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
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.