, players are free to explore the environment as they wish. Gloomwood is an immersive sim, recalling turn-of-the-century classics like Deus Ex and Thief that present themselves as open-ended sandboxes littered with secrets to uncover, tools to experiment with and boxes to stack.

Gloomwood visually recalls these games as well. Its low-poly aesthetic is suitably retro without devolving into muddy inscrutability, retaining the charm of games from the early 2000s while bringing in modern gameplay sensibilities.

Even in the opening fishery level, Gloomwood offers an impressive number of options for dealing with the sickly huntsmen holding the Doctor captive. A multitude of passages and shortcuts allow players to sneak around guards through vents and on scaffolds, while cunningly-placed explosive barrels and body dump locations make combat a tactical puzzle.

As a veteran of other immersive sims, I am impressed with how thoughtful Gloomwood’s level design is. Navigation is intuitive even without a built-in map: rooftop shortcuts, window infiltration points and hidden escape routes are all easy enough to spot to keep moving around from becoming frustrating while remaining camouflaged enough to make players feel clever when they do find a clever means of avoiding a guard patrol or circumventing an obstacle.

Another key element of the game’s immersive design is the high level of physical interaction players have with the environment. Stacking boxes creates platforms for getting to higher ground, dropping boxes from higher ground can make guards go splat, bottles can be used as distractions and bullets can be taken from enemy guns. Different surfaces make different sounds: jumping onto metal flooring creates a clanging sound sure to draw attention from guards, but making the same jump onto a wooden floor (or the fleshy cushion of a nearby corpse, yuck) makes less sound.

The game’s UI, or more accurately, lack of a UI, helps sell the simulation as well. The Doctor’s inventory is manually organized in a briefcase with limited space, recalling Resident Evil 4 and its recent remake. The Doctor can acquire a revolver and shotgun whose ammo is manually checked by holding the reload button. Saving can normally only be done at special phonographs, though this option can be toggled off to include quicksaving as well.

Gloomwood isn’t afraid of making players afraid. The spindly, shuffling huntsmen are equal parts silly and sinister, voiced by the excellent Gianni Matragrano. Later on, mutant dogs stalk seaside caves, picking up on the Doctor’s scent and hunting him in the dark. One particularly terrifying encounter locks the Doctor in a clifftop tavern with a massive, hulking creature nigh-impervious to sword strikes and gunfire.

All of this takes place outside the city. For the past 11 months, players have only been allowed to sneak and shoot their way across the rural outskirts of Gloomwood – with the new update, players are finally let into the city proper. This is where the game truly begins.

Upon entering, the Doctor is immediately faced with labyrinthine streets and towering buildings. Armed with only vague directions and whatever supplies they’ve managed to pick up so far, players soon learn what Gloomwood’s opening areas have been preparing them for. The game’s verticality increases tremendously inside the city itself. Multi-layered thoroughfares and keenly stacked boxes open up new options for navigation as well as ambushes by enemies.

Difficulty-wise, Gloomwood swings rapidly, leaving me unsure of where to peg it. Initially, a lack of ammunition and supplies makes stealth the preferred method for the Doctor to deal with enemies, but towards the middle of the current gameplay course, ammo and health pickups become plentiful. However, after spending some time in the new Market District, I found my ammo supplies almost totally depleted. One glaring issue with difficulty is a somewhat inconsistent methodology for enemy detection. Several times I appeared in bright lights and enemies did not see me thanks to a generous vision cone. Sound, too, feels like it should propagate more strongly: enemies just up the road feel content with continuing their raspy chats instead of investigating gunfire and screams from just a few dozen feet away. I’ve been playing the game on the normal, Half-Moon difficulty, perhaps explaining some of my observations, but I think detection patterns could perhaps use a touch-up, especially on the sound front.

The Market District previews an immersive AI system that sorts enemies into competing factions, meaning occasionally players are able to see huntsmen squaring off against other enemies, creating the opportunity to set up infighting and make the Doctor’s job easier. Right now only two different factions are present in the game but an additional one, the town constabulary, is hinted at in the update.

In the new update, players are finally given a home base in the form of The Emerald Eye, a shop where the Doctor can store items, purchase new gear from a friendly, if eccentric merchant and plan their movements through the city.  The shop is also fully immersive, having players physically drag the riches they’ve collected to the counter for sale, a nifty if minor addition.

Unfortunately, the Market District isn’t as expansive as it initially seemed, with many of the buildings serving only cosmetic purposes. The update introduced a main plotline and gave the Doctor a goal, but still prevented him from progressing too far. I enjoyed the introduction of the new area and the terrifying new enemy type, but my explorations were frustratingly-brief. Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that my main complaint with Gloomwood is that I want more.