Gloomwood is my new favorite knocking
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Gloomwood is my new favorite knocking

Aug 22, 2023

By Adi Robertson, a senior tech and policy editor focused on VR, online platforms, and free expression. Adi has covered video games, biohacking, and more for The Verge since 2011.

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I have no idea how most people play stealth games, but for me, the genre is primarily about one thing: knocking guys out. What is my mission in any given Deus Ex or Metal Gear Solid level? Stopping a war? Saving the world? No. It is sneaking around a compound, making people not awake anymore, and stacking them in a little pile before I leave. By this admittedly specific standard, Gloomwood may be one of the best new stealth games around.

Gloomwood launched in early access on Steam last month, and I still haven’t finished it; I’ve spent a couple hours working through the first of (I think) three current areas. The project is heavily inspired by the Looking Glass tradition of games, particularly Thief — its developers, part of a collective called New Blood Interactive, registered the domain for an idea of where it’s coming from. But it’s simpler than those games, focusing less on powers and weapons than on navigating environments and enemies.

Gloomwood plays its secrets close to its vest, but basically, you’re a stranger in a hostile town full of maybe-human figures reminiscent of plague doctors. You’ve got a cane sword and a revolver to fill with hard-to-find bullets, as well as a suitcase where you can store bottles to throw and create distractions. You’re almost always outmatched in a straight fight, so your best option is typically to maneuver behind unaware enemies, stab them with your sword, and hide the bodies. On top of that, you can grab keys and money from them, pass through vents and other hidden paths to circumvent them, and overhear conversations that tell you a little more about the world.

If you’ve played Thief or Dishonored, a lot of the mechanics here should feel familiar

If you’ve played Thief or Dishonored, the stealth mechanics here should feel familiar. Your protagonist can avoid being seen by leaning around corners and sticking to the shadows, and you’ve got a ring with a gem that tells you how visible you are. People can hear you running across 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 alert or distract them, so a lot of the game involves 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 phonographs scattered through a level, which increases the feeling of risk, although they’re generously placed enough that you’re not losing huge chunks of progress if you die. Per the “guns” part of the game’s pitch, you can shoot enemies as a last resort, although it’s loud enough that you’ll alert everyone else nearby. Unlike many stealth games, the only weapons I’ve found are lethal ones, which encourage fighting through a failed sneak attack instead of getting precious about pacifism. The game also adds a bit of Dark Souls-style shortcut-unlocking, giving you the satisfaction of reaching a locked door’s tantalizing far side and opening it.

Gloomwood adds a sense of risk and desperation to its classic formula

Gloomwood isn’t finished yet and has its share of Early Access rough edges. The game’s spaces so far have a creepy and evocative design, but they’re still a bit short on atmosphere, not quite as weird and unique as their Y2K-era inspirations. The environmental 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 occasionally found myself missing the malleability of Thief’s levels, where you could do things like cover hard surfaces to make them quieter or douse torches to create your own patches of darkness. And while I enjoy the light narrative touch, I could use a few more goalposts and rewards to encourage fully exploring a level.

Despite that, Gloomwood is a satisfying series of spatial puzzles that scratches a very specific yet surprisingly difficult-to-satisfy itch. I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of it — and, maybe someday, even spending all those coins I’ve been stealing off the enemies.

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