Salad Says: Let’s Review The Indie Game Gloom
I’ve grown wary of indie games that self-advertise as “Lovecraftian.” Too often they’re simply aiming to make a quick buck off a baked-in audience who’re satisfied by the mere sight of a tentacle or two (looking at you, Call of Cthulhu). Cosmic horror has been all but played out over the past few decades. Game after game tosses “otherworldly” and “eldritch” around, pasting exotic adjectives to otherwise bland monsters in the hope that audiences will gobble it up regardless. There are exceptions of course, and Gloom is one of them.
The games that successfully incorporate “Lovecraftian” themes and imagery often do so in a tongue-in-cheek manner, ala Darkest Dungeon. As much as some articles would have you believe that DD is morose and macabre, cute enemy names and comedic dialogue lets the player know the score. But Gloom never betrays the somber atmosphere that pervades traditional cosmic horror, and manages to dovetail mechanics with theme skillfully.
Die, Die Again, And Die Some More: The Gloom Gameplay Loop
Gloom plays like the lovechild of Limbo and The Binding of Isaac. Like many indie games these days, it’s rogue-like (I know, bear with me) and the deaths come hard and fast. While you’ll quickly learn the attack patterns of your enemies, certain combinations of foes make it quite difficult to avoid damage. My particular Achilles heel are those darn fish boomerangers in the third level. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there.
Speaking of levels, once you descend from the Common Dream, you enter the Unholy Parish. A temple to the bestial gods of dreamland, therein you fight masked cultists, beasts, and one of three stage bosses:
- Rage of Sataniel
- The Renegade
- Unholy Prophet
This isn’t a walkthrough, so I won’t spoil the rest of the bosses and stages, but I wanted to share this as it illustrates the level design throughout Gloom. You fight your way through various rooms, felling combos of enemies particular to the floor you’re on, then face a boss before you can progress to a deeper level. While somewhat basic, the enemies have enough variations to make each run thrilling and unique.
It’s often been compared to Dark Souls, as the combat is based on timed dodges, parries, and managing your stamina/health. Unfortunately, due to the RNGof the item drops, potions, and upgrades, Gloom is a little less dependent on your skill. Whole runs can be made by finding the right item or scoring a legendary weapon. Or, they can be ruined by a bad gambling machine or useless potion. In the end, Gloom plays a bit more like blackjack, where you can set up the odds to be more favorable, but you’re ultimately still at the mercy of lady luck.
I’d highly recommend visiting the Steam community page for guides on how to play the game. My approach has failed 50+ times thus far, and therefore I will spare you my thoughts on strategy. My only bit of advice is to mass those tokens, the merchant in the Common Dream has set me up for some pretty deep runs when I get lucky.
The combat can be addictive at best, and teeth grindingly frustrating at worst. Good runs feel awesome, and bad runs can seem like a bit of a time sink. Once you rack up enough damage or suffer from poor item drops, you’ll slowly start to realize that you have a short expiration date this time around and experience a strong urge to give up.
Furthermore, Gloom isn’t breaking any new ground. Enter the Gungeon has more interesting attack patterns and enemy styles. Binding of Isaac has better RNG item drops and pacing. Hyper Light Drifter has a more intricate narrative. However, what struck me about Gloom was not the vibrancy of its mechanics (though they are robust), but rather how they play an integral part in the game’s overall theme and narrative.
Enter The Gloomlands: Atmosphere And Narrative In Gloom
The title screen shows a black figure slouched upon a bed, IV drip astride — ostensibly our character. Once you begin play, you take the form of a caped shadow, whose past is mired in amnesia and is now trapped in a never-ending dream. The shades who surround you wallow in despair and insanity. They too have tried your quest, descending to the lower levels of the fray and dying, only to return to the Common Dream. They have given up, you have not… yet.
You carry a book with you, the Necronomicon, which you fill with snippets of memories that found items stir within you. Piece by piece, death by death, you begin to unravel the mystery of your past and your destiny — to face the First Dreamer, and defeat the minions of the evil gods who would thwart you. I shall delve no further, as the mystique is critical to the game flow, but I promise that the puzzle is worth solving.
Each setting is a grayscale dreamscape, filled with emphatic orchestral music. The overall design is very neo-retro, with bit-crunched sound effects and pixels galore. I hesitate to ascribe this to the theme in lieu of the trendiness of antiquated graphics, but it works nonetheless. The whole world bleeds and melds into itself, background and foes alike partake in the darkness. Like the ambiance of a bleak dream, everything here is blurry and cast long, morphic shadows.
What gets me is how well Gloom nails the genuine cosmic horror mood, despite veritably drowning in its tropes. You have such staples as:
- A Yellow “Monarch”
- Old, alien Gods
Yet none of these elements feel stale, and I attribute this to the mechanics supporting the narrative thrust. Many games have stories that seem “tacked-on” to the gameplay. But Gloom never makes this mistake- the two exist to support each other.
When you die to the same boss over and over again, you feel the desire to give up, the hopelessness of your journey. When you find an item and read its entry, you strain towards understanding the big picture, just as surely as your character strains for meaning.
The setting, the enemies, the narrative, they all come together to paint a portrait of a world lost in madness, with one person left willing to brace himself against the gathering dark. Will you find out what awaits you at the bottom of the fray? I know I will.