Legend of Grimrock Review

04 Apr 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Almost Human Games
Release Date:2012-04-11
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • First-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
We're barely into 2012, and already RPG fans have had quite a bit of good news. Path of Exile, The Age of Decadence, Mass Effect 3, Kingdoms of Amalur, The Banner Saga, Wasteland 2, and more games are either on shelves or on the horizon.  However, it's safe to say that such a list wouldn't be complete without Almost Human's Legend of Grimrock, the long-awaited spiritual follow-up to classic dungeon-crawling RPGs like Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master.  In addition to bringing back a style of gameplay that had all but left the world, Grimrock has been spruced up thanks to the improvements modern technology can provide.

While it's hard to live up to quite so much hype, Legend of Grimrock succeeds on its promise of old-school gaming about as well, fitting the mold pretty much to a T.  However, thanks to its technological advancements, it also manages to introduce a few new game elements that simply weren't possible back in the day. The end result is a game that plays very, very well, and while it might not have quite as much depth as those older games in some respects, it's got all the puzzle-solving, monster-slaying and secret-searching that fans fell in love with twenty years ago.

The Legend Begins

Like most games of its ilk, story is not exactly at the forefront of Grimrock's experience. Taking on the role of four prisoners (either pre-selected or fully customized), and accused of horrible crimes (the details are left to your imagination), you are thrown into the bowels of Mount Grimrock. As its name implies, it's a foul place replete with, well, grimness, darkness, and so forth. It seems the rulers of the land are compassionate, however: should you manage to reach the bottom of the mountain and make it out alive, your heroes will be granted an official pardon. This story does continue during the gameplay a little, in the form of mysterious dreams triggered when your party rests, notes left behind by a previous resident of the dungeon, and what can generously be called a "plot twist", but don't expect any character interaction to speak of.

Many, of course, would say that's for the best. Gameplay in Grimrock is, like its forefathers, relatively simple and straightforward - make your way in first-person through the grid-based dungeon levels, fighting off monsters and solving increasingly devious puzzles along the way. The game plays out fully in real-time, but still manages a turn-based "feel" due to cooldowns on spells and attacks, as well as the grid-style movement. Even the interface is a near carbon copy of Eye of the Beholder's, with right-clicking on weapons triggering attacks and left-clicking interacting with the environment.

Grimrock's combat is quite bare-bones, mostly consisting of dodging attacks while hacking away when you're able, but it's made more interesting by its enemy variety. The selection across the game is pretty good, with no palette swaps to speak of, and a fair range of different types, many of which have resistances and weaknesses to certain types of damage. There is remarkably little filler, with few to no respawning monsters to be found (except for where it’s necessary to complete a puzzle), and many of the encounters are very difficult, especially when fighting new enemies (which you'll see all the way to the end of the game). Due to the grid-based nature of the game, often you're your own worst enemy - getting trapped in a corner or falling down a pit can be far more deadly than any monster on its own, and the toughest combat encounters prey on this.

Where Legend of Grimrock deviates a little from its predecessors is in the potential its 3D game engine offers, mostly in its puzzles. While everything moves on a grid, there are a lot of timing-based puzzles, pattern memorization, manipulating other objects as they move in 3D space, and so forth. This is a refreshing improvement in my opinion, as it gets away from the "use X item with Y" or "press X switches in Y order" trial-and-error design (though you'll find some of those as well). It does, however, make combat a little easy sometimes, especially against single enemies - you can usually just move in circles and whack at them, always one step ahead.

In fact, puzzles are really at the forefront of Grimrock. Sure, character building, managing food, and fighting monsters are all there, but it's the puzzles that make Grimrock truly memorable and enjoyable. Some of them get extremely difficult too, both in executing them and in figuring out what to do, and they occasionally take place across multiple dungeon floors, use misdirection, or play with your expectations. There were more than a few times where I had to just shut the game off, wait a few hours and come back with my mind fresh. This is the best kind of hard, I think - the sort where the answer always comes at you just when you're about to give up in frustration, but always feels satisfyingly earned in the end.

Character System & Equipment

Between a choice of Human, Minotaur, Lizardman and Insectoid races, and Fighter, Rogue and Mage character classes, character creation or building doesn't have quite the depth of some other systems, but it's more than enough to sustain the gameplay. Characters don't raise attributes directly; rather, skills grant attribute bonuses at predefined levels, along with unique perks, so specializing won't leave you entirely crippled. There is a decent selection of skills and traits throughout, with 6 skills per class and 14 traits (2 are race-exclusive), but the traits themselves aren't quite as drastic as what you'd find in, say, Fallout.  Most of them boil down to elemental resistances, health boosts, and extra skill points rather than anything too game-changing.

The leveling process is a bit more interesting. Because all skill branches give compelling bonuses, and your skill point supply is fairly limited, you must either be a specialist or Jack-of-all-trades. While the high-level abilities found at the top of each skill tree are very compelling (such as attacks bypassing armor), they are very hard to reach without completely ignoring other trees, making the min-maxer a bit more vulnerable than in some other games. Mages, meanwhile, can only learn spells in trees they've invested in, so chances are you'll only have access to a handful of them over the course of the game. I had my Mage specialize in Fire Magic, but he was completely useless when coming across some Fire Elementals later on, for example.

Of course, it wouldn't be a dungeon crawler without equipment and other loot, and Grimrock mostly shines here. Like many classic games, there isn't any sort of item lottery. New weapons and armor, when you find them, are usually very substantial improvements, and often you'll find yourself with less-than-ideal equipment, especially if you try rushing ahead to lower levels of the dungeon, without necessarily feeling completely incapable either. There are a handful of unique items and set items, as well, like the Lurker outfit that's ideal for Rogues, but they are few and far between. However, the balance, as good as it is, could be a little better. I found only one necklace that was actually useful, for example, and there weren't nearly as many high-level axes and maces as there were swords. I had no trouble finishing the game with what I had, but I did feel just a little let down by specializing in certain weapon types.
The magic side of Grimrock is handled almost entirely through items. Early on, you'll gain access to a mortar & pestle, which can be used for creating potions (provided you have the proper reagents and empty flasks), and these become indispensable throughout the game, while also remaining quite balanced. Early on, health potions are rare but extremely valuable, but later in the game you'll need to use more of them to heal up, which in turn means your fighters will require more inventory space, and of course, you'll need more ingredients and flasks. As potions are a key to easy winning in many games, it's nice to see them retain their usefulness in Grimrock without being overpowered, and some of the game's most difficult (optional) battles I could only win by coming back after I'd gained a few levels - chugging potions certainly didn't save my party where they weren't already capable enough to win, in other words.

Spells, meanwhile, are learned by finding scrolls throughout the dungeons, which reveal specific rune combinations required to cast them. However, as spell formulas remain the same from game to game, and the only limit is your own knowledge and your character's skill level, there is some meta-gaming potential in being able to use powerful spells before they "should" be available. As Grimrock isn't a roguelike, this probably wasn't a big concern for the developers, but some players may not like being able to use prior knowledge to such effect.  The actual spell selection is fairly small, with only a few for each "school" of magic, but at least the ones that are there have some differences between them, like poison dealing damage over time and ice giving a chance to freeze enemies solid.

If there is one loss in not having the D&D license (or a system with a similar level of depth), it's that Grimrock doesn't really offer much in the way of non-combat or utility skills. There's no lockpicking or trap-finding to be found, and while the alchemy and spell systems are definitely capable within the confines of the game, there is a sense that more could have been done here. As it stands, all the character classes are basically just there to determine what types of attacks and equipment you want to use, and don't define your ability set (with the Rogue's backstabbing being anexception). The upside, at least, is that nothing is forcing you into using a straightforward party formation, but I would have preferred more skill choices that had a non-combat role, even if it was just more crafting-type stuff.

Presentation

Beyond all the gameplay details, the real "point" of Legend of Grimrock has been that it effectively adopts classic gameplay to modern technology, and in that respect, it is very successful. Artistically, Grimrock isn't anything particularly special - lots of grey stone walls, and fairly traditional enemy designs, from green slimes, to giant crabs, to ogres. These are all very high-fidelity, and the enemies have a lot of personality in how they animate, but due to the nature of the game, the scope of the art direction is pretty limited. Even so, what's there is very competent. Running on a custom-made game engine, Grimrock sports most modern bells and whistles (deferred lighting, real-time shadows and ambient occlusion, for instance), and soars by most other indie titles.

Audio in Grimrock is much more sparse, but in some ways more impressive and certainly immersive. The only music you'll ever hear is on the main title screen and when watching the credits and introduction - once you're in the game itself, there's nothing but the ominous subterranean rumble and distant, whistling of the dungeon to keep you company. It's a minimalist approach, but it also ensures that sound retains a very valuable role in gameplay. Being able to hear enemies in the darkness (often long before you see them) is integral to surviving, and there's a strong sense of growing, foreboding dread throughout the game. While Grimrock isn't exactly a scary game, it can get very, very tense, and I admit to more than once jumping in my seat when that tension was broken.

On the usability and customization side of things, Legend of Grimrock sports fairly robust options, with a host of graphics configuration settings, key bindings and even optional on-screen arrow keys for players who want to go mouse-only. The addition of an "old-school mode" that removes the automap feature is also going to delight some players, although personally I don't think I could stand to break out the graph paper. The game ran very smoothly on my few-year-old gaming system, and I didn't experience any crashes or glitches to speak of (and this was with a pre-release copy that was updated twice during my time with it). Thankfully, Grimrock is available from many different online stores: GOG.com comes DRM-free, Steam contains achievements and cloud saving support (this is the version I played), and buying from Almost Human's own web site will get you both a DRM-free version and a Steam key, so it might be the best choice of the three.

Conclusion

Legend of Grimrock, while going back twenty years to relive a game genre that has all but died out on the PC, is still a remarkably fun, engrossing and challenging game that manages to pick up all the best elements of its inspiration, while at the same time adding a few new twists, even if most of them are technical in nature. Providing about 15-20 hours of gameplay, the $15 USD asking price is a very, very fair sum considering both the amount of content and the quality of it. The potential for future dungeons to explore, both fan-made and official, will also hopefully provide a lot of extra replay value.

Moreover, and more importantly in my opinion, Legend of Grimrock proves without a shadow of a doubt that old-school game designs are more than capable and enjoyable in this day and age. It's a common myth thrown around that older titles died out because they were surpassed by more technically competent and "sophisticated" titles, but Grimrock demonstrates just how much of a fallacy that appeal to technological superiority is. Yes, there are a few balance issues and yes, it isn't quite as complicated an RPG as it could be... but those complaints are minor in the grand scheme, and miss out on just why the game is significant.

In short, Legend of Grimrock represents a return to form for a genre that has been ignored for far too long, and, frankly, is simply a good RPG that most dungeon-crawling fans absolutely won't want to miss out on. Now that they've made a game that can stand with the classics, I'm eager to see where Almost Human will go next.