Gloomwood's Demo Backstabs My Expectations

Gloomwood is an interesting title that thrives upon subverting expectations.

Published: June 22, 2020 12:00 PM /

Previewed By:

Gloomwood title screen

The minute New Blood Interactive showed off the trailer for Gloomwood, I was immediately intrigued. Ever since the 2014 reboot of Thief crashed and burned spectacularly, there hasn't been another gothic stealth experience to fill in the void. In fact, New Blood gleefully leaned into the inevitable comparisons, selling itself as “ It's like the game Thief, but you also have a gun,” which was going to get attention regardless if it was a good idea or not.

That same day, Gloomwood did drop a free demo on Steam. I gave it a look, and while the direct comparisons to Looking Glass Studios' iconic franchise aren't as strong as one would assume, there is a solid foundation for a great experience tucked away.

The very first thing that stuck out to me is how well Gloomwood manages to imitate the look and feel of the original Thief game, at least in tone and style. There are no cutscenes or any dialogue save for one line delivered at the very end, it just opens with an interactive title sequence where you end up trapped in an oppressive Victorian city called Gloomwood and your objective is to get out. There are patrols of glowy-eyed guards roaming the streets armed with axes and rifles, and all you have to defend yourself with is a sword cane. Eventually, you do get a revolver and a rifle of your own, but ammo is scarce, and there are other monstrous things waiting in the dark. This means that your best bet for survival is stealth, keeping to the shadows, and being mindful of where you step, taking enemies by surprise with strikes from the dark.

The player hiding in a dark corner while a guard walks past
I'll be honest, I was holding my breath around this point

In fact, the entire stealth system and user-interface is practically a direct copy of Thief. There's an icon in the corner of the screen to show how visible you are. There's a robust sound system where enemies will more likely hear you if you're walking on metal grating as opposed to cobblestone. The entire game has some mild interactivity to it, you can throw glass bottles for distractions or move crates and barrels to break line of sight.

I was especially impressed with the minimalist approach to ammo management, you have to keep a mental ammo count for your revolver and rifle at all times, you can even check these by popping the barrel open mid-game, forcing you to make those crucial shots count. Even the environment design maintains a consistent sense of realistic geography, with signposts and background detail leading you along instead of a giant map with waypoint markers.

In terms of level design and enemy AI, Gloomwood reveals itself to be more in line with a gothic survival-horror experience. While there are optional areas in the demo, they mostly lead to health or collectible gold coins, there is only one critical path here and it is scripted. The guards' AI is just a little less sophisticated to be in a game all about infiltration. They will realistically search for a disturbance and multiple guards will rally together if you are spotted, which usually leads to instant death, but their patrol paths are predictable and easily exploited. Also, despite the game making it clear that the guards are attracted to sound, gunfire doesn't raise many alarms.

The player walking through dark ruins with just a lantern and a revolver at the ready
Thank goodness this lantern doesn't run on oil.

I was mildly disappointed until I got to the demo's second half in the sewers. It is here that Gloomwood showed that it was more than just a one-note experience simply imitating a PC classic, it actually had some creativity under the hood. All of the ammo I kept piling up suddenly was being used up against monsters in the dark, my only light source from a lantern as I trudged through tunnels looking for keys to get to a safe haven, worried that one errant slash from the shadows would be my end. It helped recontextualize the entire experience from imitation to homage.

Not many games can actually balance stealth and horror-action, but Gloomwood shows it has that potential in the hour and a half I spent with it. It takes a lot of hints from pioneers in the genre but adds just enough modern touches that make the entire experience stand out. Color me interested New Blood Interactive, now let's hope you stick the landing.

TechRaptor previewed Gloomwood on PC as part of the Steam Game Festival. The game is set to launch "SOON™".

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Ever since he was small, Tyler Chancey has had a deep, abiding love for video games and a tendency to think and overanalyze everything he enjoyed. This… More about Tyler

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