Grim Dawn Preview

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Crate Entertainment
Release Date:2016-02-25
  • Action,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Those of you who enjoy action-RPGs may have heard of a little game by the now-defunct studio Iron Lore Entertainment called Titan Quest. Published by THQ in 2007, Titan Quest came at an interesting time - a dry spell between the prior king of action-RPGs, Diablo II, and the current cornucopia that we have today with the likes of Torchlight II, Path of Exile and Diablo III.

At the time, Titan Quest received a mostly positive reception, but it found perhaps more acceptance beyond its initial release as word spread of "that game that does Diablo better than Diablo" - at least, according to some. Titan Quest aged rather well and is currently available for next to nothing, but after its expansion pack Immortal Throne, Iron Lore closed its doors. Those who wished for a Titan Quest sequel, it seems, would be stuck holding their breath.

However, several Iron Lore veterans reformed sometime around 2009 as Crate Entertainment, and have been dutifully working away on their "spiritual follow-up" to Titan Quest. Backed up by a successful Kickstarter campaign and upgraded technology that powered their original game, Grim Dawn is both a departure from and a retread of the same ideas found in Titan Quest six years ago. Recently, I got the chance to spend an extended time with the game's closed beta (covering the first chapter), and with no strings attached, I'm able to report how the game is progressing after nearly four years in development.

A War-Torn World

It's tradition to set action-RPGs in worlds which are on the brink of destruction, and Grim Dawn's land of Cairn is no exception. Civilization has been all but wiped out by the war between two factions far more powerful than humanity, the Aetherials and Chthonians. With one intent on using humans as weapons and the other bent on simply cleansing them from existence, it's fair to say that Grim Dawn is one of the bleaker games I've played recently.  The theme of the game isn't necessarily fighting back to turn the tide, but to simply continue surviving in the destroyed world.

Perhaps it's appropriate that the game's first town is an old, ruined prison at a crossroads called Devil's Crossing. You enter into that world as an anomaly - possessed for the ugly purposes of the Aetherials, a normally fatal process, you have been left with your life for unexplained reasons, but of course, you've also got amnesia to go along with the headache. Rather than see you hanged (the usual punishment fate of the possessed), the captain of the survivors at Devil's Crossing recruits you into his service, as you've got "nothing to lose and a lot to gain" in his words. From there, you'll help find and rescue other lost survivors, push deep into enemy territory and take the fight to just about everything standing in your way.

Built on the Titan Quest engine, Grim Dawn, even in its current alpha state, is a beautiful and highly detailed game. Though it's set in a post-apocalyptic Victorian-esque setting, that doesn't mean that Crate Entertainment have ignored things like art style or color palette. Most of the locations available in the alpha include underground caverns, villages, swamps, and plains, but despite being relatively generic in theme, Grim Dawn's extremely detailed texture work and vibrant lighting help the world stand out.

The creatures you fight run the gamut from predictable, like shambling zombies and skeletons, to more interesting and unconventional, including gigantic mosquitoes and floating beholders. None of it is especially creative or original, but there is very good creature variety and all of them animate fluidly and with personality. The spell effects, likewise, are colorful and easy to see, without being over the top.

If there are some complaints right now to be made about the visuals, it's mostly in that all the grit in the world can sometimes make it hard to differentiate interactive elements of the environment from static ones. You'll likely miss a lot of containers, doors you can smash down, and so on until you've spent several hours with the game, and sometimes even enemies can get lost in the backgrounds. In screenshots and videos the game looks great, but while actually playing it I find myself wishing that the characters and interactive objects stood out more from the backgrounds - some extra shine or highlighting would go a long way. There's also a full day/night cycle that looks great, but without any gameplay effect, I often found the nights to be unnecessarily dark.

The soundtrack, meanwhile, is also excellent. Haunting and atmospheric, but featuring more modern instrumentation than games like Titan Quest and Diablo, it is able to convey the feeling of a defeated, destroyed world, but one where hope has not completely faded. Composer Steve Pardo isn't a well-known name like Jeremy Soule or Matt Uelmen, but he clearly has some talent for this style of music. Grim Dawn's sound effects work is competent, with powerful impact sound effects and pleasant environment ambiance. Being a smaller production, there is a distinct lack of voice acting, and I admit it would be nice to have the more important characters voiced, or even simple Baldur's Gate-esque "hails" when talking to NPCs around town, but it's hardly a necessary feature.
Prepping for Battle

Grim Dawn is, in the vein of other similar action-RPGs, a hack-and-slash focused RPG with an extremely heavy emphasis on fast, challenging combat, character development, and finding loot. If you've played any previous game like this, you'll know exactly what to expect, but as always with these games, it's the subtleties and nuances in the gameplay mechanics that make them stand out from one another.

Grim Dawn features a much more open character development system than most games of its ilk. Like Titan Quest before it, you start as a simple "nobody" who's able to specialize in one of five (three available in the alpha) character classes instead of picking your class on character creation. The ones I got to try out were the Soldier, Demolitionist, and Occultist, which fit into very obvious archetypes of melee fighter, ranged fighter and wizard. However, these character classes aren't necessarily fundamentally different - there's a lot of overlap in the skills available, and you can just as easily make a ranged Soldier as you can a melee Demolitionist, if you so choose. With the ability to multi-class as you gain in level, there are a lot of build options available to you compared to the more rigid character systems in similar games, though there's the inevitable downside that the classes don't feel as unique as they could otherwise.

There are three primary attributes in Grim Dawn - Cunning, Physique and Spirit. Cunning boosts your damage and accuracy, Physique lets you wear heavier equipment and absorb more damage, and Spirit gives you more energy to spend on skills and abilities. Though you will want to focus on one of these attributes depending on your character build, all of the attributes are important to all of the character classes, to the point where it's very possible to over-specialize.  You'll only get one attribute point per level up, but spending it will raise your attribute score significantly; it's a bit unconventional, but there's nothing wrong with it either.

The skill tree in Grim Dawn takes on a format very similar to Titan Quest. You gain three skill points with each level-up, and these can be spent either on upgrading your base class, or on abilities. Upgrading your class level opens up new abilities and upgrades for those abilities, and raises your base attributes; abilities, of course, are active or passive enhancements you can unleash in combat. While playing, I found it was very important to balance my desire for new abilities with my desire to make my existing ones stronger - those three points sound like a lot until you realize that it's a pretty big investment to reach the top of your class' skill tree, or to completely max out a given ability.

The other half of Grim Dawn's character building is in its equipment. Like Diablo and Titan Quest, it follows the now-standard normal/magical/rare/unique item distribution, with items of greater power being harder to come across. The game uses a prefix and suffix system to assign qualities to its items; these are generally a good deal more varied than the ones in Titan Quest, which is nice to see. Items can further be upgraded using crafting materials. Similar to gems in Diablo II, these upgrades can be combined together to achieve more powerful effects, and can be applied (and later removed) from your equipment. The upgrades range from relatively basic effects, such as fire damage or extra health, to more exotic ones, such as damage reflection.  The Victorian theme to the game means you'll be wearing leather coats and wielding rapiers, cleavers and flintlock pistols instead of the usual medieval fantasy gear, which is a nice touch.

The loot distribution in Grim Dawn, as it stands now, is a lot better than Titan Quest. In Titan Quest, I always found that enemies were veritable pinatas, practically bleeding treasure as you tore them apart, but in Grim Dawn drop rates from enemies are a bit more reasonable. While playing, I found maybe two or three unique items across several characters, and rares were generally hard to come by. Unfortunately, Grim Dawn has the same problem many of these games do, which is that there's tons of loot to find, but you'll never use 99% of it, apparently solely existing so you can go back to town and sell it - it's my preference to have less loot but have the stuff you do find be more valuable. Considering the "grim" nature of the game world I also think it's probably more appropriate for usable equipment to not be so easy to come by.

Fighting for Survival

The actual combat is where you'll be spending the bulk of your time with Grim Dawn, and I'm pleased to say that it's executed extremely well. On the surface, it's not that much different from most games of its type, but there are a lot of little unique tweaks about it that mean it requires a different approach from other games.  There's a skill ceiling to it that doesn't exist in the likes of Diablo III or Torchlight.
To start, character movement, while fast, has a degree of momentum attached to it. You'll take some time to turn, to run up to full speed, and to stop moving. This time can be measured in split-seconds, but it really does matter when you're in the heat of battle and means that you can't run around like a headless chicken and expect to get away with it. The same applies to the use of many abilities - many of them have a half-second of wind-up time, meaning you'll have to make a conscious decision to plant your feet and use that ability, possibly putting yourself in harm's way.

The other big difference in Grim Dawn comes in its health system. Taking a page from more modern titles, it features regenerating health - except unlike most games with these systems, it works very well in Grim Dawn. The health regeneration speed is slow enough that you won't be able to simply run away for a few seconds and heal up to full, but it's quick enough to not be irritating when there is downtime. Potions are available to restore health and energy, but they're not as widely available as you might expect and have long cooldowns attached, making them very situational.

There's another point to consider about Grim Dawn's combat, and that's that it has some physics simulation in the projectiles you fire. This can be both a blessing and a curse. It's possible to fire off a poison bolt and see it ricochet off of a doorframe and hit an enemy it would have otherwise missed - but the collision detection isn't predictable, which means that it's very common to fire off a ranged attack or spell and have it bounce off the ground in front of an enemy, even if you're standing at point-blank range. It's a great idea, but it still requires some tweaking to get right.

Enemy variety in Grim Dawn is a big strength. Each enemy type seems to have some unique abilities or qualities to it that make fighting it different. Some will stay still and fire slow-moving projectiles. Others will fly about quickly and fire lasers at you. Some will shuffle towards you in melee. Yet more will rally weaker enemies around them, stun you or slow you, leech your health, or summon minions to fight, or fire poisonous waves, or curse an area on the ground. Sure, this is nothing that gamers didn't see over a decade ago in Diablo II - but you can expect to see all of this in the first few hours of gameplay, which is promising for the late game if the variety can be kept up, as even early on that variety meant combat didn't get repetitive or boring.

This also leads into another key point: Grim Dawn is hard. On its normal default difficulty, the first few levels are no big challenge, but once you hit character level 8 or so, the enemies will really begin to bulk up and you'll find yourself being brought to the brink of death very frequently. Unlike Diablo and Torchlight, Grim Dawn's combat leans more towards hit-and-run tactics, as even a beefy Soldier will still fall in combat if he or she takes more than a few direct hits. This is refreshing to see, and it's nice that a game like this can actually challenge you from the beginning, unlike most in the genre that seem to require one or two play-throughs and unlocking "the real hard mode" to get the most out of.

Closing Thoughts

I've had Grim Dawn on my watch list for quite some time, and after playing the closed beta, it's clear Crate Entertainment have built a very polished, entertaining game that for action-RPG fans will likely be worth the wait. While in its alpha state there are a number of outstanding issues (namely some environment collision bugs, balance problems and performance hitches), the game is still very stable, plays smoothly and is very polished for an indie production.

There are some looming questions, however. Story in the alpha is very sparse and based on the limited selection of gameplay, it's hard to get a feel for the overarching plot, characters and so on. Right now, what's included is very functional, but also very limited, and I hope it will be fleshed out more as time goes on.  The levels, though fixed in their layout rather than random, do feature special events to run across each time you play, but these were quite limited when I was running through the alpha - something I hope is improved to make replaying the game more interesting. There are also some loose ends, including a faction reputation system, whose functions are not especially clear right now. Who knows - perhaps there will even be some choice & consequence in how the story plays out, if what a few of the quests demonstrate carries through.

Either way, Grim Dawn, though certainly not the most creative and original action-RPG ever, is definitely doing just enough differently to carve out a niche for itself. I'll be the first to express my weariness at yet another hack-and-slash RPG, but Grim Dawn does the genre just about as well as it can be done, and with some twists that make it interesting even for veterans.  With no set release date, I'm looking forward to seeing how the game evolves as the developers collect feedback and expand on what's already established.