Gloomwood's grimy stealth playground deserves better than the agony of early accessPremature access
Gloomwood is, so far, a very good game, but it is also not much of a game - in the literal sense that it has launched into early access incomplete. There's currently just enough of it to play that it makes you feel both bereft and quite annoyed when it suddenly clangs its great iron doors shut in front of you. "Let me in!!" you scream, as you hammer on the silent portal. "I really like Thief! I get you! I want to throw more decapitated heads as lures!"
If you are one of those people who bases their gaming personality on liking the original Thief series, Gloomwood will have been on your radar for a while. It's a grimy, steampunk-ish stealth immersive sim with a deliberate low-poly vibe, and it picks up the abandoned Thief football to absolutely run with it. But, though the current EA build is but short, it feels like Gloomwood is aiming to punt that ball into outer space. There's so much more room to be playful and experiment than I expected, and it's so much fun that if you'd never played a stealth sim in your life I'd recommend Gloomwood. Except I wouldn't, because it feels like I'd be doing you a disservice to recommend it now, when the fun will be so quickly snatched away.
The main problem is that Gloomwood promises "an intricate, hand-crafted city" to explore, and right now you're not allowed in it. You can see it, you can go up to the gates, and at least two (2) people tell you to go there. But Gloomwood as is ends at the city gates. I did spend a lovely 5 or so hours playing around in the levels leading up to the city which, unless my guess wildly misses the mark, will operate as a very detailed and clever series of tutorials to teach you the game's principles before launching you into that city relatively unguided.
Gloomwood believes in show don't tell, which I greatly admire. You start in medias res, caged in a kind of circular offal pit in what turns out to be part of a fish processing facility. A mysterious stranger sets you free and gives you a ring, and ambles into the night. The ring is your most trusty friend in Gloomwood, as it lights up according to how visible you are, teaching you to hide in shadows or behind crates or bushes. But it also lights up if you're being too noisy; you might be perfectly cloaked in darkness but if you move, knock something over, or barge through traitorously rustling foliage at the wrong time, then you'll alert a nearby enemy. You are taught, too, that you can one-hit kill an unsuspecting enemy with a charged stab from behind. You make more noise on some surfaces (metal walkways, rock) than on others (dirt, wood), and that it's better to land on something soft if jumping from a height, be that fish guts or a dead body. You work with what you have.
I think the moment I had my first flash of "Here we, here we, here we fucking go!" anticipation at the future brilliance of Gloomwood was, having learned the principles of shanking lads in the back with my nifty cane sword in relative safety, I made it outside onto the dock. There was a lighthouse in the distance. I paused to admire the light. It swung round and illuminated my hiding spot. Yikers. Gloomwood did that all the way through: taught me something through play, and then set an exam to test if you were paying attention. Like telling me how to listen up against doors and then sometimes throwing a guard right outside one in case I didn't, or setting bear traps in the dark edges of a scrubby copse.
The levels outside the city don't need to take five hours. I'd say about half of that time was me failing and reloading my last save (which you can only do at gramaphones playing eerie, crackling music), and the other half was exploring to see how else you could do it. The starting area has at least three different routes to get out to the dock, for example, and there are multiple secrets for more daring players to uncover - extra keys, hidden treasure, shortcuts. A safe with the code secreted somewhere in the same room. Slightly inscrutable hand drawn maps. Guards - fully robed, masked, sort of puritanical-looking goons that constantly cough, sniff or mutter in a nasal growl - have conversations that hint at the wider story.
You can do things quietly, which is what I went for, but it's possible to go all guns blazing, although for my money it's harder. Dynamite barrels can be tactically exploded, for example, and both you and enemy guards can be set on fire. As well as your cane sword, there are all manner of guns and associated ammo to pick up, provided you can fit them in your inventory. This is a case, which you open and rummage through in real time, and can only access if you have the physical space in front of you to plonk it down and open it up. It's got a limited capacity, so Gloomwood is also bringing back good ol' inventory Tetris. Is ammo for the shotgun more important than a health syringe?
Honestly, probably not. You're quite squishy, even if your enemies are as well. But the joy was in finding ways to outsmart everyone, and the systems in the game give you more ways to do that than I expected. Once I snuck up on a pair of guards on a pontoon, stabbed one, swam around, mantled out and stabbed the other while he was looking for me. My favourite thing I did was something I never got to actually do. The game teaches you that animal enemies can be distracted with meat, and the easiest bits of flesh to come by are bits of people. I came to a boarded up tavern with two lads outside, and the sounds of a large monster within. So I carefully put a barrel of dynamite behind them, retreated to the shadows, shot it, and exploded them into tiny pieces. Then I got another barrel, arranged their arms, ribs and etc. around it, and prepared to open the door...
Which is when I noticed that I couldn't open the door, because that content isn't ready yet. I had been so excited to apply what I'd learned! Which is exactly why it's hard to recommend Gloomwood right now. It's a grubby delight of a game full of as many nail-biting clutch moments as masterful plans you can set up and execute. You can distract a guard by throwing a severed arm through a window just as easily as chucking a bottle into the corner, which is a wonderful thing to know about a game. But right now the fun stops just as you feel you're properly ready to get going. I don't know if I could recommend subjecting yourself to such cruelty.