“The Gloom is everywhere” is one of the lines repeated by unoccupied guards throughout Thief. It would be easy to pick on this line because it’s repeated over and over during the game, or how easily guards revert to saying it after forgetting that there was a thief to worry about 30 seconds ago.
I could point out how “The Gloom” is about as unspecific a name for a plague as “The City” is as the name of the city the game takes place in (or “Thief” is for a new game in the Thief franchise for that matter). But that would be petty, and there’s a much more important truth to be drawn from the line “the Gloom is everwhere”.
This is because, in Eidos Montreal’s Thief, the gloom is everywhere. This is perhaps the most oppressive and grim video game I’ve ever had the misfortune to play. Level one takes place at a corpse disposal site, and it is necessary to move through it by hanging from the carcass conveyor belt with the cadavers. Level two takes place in a brothel. An early quest leads you through a pornographer’s lair. There’s a level in an asylum. Most every mission takes place at night, and most every location is grimy.
This is not to say that an exploration of an ugly fantasy should be inherently written off, but if a game sets out on such a dedicated mission to make its places and faces so uniformly wretched, there ought to be a reason for it. Games like Silent Hill and Condemned: Criminal Origins have developed remarkably unpleasant settings and then leveraged them to illustrate truths about the characters or human nature or even society as a whole. Thief, I’m afraid, does no such thing. It can barely keep the plot coherent (and at times doesn’t even do that) much less offer perspective on the world beyond the game.
It’s almost as though the creators felt that in order to make Thief work, everything else in the game had to be so filthy and awful that the protagonist Garett’s quiet, professional approach to theft wouldn’t make him seem like the bad guy. I mean, yes, he steals from people without regard for their security or wellbeing… but he has scruples! He prefers not to kill when he can help it and he isn’t big on grave robbing. Compared to the greedy, murderous, and two-faced characters he meets, he’s practically a saint.
As the setting and narrative worked to repulse me, nothing else stepped up to attract me. The stealth mechanics in Thief are functional but never rose beyond that. The levels are generally small and broken up by loading screens far too often. Though there are multiple valid approaches to most situations, it quickly become clear to me that I was always choosing between two or three level designer paved paths laid out in front of me. Player invention was neither required nor supported.
And the bugs! Look, I understand that games (and particularly PC games, which is the version I tested) are no longer static products and routinely become better or even entirely different software after release. I’m inclined to let a lot go when I play a game on PC before it’s available to the public and before graphics card drivers are out to specifically support it. But there is a limit.
In order to get this game to run at over 20 frames-per-second on my powerful machine, I had to set all graphics options to absolute minimum. Audio queues were repeatedly bugged (“The Gloom is everywhere” stuck with me because I heard it about 30 times back-to-back before I just had to kill the speaker to shut him up), and a lot of NPC animations got stuck on the environment as well.
Oh, and it crashed at one point eating my save file with it. So I got to adventure through the procession of the perished in the furnace again!
I actively disliked playing Thief during my time with the game. There was nothing I was interested to see, no plot thread I was eager to see through to resolution, no mechanical hook that reeled me in.
Food for thought:
1. Remember how that mostly fantastic Tomb Raider reboot didn’t meet Square Enix’s projections? I can’t wait to see what they expected from this. For what it’s worth, though, this is Eidos’ first big whiff under Square Enix management. They brought back Deus Ex and Tomb Raider in solid form, and even Hitman Absolution was surprisingly good. If you haven’t played it, Eidos’ most recent Hitman offers all the player-driven creative stealth this game doesn’t.
2. Even when a big AAA project doesn’t pan out, there’s usually some good to be found. In the case of Thief, it’s the art. The art that I found so unpleasant is impressively varied and skillfully made. Lighting, building architecture, textures and more all paint of cohesive picture of decay, the aesthetic is impressively realized in all facets of design. There’s also some good shadow tech in play and the swoop move feels like a first person version of Mega Man Zero’s profile lowering dash move. It’s clear that there’s talent on the development team yet, and I’ll be all ears when they announce their next projects.
3. There’s a surprising amount of alliteration available to describe a conveyor belt of dead bodies. I went with carcass conveyor belt and procession of the perished in the main body, but there were options. Choices I was particularly fond of include “expired entourage”, “reposed retinue”, and “cadaver convoy”.
4. Oh yeah, and good luck if you get lost. The in game map blows.