Gloomwood preview: (not a) Thief in the night

It’s influenced by Looking Glass Studios’ classic tale of Victorian-ish, sort-of steampunk-ish first-person sneaking and stabbing, there’s no doubt, but Gloomwood can’t just be defined by the Thief that came before it. In part, because just a few years ago, Thief received its third sequel, so it’s not like this is a long-dead series brought back by committed fans.

Instead, Gloomwood is its own thing: an FPS mixed with immersive stealth, survival horror elements, and a brooding, claustrophobic atmosphere that serves to make the Victorian-ish setting feel just as foreboding as you’d hope.

“As a marketing tool, comparing Gloomwood to its inspirations like Thief is an excellent way to grab attention,” says Dillon Rogers, lead developer on the game. “However, there’s a lot more DNA in Gloomwood than just Thief. It has a good deal of traditional survival horror elements like Resident Evil and Silent Hill.

“It has elements of other immersive sims like Arx Fatalis. We didn’t want to ‘make Thief again’ because that game already exists. We wanted to make something that feels like your first time playing a game like Thief, but unfolds as its own unique experience.”

Co-developer (and DUSK creator) David Szymanski concurs: “Forget an elevator pitch, we condensed Gloomwood’s pitch down to ‘Thief with guns’. Three words and someone already has an idea what to expect, and whether or not they’re interested in it. On the other hand, ‘Thief with guns’ is hardly a complete summation of what Gloomwood is.”

An attaché case-style inventory comes from Resident Evil 4, an introductory level influenced by Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, the manner in which players check their ammo riffing on similar systems in Condemned: Criminal Origins – and that’s just nods and references to other games. “There are plenty of things in Gloomwood that are just… Gloomwood,” Szymanski continues.

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With the explosion and blood and viscera everywhere, it’s fair to assume this is a scene of wanton carnage.

“They aren’t taken from anything else, they aren’t trying to reach the standards set by anything else, they’re just our own ideas. So if someone were to come into the game and be like, ‘I expect this to be exactly like Thief down to the last detail’, they’re going to be disappointed.”

On playing the early demo of Gloomwood that’s been available a few months now, it’s clear most people playing the game won’t be disappointed, regardless of what they expect. This is a retro-styled title showing hints of tight design, engaging mechanics of sneaking and shooting, and that aforementioned atmosphere.

How it holds up through extended play is, of course, the real test, but the early impressions are decidedly positive. This, in part, comes from the game’s time in development and its redesigns along the way – Rogers explains the idea came about while he was in college, but the original plan for a procedurally generated world was binned and the immersive sim approach emerged from his dissatisfaction with the original design.

That shift from procedural general to handcrafted levels is an important one. “As I developed the more core survival horror/immersive sim elements of the game,” Rogers says, “I came to an understanding that level design is one of the most important parts of both those genres. It dictates how players explore the world and how they choose which routes to take, encounters to approach, and resources to take. It also gives the world its own feeling of permanence – the player learns over time how the city is laid out and how best to traverse its alleyways and buildings. It was definitely the right way to go with this game.”

Sticking with procedural generation would have robbed Gloomwood of much of its control over the player’s encounters and interactions with the entities within the city. The robed, traffic-light-eyed sentries wandering the cobbled streets, ready to swarm and blast you with their shotguns should you stray into their line of sight without a plan to escape or dispatch them – they would certainly still carry a slight air of dread regardless of how levels were designed, but the more cultivated approach makes their positioning – their threat – all the more effective.

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gloomwood (3)

“Maybe you could argue that a systemic game could benefit from having an algorithm randomise the way elements interact,” says Szymanski. “There are certainly titles that run with this idea – Noita, Spelunky, City of Brass – but that’s not really the experience we’re going for with Gloomwood.

The point is to immerse you in the world and the journey you’re on, and for the emergent systems to aid in that, not to just give you a lot of emergent systems for their own sake. That’s not really something that would benefit from procedural generation.”

Plus, he adds, it’s actually probably less work to make levels by hand than it is to code a procedural generation algorithm that could make “natural, interesting, varied levels with good flow and an interesting journey”.

There’s a lot of work going into Gloomwood – it’s the sort of project driven by a clear passion, and with New Blood backing it (and Szymanski helping out), the signs and portents are definitely pointing in the right direction. Early Access looks like it will happen later in 2021, so there’s still a fair bit of time to polish everything off here – and, honestly, it’s going to be a difficult wait.

Genre: First-person sneaker
Format: PC
Developer: Dillon Rogers, David Szymanski
Publisher: New Blood Interactive
Social: @NewBlood

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