Into the Gloom (PC) review
"...And with strange aeons even death may die."
Into the Gloom opens up with underwhelming presentation. You stand in an empty operating room, surrounded by boxy, pixelated, ashen visuals and a palpable sense of loneliness. Red stands out the most admist the grays, blacks and whites present, splashed intermittently on fixtures and sometimes forming vague messages on walls. A downbeat tune drones on while you venture forth into the hallway, noting a short draw distance and a drabness that's somehow overbearing.
Some might even call this presentation "gloomy." Go figure...
In most cases, a setup like this would earn my contempt. The combination of dated graphics and a minimalist color palette usually leaves something to be desired, resulting in a completely soulless experience that would've been more lively with some color. Here, however, the lack of color is all by design and perfectly appropriate. You realize that once you explore the corridors of the initial stage and feel a heaviness wash over you. The game's visual simplicity lends itself to that constant melancholy. The experience doesn't always try its hardest to frighten you, but it always carries an unsettling, eerie vibe. That's how Gloom works its magic, by dragging you down so it can ready you for the hell that's to come...
The aforementioned short draw distance creates the impression that something hides behind all the haze, waiting to do something to you. Kill you? Maybe not. You suspect this isn't the case since the storyline heavily implies you aren't technically alive. So perhaps something worse will befall you if you falter...
And that's where this game hits you the hardest. Most horror titles scare you with monstrous character models, maniacal killers and ghostly phenomena, promising a slow, painful death at worst. Gloom has something nastier prepared for you; a worse fate in store. You catch glimpses of it now and then, read about it in notes scattered throughout the realm, witness it yourself when you fail... You catch hints of prolonged--perhaps eternal--torment or torture, a permanent existence as nothing but a burnt out husk of your former life, or even total nonexistence brought on when your very being is devoured.
Of course, this adventure finds other ways to scare you besides the crushing implications that your soul is on the line. Everywhere you go, you find people hanging from ceilings, adding to the dread. I won't spoil anything, but there are reasons for this and they're quite nasty. As you advance, you also discover you aren't alone. Other humans remain trapped in this half-reality, stalked by horrible, predatory entities. At one point, you attempt to exit through a parking garage, open a plain door and the music waxes high tension. A grim reaper-ish figure approaches you, and you know just by the look of him that one touch from this sucker will send you into one of those previously discussed fates.
Though this demonic figure appears at certain parts of the campaign, he's polite enough to let you finish all of the puzzles that litter the grounds. Yeah, when you're not running and checking every door to see if it opens, a la Silent Hill (and most of them are permanently jammed, just like in that game), then you're searching for event items. Just about every stage features a locked door or some kind of mechanism that thwarts your progress, and only an object found lying nearby will appease it. Some areas, such as a sinister forest about halfway through the proceedings, require you to search thoroughly for multiple clues and goods. If, like me, you end up missing an item somewhere, you'll end up bouncing back and forth between two or three different locations before snagging it.
As always, I'm of two minds regarding inventory puzzles here. On one hand, Gloom's are not organic and feel tacked on. For instance, one of the puzzles in the hospital sends you to hunt for a tile, which you place on the front of a safe. You then have to complete a sliding puzzle to open the box, nabbing a key as a reward. Why would something like this appear in a hospital? On the other hand, this game would be awfully tiresome without challenges like these. Think Dear Esther, where all you do is walk and listen to prattle. Inventory puzzles are a horror-adventure mainstay for a reason, so even when they don't mesh well with their environment, they're still better than nothing at all. It would just help if they were more contextualized, like the ones found in Penumbra.
Thankfully, this journey's end mixes things up a bit by providing timed challenges. Hey, quit groaning. They make contextual sense and are quite doable. By this point in the campaign, you meet antagonistic forces that fear light. The thing is those life-saving rays are few in number, and sometimes quite fleeting. One segment near the conclusion drops you in a back alley and leaves you to your devices. From there, you need to figure out how to get to a particular safe house before night falls and you become the main course for a whole swarm of hungry phantoms. This gauntlet includes figuring out how to disarm an electric fence, searching for a key and puzzling your way into a fortified structure. With each passing second, you can feel yourself becoming more frantic until you wonder if the intense anticipation won't kill you before your foes do. It's really just a clever way to drum up fear, and it certainly accomplishes that mission.
There's a lot more I'd love to chat about, but those things are best left unsaid so potential players can experience it on their own. As with any horror story, this one somewhat touches on social issues such as depression and suicide, covering them quite effectively without hitting you over the head with its message. Ultimately, Into the Gloom mostly succeeds through minimalism, creating an experience that's both viscerally creepy and psychologically haunting. Its usage of appropriately antiquated visuals, unnerving music and existential terror has earned it a special spot in my spooky heart.
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (October 25, 2020)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
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