Grim Dawn Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Crate Entertainment
Release Date:2016-02-25
Genre:
  • Action,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Grim Dawn is the debut effort from Crate Entertainment, a small developer with ties to Blizzard Entertainment, Iron Lore Entertainment, and Irrational Games, including Arthur Bruno, who was the Lead Gameplay Designer for Titan Quest and its Immortal Throne expansion pack.  Grim Dawn takes place in an alternate reality where two factions, the Aetherials and the Ch'thonians, are at war with each other.  Both factions have uses for humanity -- the Aetherials can take over human bodies and force them to do things, while the Ch'thonians require lots of blood for their magic -- and so that leaves humanity in a bad place, where most people are just trying to hide and survive.

As the game opens up, an Aetherial takes control of your body, but when you're captured by a group of survivors, the Aetherial flees, leaving your newly-infused body behind.  The Aetherial remnants make your body much more powerful than it was before -- to the point where you can now single-handedly defeat hordes of Aetherials and Ch'thonians, and perhaps save the day.  Such is life in an action role-playing game.

Character Development

At the start of a new game of Grim Dawn, you have to create a character, but there isn't much for you to do right away.  You choose a name and a gender, but that's it.  You don't roll your stats, you don't alter your appearance, and you don't even select a portrait.  But at Level 2 you choose one class for your character, and at Level 10 you choose another, and it's these class choices along with your skill choices that define who you are.

Grim Dawn has six classes.  Arcanists are elemental spellcasters, Demolitionists work with fire and explosives, Nightblades are dual-wielding assassins, Occultists are summoners and cursers, Shamans are nature spellcasters and two-handed weapon specialists, and Soldiers are tanks proficient with weapons and shields.

Each class gets a tree of about 30 skills.  Some of these skills are passive while others are active, and some only have one rank while others have ten or more.  The only prerequisite for the skills is your mastery with the class.  For each level you gain, you earn 2-3 skill points, and you can place these points into the skills or the class mastery.  Characters only earn about 220 skill points before they hit the maximum level (85), but between the skills and the class mastery, each skill tree can support somewhere around 400 points.  So between the two classes, you have to decide where to place 220 points in a field of 800 possibilities, which means you have to figure out which path you want your character to make.  Luckily, if you make a mistake, or if you decide that a skill isn't as useful as you thought it might be, it's easy to re-spec your points, so there isn't any harm in experimenting.

Along with class skills, there are also celestial powers that you can claim.  As you play through the campaign, you sometimes come across desecrated shrines, and as you cleanse these shrines, you earn devotion points, which you can spend on the powers.  The powers are divided into somewhere around 100 constellations, each with multiple powers, and since you can only earn at most 50 devotion points during the course of the game, this is another area where you have to make some tough choices -- and ideally plan ahead.

The attributes in the game are on the minimalist side.  Characters have Physique (defensive ability), Cunning (offensive ability), and Spirit (energy and magic damage).  Each time you gain a level, you can upgrade one of these attributes, but you also gain bonuses to them when you advance your class masteries.  Obviously, some classes need certain attributes more than others, but since the attributes are also linked to equipment requirements -- Physique for armor, Cunning for guns, and Spirit for jewelry -- you can't just ignore any of them.

In general, I found the character development system to be the best part of Grim Dawn.  You're given all sorts of options for how to build your character, and even if you meet another character who uses the same classes as you, you're not very likely to be carbon copies.  I always like it when games give you enough options that you can obsess about which build is the best, and Grim Dawn has that in spades.


Interface

Grim Dawn is an action role-playing game, and it has a simple interface to match.  You left click where you want to move, you left click on the creatures you want to attack (or interact with), and that's enough to get you through about 90% of the game.  Of course, there are controls outside of the left mouse button -- you can assign a skill to the right mouse button or to the 1-0 keys and use them to attack, or you can press the shift key to attack without moving, or you can press the alt key to highlight items on the ground, or you can press the E/R keys to quaff energy/health potions.  There are also keys and mouse movements that allow you to zoom in or rotate the camera, but Grim Dawn was designed to be played from the default view, and so there isn't much reason to make adjustments.

All of the above is reasonably standard.  What makes the Grim Dawn interface a cut above the rest is that you can just keep the left mouse button pressed, and then you automatically move towards the cursor and attack (or interact with) any creatures that get in your way.  When I first started playing, I could definitely feel in my mouse hand that I had been pressing the left mouse button for the better part of an hour or two, but eventually I got used to it, and I liked how easy it made the game to play, as it mostly removes the need to quickly target moving enemies or click on the right target in a crowd.  So the interface is good, and it's easy to learn.  You should be able to jump right into Grim Dawn the moment you have it installed.

Gameplay

Your main goal in Grim Dawn is to kill stuff -- lots of stuff -- and not just Aetherials and Ch'thonians.  There are also bandits, frogs, hounds, insects, skeletons, spiders, vultures -- and other creatures more difficult to describe.  Some enemies call in reinforcements or freeze you in place or buff their allies, so you have to pay attention to what you're fighting and go after the most important foes first.  Unfortunately, if Grim Dawn has a weakness, it's that it doesn't have enough types of enemies.  As you play through the campaign, you see the same enemies over and over, just at higher levels as you go along.

Most fights in the game pit you against a dozen or so enemies at once, which means you have to balance out your ability to kill one thing at a time (which is good for bosses) with your ability to spread your damage around and kill lots of things in parallel (which is good otherwise).  You also have to figure out how to keep yourself healed.  There is only one type of healing potion in the game, and it has a cooldown, so you can't just solve all of your problems by cramming a lot of potions into your inventory.  You have to build up your defenses to resist damage, or agilely move around and avoid damage, or add health steal to your attacks so damage doesn't make as much of a difference -- or all three, especially in the tougher battles at higher difficulties.

To keep combat interesting, along with regular enemies, Grim Dawn also throws heroic enemies at you.  You encounter these enemies (marked with a star) fairly frequently, and sometimes they spawn with two or more at a location.  So even if you're cruising along with little trouble, you still have to stay on your toes.  And luckily, if you die, the penalty isn't great.  You just lose some experience points, and if you make it back to your corpse, then you get most of those experience points back.  That means the real penalty often enough is the time it takes you to get back to where you were, but even here Grim Dawn is friendly.  There are permanent rift gates for you to use roughly every other map, and you can create your own rift gate at any time -- and it stays up even after you've used it once, so if you see a boss fight on the horizon, then you can just plop down a gate nearby and use it to get back quickly if you die.

Your secondary goal in Grim Dawn is to collect equipment.  Characters can wear 14 items, including boots, gloves, helmets, weapons, shields, and rings.  Each item you find can belong to one of five tiers: regular (white), magic (yellow), rare (green), epic or set (blue), or legendary (purple).  Legendary items only drop once you've reached level 50 or so, but you can find all of the others right from the start -- assuming you're lucky enough.  Nicely, Crate decided to make rare equipment reasonably plentiful and to not have an auction house, which means you have to hunt for your own gear -- often enough successfully -- rather than repeatedly gathering up enough money so you can buy something from someone else.  That's always my preference in RPGs.

Interestingly, the items in Grim Dawn have more bonuses than you see in other games.  Magic items can have five bonuses, rare items can have six bonuses, and epic items can have eight bonuses.  The reason for this, I think, is that Grim Dawn includes a large number of different bonuses, and a lot of them won't help particular characters.  For example, if you see a bonus that increases fire damage by 10%, and if you don't deal fire damage, then the bonus is a waste for you.  So the trick is to find items that don't have any wasted bonuses, which is surprisingly tough (or at least it was for my character, who mostly only dealt physical damage).

Having more bonuses on items sounds like a good thing, but what I found mostly is that the extra bonuses make it much tougher to compare two items and figure out which one is better, especially when even straightforward comparisons are difficult.  For example, you can receive bonuses for attack speed, cunning, offensive ability (a derived stat based on cunning), damage, damage conversion, and percentage damage.  All of these bonuses affect your DPS, but the only way to find out by how much is to wear the item and check your stats -- which you can't do if you're browsing a shopkeeper's window (for armor anyway; weapons show you the DPS change).  Still, if a game has to err on one side or the other, I'd rather its equipment is too complicated rather than too simple.

To help you tune your equipment to your liking, you can collect components.  Components come in pieces, which you have to combine together, and they frequently drop from enemies.  Each item you wear can have a full component or a piece attached to it.  There aren't any item slots or anything like that.  Components give nice bonuses (to health, damage, resistances and more).  It's just that because there are so many of them -- I counted over 50 during my trip through the campaign -- they're sort of a pain to keep track of, and they're an inventory hog.

To go along with components, you can also add an augment to each of your items.  Augments are much easier to deal with than components.  That's because you can only purchase them from faction shopkeepers once you've gained enough reputation with the faction (which you can do by completing quests, fulfilling bounties, or killing the right enemies).  It takes a while to build up your reputation, but once you've done so, augments are about as powerful as components.


Campaign

The campaign for Grim Dawn starts off well enough.  You see enemies and the world for the first time, you find lots of notes and diary pages that give you background information about what's going on (including doing a nice job of setting up the first major boss), and you meet people you have to make decisions about.  Do you trust them and invite them to your base (in a converted prison), or do you keep them away?  And when you run into two blacksmiths, which one do you support?

But after the first act, things get a little more mundane.  You start seeing a lot of repeats in enemies and environments, it takes forever to explore the maps (which you have to do so you can find all of the desecrated shrines), and the story elements largely disappear.  I mean, at one point you have to choose between two factions, but they're so carefully balanced and positioned, and have so little reason given for their existence, that it doesn't seem to make any difference which one you pick.  After Act I, Crate pretty much could have just given you one big quest saying, "Go skill stuff until you reach the end boss, and then kill it, too."

Probably a lot of people playing action role-playing games don't care about story elements, but I found the end of the campaign disappointing.  You eventually learn what the Ch'thonians are up to -- here's a hint: it's not a coincidence that the names Ch'thon and Cthulhu look cthimilar -- but the Aetherials are a complete mystery.  You never learn what they are, what they're up to, or why they're fighting the Ch'thonians.  In fact, you could excise them from the campaign completely, and it wouldn't be all that different.  I would have liked it if Crate had spent a little more time with world-building rather than just plopping down creatures for you to kill.

To make matters worse, Grim Dawn's campaign is too long.  Crate uses a difficulty system roughly the same as the Diablo games, where you have to beat the campaign on one difficulty to unlock the next.  The game has four difficulties -- normal, veteran, elite and ultimate -- but the first two are for the same campaign (and you can switch back and forth between them), which means you have to play the campaign three times to max out your character and find the best loot.  Plus, there's every reason to try out multiple characters, which means you might want to play the campaign six times or more.

All of that is good, but it took me over 60 hours to complete the campaign with my Warder (Shaman-Soldier) character, and even that play-through wasn't exactly riveting with all of the repeated content.  Sometimes I'd be having fun, slicing and dicing my way through enemies, but other times I'd be wondering, "Are we there yet?"  And even if it had been all fun, 180 hours for a single character is just too long.  Crate made me think of an author who keeps wanting to add more pages to his book, and who really needs an editor to tell him to stop -- not to mention where to make some cuts to improve the pacing of his story.

Or you could look at it this way.  An RPG campaign should only be as long as you have content to support it.  Since Crate repeats enemies and environments all over the place -- "Oh look, the rotting soldiers are back!" -- ipso facto the campaign is too long.  Crate could easily have removed large swathes of the latter acts, including almost all of Act IV with its fog of blood cultist battles, and the campaign -- not to mention the replayability factor -- would have been better for it.

The above being said, there are two things I did like about the campaign.  The first is the one-shot dungeons.  These dungeons don't allow rift gates, and they can only be entered once per playing session, so they're a challenge.  Can you make it all the way to the end and defeat the big, bad boss there, or does something kill you along the way?  If you survive then you get some good loot, but if not then you have to start over.  The one-shot dungeons are optional, so they're the perfect sort of thing for people who like to grind for better equipment (which should be just about everybody playing the game).

The second thing I liked about the campaign is all of the secrets that it hides.  Some of the secrets are simple things, like in several places where you can knock down a wall to reveal a treasure chest.  But others are more substantial.  At one point if you follow a secret path along a riverbank, then you encounter a unique shopkeeper.  At another if you click on an inconspicuous rowboat then it takes you to a hidden island.  Secrets are always fun, and I appreciate it when developers add something a little extra to the world.


Graphics and Sound

By pricing, Grim Dawn is a lot closer to a budget title than it is to an AAA game.  That means it shouldn't come as a surprise that it's a little limited with its graphics and sound.  For the graphics, the enemies are distinctive, and the spell effects look nice, but there isn't any sort of a wow factor, especially with the major bosses, where you might expect something special.  There are also some issues, like when you enter ruined houses but it's tough to see where the doorways are, or when enemies blend in with the ground, so it's tough to see what you're facing.  But overall Grim Dawn looks just fine.

As for the sound, the music is low-key and pleasant, and nicely Crate doesn't use combat music at all, so you don't get any jarring transitions.  But the voice acting features a lot of people reading their lines instead of acting them, and some of the ambient sounds are annoying.  For example, for some reason Crate just loves the sound of buzzing flies, and I could have done without it.  There are also a few places where the ambient noises sound like enemies, and that's just bad form.

Technical Issues

I spent over 60 hours playing Grim Dawn, and it only crashed on me once -- and that was after I had been doing some alt-tabbing, so it might have been my fault.  Otherwise, I didn't notice any broken quests or skills, and everything seemed to be competently constructed.  About the only negative I noted down is that Crate somehow screwed up their scrollbars, and so it's more difficult to scroll through windows than it should be.

Conclusion

In some ways, Grim Dawn is a very nice game.  It is outstanding in giving you different ways to build your character and thrive in combat, the combat itself is tough and satisfying, and there is plenty of interesting equipment to find and use.  But for me, most of those positives are derailed by a long, overly-padded campaign.  All of the repetition and trash fights left me bored, and when I finished the veteran campaign with my Warder, I just couldn't muster any enthusiasm to get him very far in the elite campaign.  Once was enough.

That being said, everybody else seems to love Grim Dawn, so it might just be one of those games where we agree to disagree.  If you're like me and you prefer your games -- even your action role-playing games -- to have interesting stories, memorable characters, and quotable dialogue, then you might respect the competency of Grim Dawn, but I don't know that it will excite you.  But if you just need creatures to kill and stuff to loot, then you match Grim Dawn's focus, and you might get hundreds of hours of enjoyment out of the game, and for a pretty modest price, too.