Gloomwood came alive for me when I got outside. This is immersive-sim-ish territory, everything tilted towards horror and stealth. Navigating the lovingly rendered PS1 era visuals, which do help a great deal to make ordinary objects singular and creepy, I awake at the bottom of a pit with nothing but a mysterious ally, taunting me through a nearby grate before offering me a magic ring. The ring allows me to tell when I'm hidden in shadow, and once it's on my hand and the grate has been opened, I start to realise how useful it's going to be.
My ally is nowhere to be seen. Instead I'm in small squirrely rooms, keeping out of the path of patrolling guards, lurking in the dark, moving from one safe spot to the next. I need to get out, which might mean finding the objects needed to call a kind of grain elevator, and may mean busting my swordstick out of a nearby lockup. Gloomwood's linear but roomy: like I say, immersive-sim territory. I always know where I want to go, but my path there has a bit of leeway to it.
Combat I quickly discover, even with the swordstick, is a bad idea. Take guards on and they'll slice your health away and slow you down. So much better to crouch, go slowly, considering the surfaces you're moving across, using the leaning buttons to check around blind corners, using patience, sweet patience, to learn the patrol routes and then go for the one-hit backstab.
I liked all this when I was in these early stages, which are basically just an evocative tutorial. But then after a while I found myself outside. Gloomwood is sort of grim Victoriana, so I emerged from the brick chambers of a down-market fishery and onto a sort of sodden wharf. In the distance was a lighthouse, which is always money in the bank with me, and between me and the lighthouse...
Three or four patrolling baddies. And I suddenly realised that I wasn't weak at all, but powerful. I had the shadows here, and the one-hit kill thingy. I was at my leisure.
This is the kind of freedom that a game can only give you when it deals, paradoxically, in real rigour. It's the freedom that's earned by understanding the systems, making the most of them, and hopefully thinking of something nobody's ever done before.
Not sure I'm up to that, but I did at least start to learn the way Gloomwood thinks over the course of my first hour or so with it. I learned how it likes to play its little puzzles, with a locked safe and - seemingly - no note to the combination nearby. I learned how it can make a set-piece from a chain, a broken wall, and a guard with a key in their back pocket.
I learned that, while the darkness is your friend here, Gloomwood's not against laying it on really thick to really unsettle you. Perhaps my favourite moment in what I've played so far is just a staircase that gradually gets darker and darker the higher you climb, and the more over-extended you feel.
The best thing about Gloomwood? I would say this is your inventory, which is Tetris-style, of course, and stored in a natty little mechanical trunk that spins and flips and has a lovely clockwork sense of itself. But actually, it's the fact that this whole game is only just starting its early access journey. So much to see and do! And I've only just made it outside.
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