Choice-based narratives are a welcome addition to the gaming scene, with the branches of possibilities allowing for increased replayability and encouraging players to explore alternatives that may not be picked under normal circumstances. Just like how choices matter in real life, the decisions made in-game come with consequences, and the challenge is how one deals with past actions and the resulting aftermath. It’s all rather serious business, but Gloom and Doom – despite its name – has shown that the formula still holds up well with a moderate serving of existential angst, heaps of humour, and a whole lot of sincerity.
Hailing from Singapore, this visual novel is the darling project of Drew Pan, sole designer at Neo Teogoel Games and the wearer of many hats, from first-time game developer to character designer. The game, which borrows inspiration from familiar storytelling tropes, features an unorthodox premise involving a weary, gloomy demon-killing wraith called…well, Gloom, an ordinary woman who struggles to find purpose in life, and an eclectic cast of other characters, including a skateboarding angel.
No, that’s not a figure of speech, and yes, we mean a literal angel – wings and all – who execute ollies and flips on a skateboard. But Gloom and Doom isn’t just a story about angels, demons, ghouls, and an impending apocalypse; instead, it establishes these elements as a stage to discuss relatable issues that permeate the real world, such as depression, loneliness, suicide ideation, and a loss of direction in life.
Unlike usual practice, the game presents a dual-protagonist approach, with each going about their day-to-day routine before their lives intersect. You start out as Gloom, who slays waves after waves of demons under an angel’s orders in hopes to ascend to heaven. Hundreds of years of killing, however, has taken a toll on him, and he slowly begins to lose faith in his actions. As he struggles to break free of his rut, a breakthrough is soon presented to him: all he needs to do is hunt down and slay his final target, and the angels will let him back into paradise.
On the other end of the story is Wynona, an ordinary student who works part-time at a movie rental shop. Feeling disconnected from the world she’s living in, she often drifts through life and seeks solace in video games and music (big mood right there). Nightmares find her at night, and she bears witness to a burning world overrun by bloodthirsty and rampant demons. Eventually, she learns of her fate as the harbinger of doomsday, and attempts to kill herself to avoid falling into the pitfalls of destiny. Every try is rendered unsuccessful due to her inability to die, so she seeks Gloom out to have him deal the fatal blow.
And thus begins an unlikely friendship between the duo. While the two characters appear to be different on the surface, they are actually rather similar beneath the veneer – both are lonely, undergo an existential crisis on a regular basis, and share the common circumstance of being chained to responsibilities that they don’t want to bear or have no control over. Oh, let’s not forget about the self-deprecating attitude and their portrayals as an old individual: one in physical age, and the other in spirit.
Their dynamics are about as well-developed as it gets. With playtime hovering around the three- or four-hour mark, there’s a limit to the amount of room available for character building, but that doesn’t deter Pan from fleshing out the titular pair. Interactions between the pair are often peppered with dry wit and good-natured ribbing, while occasionally-solemn moments are flavoured with melancholic angst and wistful reminiscence that pave the way for mutual trust, respect, and understanding. Jokes also form a huge part of their found camaraderie, most of which involves poking fun at popular culture.
That, coupled with the switching viewpoint mechanic, makes it easy to elicit sympathy for their respective plights. Having the ability to alternate between Gloom and Wynona offers players a look into their inner psyche and thought process, which lets them understand and learn more about the personal struggles of each character. Sometimes, the focus shifts to a third character or an outsider figure, and it’s through such instances that we get glimpses of Gloom’s pre-wraith life, his fall from grace, and his system of beliefs. Sure, the jump in narratives can be abrupt, but they help to humanise him, and are handy in dismantling first impressions and unearthing his bleeding heart.
It takes a certain sort of nuance to establish an emotional connection within such a short time frame, and while the game’s effort to do so is commendable (and largely successful), there’s room for further refinement as well. Even as the levity balances out the gloom and doom (pun intended) brought on by serious discussions and bouts of self-reflection, the attempts at humour can come across as a little excessive. At times, certain parts from the script have slightly cheesy lines as well, but they can easily be skipped by clicking to the next dialogue should the player wish.
One thing to note about Gloom and Doom is its ease of access. Designed to be extremely beginner-friendly, the game uses a basic set of commands: space or left click to proceed to the next part of the conversation, the down mouse scroll button to go back, and the Escape key to pull up the menu. There, the player can choose to load an existing file, or create a new save.
Gameplay is very forgiving, too – the game doesn’t have a countdown system for the decision-making process, so users will be able to properly mull over their choices without being swayed by time pressure. While veteran gamers may find this too easy, the lack of a time feature only serves to reinforce the message that choices bring consequences, and are thus worth serious consideration.
Indeed, choices do matter here. There are seven different endings in the world of Gloom and Doom, and not all of them can be unlocked by simply loading the save files from the final stages of the game. Even before the grand stage, players will find themselves solving one dilemma after another, from menial, everyday encounters like helping or chasing a customer away to tougher ones, such as killing or sparing your targets. As with all choice-based games, these decisions will affect the relationship between the involved parties, and trigger different paths and cutscenes.
This underlying sense of complexity is also carried over to the game narrative. As mentioned earlier, Gloom and Doom is a melting pot of popular tropes, but Pan makes it work by introducing fresh twists and subverting storytelling norms (even the title is a play on ‘doom and gloom’). The concept of angels, demons, and destiny has been explored from the days of Dante’s Divine Comedy to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, so it’s always nice to pit it against the conventional ideas of morality. That, in turn, sets up the stage for the game to delicately explore the conflict between duty and personal desire, free will and fate, and societal expectations and identity.
If it isn’t obvious by now (and it should totally be), both Gloom and Wynonya are not exactly in the healthiest of mental states. In a similar vein to games like Senua’s Sacrifice, which puts the issue of mental illness and well-being in the spotlight, the locally-bred game touches upon feelings like anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Suffice to say, Pan’s sincerity in reinforcing their relevance and significance to the real world has very evidently come through in his thoughtful portrayals and writing of the characters.
Gloom and Doom isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Apart from a generous serving of wry and tongue-in-cheek humour, there are also moments where it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Slightly more than mid-way into the story, the main duo decides to hinge their victory on a trivia quiz showdown with the baddies in place of a normal confrontation, where they have to answer game- and movie-related questions. It does feel a little out of place with the overall game structure, but the surprise addition was rather enjoyable, so it gets a free pass.
Being a visual novel, the game doesn’t really have songs and music in the traditional sense. What it has is a series of character soundtracks that pop up when a particular figure makes an entrance, and each one has been aptly composed to reflect their respective personalities and quirks. The art, meanwhile, can be a little jarring at first, especially for those unused to the harsh, striking style that stems from old-school nostalgia. It certainly takes a while to get used to, and it’s understandable if it still doesn’t end up as your cup of tea – everyone has a different art preference, after all – but there’s no denying its role in creating the whole retro, back-in-time aesthetic that performs best with cutscenes.
The only significant gripe is its short playtime. The title’s quirky cast of characters offers a lot of potential in character development and in-game lore, so it’s a pity that players aren’t able to learn more about them and the world they are set in. It’s an understandable compromise, though, considering how that might be quite the Herculean task for a one-man show. Another less major flaw would be its UI design, which could do with a little sprucing up and a better-looking font.
Gloom and Doom is not for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine. While its slower pace, lack of action, and text-heavy approach may not appeal to the masses, fans of nostalgia or the visual novel genre, open-minded individuals, and newcomers are likely to find joy in the game’s layered, choice-matters narrative, well-developed characters, and the fine blend of angst and humour.
Gloom and Doom is available on Steam for S$18.50.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A respectable first-time outing from Neo Tegoel Games, Gloom and Doom is proof that short games can also deliver in the areas of story, characterisation, and most importantly, enjoyment.
Gameplay - 7.5/10
Story - 8/10
Presentation - 6.5/10
Value - 8/10