It's not often that I'm so immediately into a game that I follow its development as closely as possible, but that's the effect Gloomwood (opens in new tab)'s demo had on me when it appeared on Steam in 2020. Good immersive sims only come around once every few years so I take what I can get, but that brief vertical slice convinced me that New Blood Interactive has something special here: a neo-victorian stealth game with the vibes of Bloodborne and the backstabs, shadow hopping, and constant vulnerability of Thief.
Now released in early access, I'm glad to say Gloomwood is shaping up to be great. New Blood has really nailed the basics—its opening levels are creepy, expansive spaces with multiple solutions and looming guards that are just the right amount of dumb. I love the lethality of my pointy cane sword, the click of the revolver as I check its ammo, and the satisfaction of stepping right past an unsuspecting goon in a pitch-black shadow.
What I don't love is that, right now, there's just not enough of it.
Gloomwood starts by throwing you in a nasty pit. You're an unnamed doctor (an "outsider," according to your captors) rotting away in a prison of fish guts. A shadowy figure quickly offers a means to escape and grab your gear, and that's essentially all the direction the game offers. From there context comes in scraps gathered from written notes and enemy dialogue.
There might have been some other interesting story bits shared by a blabbering guard, but if so, I was almost certainly distracted by tricky stealth encounters. Gloomwood is the rare stealth game that is happy to ding you for stepping too far into a patch of light or jogging when you should've been walking. It's a wake up call from modern stealth games like Dishonored, Watch Dogs, and Hitman that have trained me to feel basically invisible as long as I'm crouched. It's a good thing that Gloomwood includes its version of Thief's light meter—a ring always visible on the Doctor's hand that glows according to how noticeable you are.
The ring is a genius bit of immersive tech, but it's just one of Gloomwood's cool diegetic design choices. Possibly my favorite item in the game is the Doctor's briefcase which holds a grid-based inventory system. It sounds a bit silly to gush so hard about an inventory grid, but there's more to it than that.
Nearly every object that can be picked up lives in the briefcase as a 3D model, not a scribble of text on a list. To even see the inventory, the Doc needs enough space to set the case down in the world (either on the ground or a table). Time doesn't stop while fiddling in pockets, so something as simple as injecting a health syringe takes tactical consideration. Space is limited by grid size, but also by how good I am at inventory Tetris. At first I tried to keep a tidy case with a corner for throwables, a column for guns, and another for healing items, but within hours I'd let it turn to clutter (a fitting reflection of my actual desk). Even cooler is the ability to literally drag items out of the case and into the world as if the mouse is your hand.
I appreciate Gloomwood's commitment to the bit—the manual process of trashing objects one by one made me second guess later on if I really needed to carry another glass bottle when I already have three empty fish cans cluttering my case. Gloomwood shows just as little mercy when it comes to guns. The only way to see how much ammo's in the revolver is to hold R to open the chamber and count the bullets. This is cool as hell, except for the several times I wanted to check ammo only to realize that it's too dark to see the gun.
After my first playthrough I still have no idea what's going on in Gloomwood, but that made sense when I realized the three levels currently available are basically one big tutorial. Though the very first Fishery area is a perfect mix of multi-floor indoor spaces and outdoor exploration, the cave and cliffside areas that come after are noticeably sparser with fewer alternative routes. I hope later levels increase in complexity.
I was often distracted by the future during my Gloomwood playthrough. There's so much cool stuff going in the first few hours that the frequent reminders of its unfinished state grew to be annoying—the most overt, immersion-breaking example being a house in the third area that teases an encounter with a scary beast only to be greeted with a sealed door that says "under development."
The difficulty options are also too limited. There are normal and hard presets right now, but I really want to tailor the rules to my liking. The first thing I'd turn off is Gloomwood's strict checkpointing that only allows saving at specific safe rooms. Call me a normie, but no stealth game is complete without quick save/load keys.
Just as I was starting to get all the cool stuff like the shotgun and the multipurpose Undertaker pistol, it was already over. For now the town of Gloomwood visible in the distance is just decoration. Bummer!
I think this is a pacing problem that's unavoidable until there's more Gloomwood to play. It's good as-is, but unless you're truly desperate for an immersive sim fix, you're better off waiting until it's all out, which is exactly what I intend to do now. New Blood estimates that'll be "a year or two at least." Worth the wait, I reckon.