Gloomwood is fantastic… but I say that as someone who is part of the target audience – an immersive sim fan that first cut their teeth on System Shock 2 and Thief II. I bring up those two classic titles as Gloomwood was clearly developed for an audience that knows what they want and already has a good idea of what they’re likely to get. Hell, aside from some expected early access jank, my only concern for Gloomwood is how that unerring authenticity will be received by a broader audience.
The good doctor?
Gloomwood keeps the narrative elements vague and slowly doles out titbits to the player through rare NPC encounters and scattered notes.
You play as a “doctor” – presumably the medical kind – who wakes up in a bloody pit in a rundown fishery. A group of cultish hunters, who seem to be kidnapping people for ransom and/or murder, are about to deliver him to a “client” in the town square. A mysterious benefactor releases you from your cell, grants you a ring that functions as a handy light meter, and tells you to make for the lighthouse further up the coast.
This kicks off about 3-hours’ worth of classic immersive sim-ing as you discover the good doctor – presumably there to investigate a plague – is remarkably nimble and strong, lethal with a cane blade, and proficient with several firearms. It remains to be seen whether these abilities have any bearing on the narrative, or if I’m overthinking things, but they ensure the gameplay feels refined and as varied as the genre demands.
Party like it’s (mostly) 1999
At first glance, Gloomwood looks and plays just as you’d expect from a late ‘90s or early ‘00s first-person immersive sim, beholden to the limitations of early 3D game engines.
The gameplay is best described as a blend of Thief’s stealth, with System Shock 2’s combat, a dose of Lovecraftian weirdness, and some strong hints of Resident Evil 4 when it comes to the setting and atmosphere. The good news is that it’s not all about sneaking around at insufferably slow speeds, nor is the combat as stat-based and disconnected as in System Shock 2. Make no mistake, Gloomwood relies on nostalgic sensibilities and comforting familiarity, but a quick trip to GOG and a reinstall of several iconic games from Looking Glass Studios was enough to highlight the modernized gameplay elements and visual elements.
Stealth is still encouraged and relies on staying in the shadows, peeking around corners, and keeping quiet, however – even on the “Full Moon” difficulty currently available – you move fast enough while crouched to gain on patrolling enemies, only need to use the “sneak” modifier for loud surfaces, and coloured, directional “eye-glow” – think mini vision cones – gives you far more information about the AI state. Finding alternate paths is also easier as the protagonist can jump, mantle ledges, climb ropes, and swim with relative ease.
Direct combat is rarely a good idea and the emphasis is clearly on distracting foes or exploiting patrol paths to sneak up behind and unleash an insta-kill charged cane blade attack. For those that enjoy silently dispatching foes and hiding their corpses in the shadows, Gloomwood has you covered. If you alert a hunter, you can dance around a single melee enemy and drop them with your blade but, more often than not, you’ll draw nearby enemies or alert those with firearms.
Now talking of firearms – they’re powerful and easy to use but limited ammunition and inventory space keep things in check. You’re also slower with your weapons drawn, so it’s risky but preferable to keep them holstered while stealthing about. That said, the basic revolver is great in a pinch but takes two headshots to quickly down a basic hunter or dog. The shotgun drops anything at close range but you only find a handful of rounds. The hidden Undertaker pistol you can find in this build has a built-in silencer, but it works better as a utility tool for hitting distant switches or igniting barrels with enemies nearby.
The modern elements are a perfect fit
Based on the early access build, Gloomwood reigns in the truly sprawling levels of its progenitors for a more guided experience, while still offering multiple paths forward and plenty of secrets to find. It’s a necessary change given the shift to denser, interconnected locations and a survival-horror-inspired save system using phonographs in safe rooms (complete with soothing music).
Given you’ll fall to just a few blows or a single shogun blast, this ensures plenty of tension as you push outwards but, if you keep an eye out for side paths and an ear out for the music, you’ll often find intelligently placed shortcuts back to a central safe room. It’s a balanced design that still encourages cautious exploration and experimentation, but discourages save-scumming and recklessness.
I have no idea if it’s intentional, but the gothic atmosphere, level design, save system, inventory Tetris, and enemies that are still recognisably human all had me thinking of Resident Evil 4 as often as the classic immersive sims.
As with the gameplay, the presentation feels authentically classic but there are several enhancements. Environments, enemies, and the player’s arsenal look suitably chunky and sport low-resolution textures. Sprite-based props are kept to a minimum, the skybox intersects the horizon a little too obviously, and enemy animations – outside of a few set pieces – are kept simple. That said, Gloomwood can still look and feel incredibly atmospheric thanks to a modern-ish lighting system and dynamic shadows, though it is often oppressively dark.
Several locations were discrete levels with a loading screen transition, but I was still impressed by the sense of scale. The lighthouse looms above you for most of your journey up the coastline and, once you reach it, you can look back towards the fishery area and appreciate how far you’ve come.
Befitting the retro aesthetics, the audio package feels a little limited compared to modern titles. Your protagonist is silent, dialogue with NPCs is infrequent, and the rambling hunters account for most of the voice work. On the upside, the ominous soundtrack and haunting ambience are particularly effective at generating atmosphere and keeping you unsettled. You’ll hear creaking wood as you explore indoors, distant echoing snarls as you pass through dark caves by lamplight, and flinch at the mournful howls of distant wolves when outdoors.
Authentic to a fault?
Wrapping up, I think Gloomwood’s comforting familiarity might make or break the experience depending on your history with the genre. Between the classic gameplay loop and retro aesthetics, Gloomwood often had me feeling like I was back in my mom’s house, hunched over a clunky CRT monitor in the middle of the night, on another creepy Thief mission. As part of the target audience, the experience was nostalgic, mechanically satisfying, and left me hungry for more. That said, I can’t help but wonder if I would have appreciated the adherence to classic designs as much if I had recently replayed any of the Thief or System Shock games.
If, on the other hand, you’re someone who has grown tired of listening to people gush about classic immersive sims, or attempted to play them but couldn’t tolerate their dated designs and languid pacing, Gloomwood might be the one to try. Yes, it aims to replicate much of the core gameplay loop and visual style but it incorporates enough modern designs, gameplay tweaks, and visual features that make it infinitely more playable.