Gloomwood, a first-person stealth game with a killer retro style that just hit Steam Early Access, is garnering its share of praise. Being in pre-release, it’s not quite finished yet, and does have some limitations. But if you want to get a peek at what looks to be a great tribute to classic Thief, with some Bloodborne zest on the side, you might not want to wait.
Gloomwood is a stabby, shooty, stealth romp from publisher New Blood which started off as a demo in 2020. This isn’t the developers’ first retro-style rodeo. If you’re familiar with Dusk, then you’ve seen their work. The Early Access introduction to Gloomwood promises a wonderfully refined stealth experience with clear hints of the immersive sim genre, tasking you with navigating a hostile environment and dealing with the emergent consequences of your actions.
The singular focus on stealth is what’s making the game click so well for me right now. There aren’t any unwanted mechanics or feature bloat to distract you from classic sneaking. The guns, about which more in a bit, don’t yet feel like they spoil the core stealth gameplay. Shadows, lines of sight, and sounds are yours to manipulate, used to guide you out of harm’s way or to spring quick assassinations on the wheezing, grumbling enemies, whose eyes beam out like green, yellow, red traffic lights.
The spooky Victorian aesthetics weave nicely into stealth mechanics and cues; creepy music that emanates from the phonographs you save at is both alluring and helpful for finding those checkpoints. The enemies, though, are sometimes a little hard to predict, and dole out tough yet fair punishments for failing at stealth. Foes’ verbal cues also help predict their movements as you carefully weave through shadows to evade or eliminate them.
As in any good immersive sim, you can memorise ways of approaching a scenario, make a plan, and execute on it with relative reliability. But there’s always the chance that something unexpected will happen. Maybe the enemy doesn’t see you at the moment you wanted them to get a peek. Perhaps you threw the glass bottle too soon, too late, or too far away. Now you just got spotted and two of them are headed your way. One enemy is carrying a rifle that’ll kill you quick, and the other is wielding an ax. Within moments you’re dead, brought back to the last time you manually saved to try it again — maybe a bit more carefully this time. It is a stealth experience after all.
This is the magic stealth loop that I’m blissfully enjoying. Sure, the enemies can be tough if you don’t exercise enough caution, but I find myself getting frustrated with my own poor planning rather than at the game being unfair. It’s all about taking in the scene, spotting where you’d be seen or heard most directly, and surmising how you can sneak through unscathed. It’s very rare that you’ll fail for reasons that don’t make sense; either you pushed too far out of the shadows, forgot to silently walk across a metal floor, or fumbled your attempt to attack. Gloomwood is a reminder that the stealth genre really just boils down to the thrill of trying not to be seen while pushing forward into dangerous territory.
But it isn’t just about avoiding notice; you need to be lethal, and quick, too. Gloomwood sits on a delicate knife’s edge, forcing you to stay hidden, but also asking you to push forward and strike when necessary. It’s essential to deeply internalize your movement options: Shift will slow your roll and quiet your footsteps. Holstering your weapon will boost your speed. You can also crouch. (God, I wish this supported analogue input; gamepad support is coming later.) While I sometimes feel like reading the relative safety level of the game’s shadows is a little too hard, I’ve still been able to settle into a nice groove, darting between shadows and notching some kills. And it never fails to feel satisfying when I either clear a room of monsters without anyone noticing, or am able to slip by undetected.
So the guns. I’ve only had limited time with them so far, but they seem to help mix up the sense of vulnerability you often feel in stealth games. Enemies can take you down quickly, so it was a welcome change to come upon a revolver that let me dispose of the evil dog creatures with speed and accuracy. But you have to keep track of your ammo manually, and reloading is slow, so it’s not like picking up a firearm turns you into a one-person army. But it is a nice change of pace, a palate cleanser that lets me prepare for the next series of rooms that’ll require more stealth and caution.
Unfortunately, New Blood hasn’t given an estimate for when Gloomwood might emerge from Early Access. (Getting it now will save you 10 bucks.) What’s playable is proof enough that there’s a really good game here, but damn do I just want to soak hours into a final version now.