I love stabbing people, and Gloomwood is basically a stabbing people simulator. You press the left mouse button to pull your sword back, hold it until the blade’s sharp tip gleams, and then release to instantly kill the monstrous guard in front of you. There are a few different kinds of guards prowling the dark hills and shadowy buildings in this new immersive sim from Dillon Rogers (who worked on the retro shooter hit Dusk with his Gloomwood collaborator David Szymanski), but whether your opponent totes a shotgun or an ax, they die the same, collapsing to the ground instantly when your weapon pierces their burgundy robes. Sneaking is the foundation of the imsim, and Gloomwood gives you a deeply satisfying reward at the end of a sneak well snuck.
Stealth has rarely felt this involved either, and you would need to go back to the Thief games, from which Gloomwood draws obvious influence, to see it done with this degree of mechanical complexity. As the mysterious protagonist called The Outsider, you begin the game in a cell at the bottom of a pit in a fortress-like fishery. If you ever hope to escape, you must learn to recognize which of your actions will alert the ever-vigilant guards. That means learning that your watchful opponents will spot your character in full light from a distance, in half-light from up close, and in no light, not at all. It means recognizing that your footsteps are louder on metal than they are on wood, and louder on wood than they are on dirt. It means learning (probably the hard way) that, just because you don’t see any guards nearby doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. Smashing a window will rarely go unnoticed, even if the nearest enemy is a few floors up behind closed doors.
As a result, Gloomwood can feel a little punishing at times. One section has The Outsider traveling through a kennel inside a cave where vicious dogs attack. When I first attempted it on low health, I was frustrated that the dogs were able to take multiple bullets before going down and that they moved more erratically than the guards. But, when I traveled back to the previous areas (which is possible because the whole game — at least the portion available in Early Access — exists in one contiguous world) I found a health pickup I had previously overlooked, shot the green liquid into my veins, and beat the putrid pups on my next try.
Gloomwood is a brilliant exercise in small scale level design against the backdrop of a larger world. The last level contained in the Early Access build has you sneaking alongside cliffs and through a forest, and it feels bigger and more expansive than anything else in the game. What most sticks out to me from that level is an intricately designed shack where a few coins were hidden behind a doorway covered with just enough planks to block your progress. Two guards patrolled on the balcony below the house and one stomped around in a bedroom above the entrance. A locked stairway meant that the guard above was inaccessible.
Unless, that is, you dropped down to the balcony, snuck slowly to avoid alerting the lower guards, and climbed onto a railing above which the floorboards had eroded. I climbed through, snuck up the stairs, killed the guard and took his key. “But, wait,” I realized, “I still don’t know how to get behind that partially obstructed door.” But then, I noticed that part of the ceiling in the guard's room was missing. So I climbed up, balanced on the wall, and made my way over to the solid portion of the roof. From there, I dropped down and collected the coins. Once I had reached the room I discovered something I hadn’t been able to see from the other side of the door: stairs leading to a secret cellar. This was an a-ha moment for me, but Gloomwood is so big, and yet so tight, that anyone else who plays will likely find theirs somewhere else.
That doesn’t mean the game is perfect. In fact, one of the most intriguing locations in the portion of the game contained in Early Access (the first three-ish areas) isn’t yet available. You can hear guards discuss a violent beast prowling within a large house, but once you access the manor’s basement, you’ll run into a caution tape-like banner alerting you that this area is still in development. Similarly, In the first level, you can find explosive barrels in multiple locations. But, when I attempted to explode the barrel by placing it under a garage door and lowering the door onto the barrel, I was disheartened to see that, instead of causing a big, distracting explosion, the door just sort of jankily phased through it.
These kinds of physics-driven interactions might be the sort of thing that gets added as the game approaches 1.0. But, immersive sims are, famously, the genre that attempts to say yes to the player. The instances where Gloomwood doesn’t let you do something that the game’s logic dictates you should be able to do, are disappointing. Immersive sims and early access are slightly strange bedfellows for this reason. Not being able to access a portion of a level or not being able to pull off the cool stuff you dream up may be reason enough for some players to wait for the full release.
But, if you love immersive sims, you know that we don’t get nearly enough of them. And, as it stands, Gloomwood is already a great one. The question is, “Do you want to experience a great immersive sim now? Or wait and experience what could be an all time great immersive sim a year or two from now?” Yes, Gloomwood is that good. Unfortunately, it’s also that unfinished.