A Legendary Effort
Legend of Grimrock was one of the first brand new titles announced on Good Old Games when the digital distribution site decided to extend itself beyond merely the classic titles of yore and into the modern era. While more recent games were announced, Legend of Grimrock was something I had never seen before. A first-person, four-character-party, tile-based dungeon crawler with slick production values, Legend of Grimrock was made by a team of only four people, based out of Finland. And, while the Norse may have the greatest claim to metal music, of which legendary beasts and fantastic legends are often a key component, the Finnish, too, are a people of Scandinavia.
Perhaps that is why, in Legend of Grimrock, the monster design was the first thing to strike me. It’s what made me want the game, actually. From overgrown bipedal fungi to charging trolls and armored spear- or bow-wielding skeletons, this is a game where even the initial enemies it throws at you are intimidating to encounter. They take more than just a few hits to bring down, too, necessitating that one learn the combat system sooner rather than later, especially by the third level or so when fast-moving spiders become the enemy du jour and being swarmed becomes a very real danger.
The enemy designs are extremely detailed and beautifully animated, such that, even with their tile-based movement, they really seem to come to life and pop off the screen. Most of that comes down to their texture, which has a quality almost like that of the sort of rubber monster suits one might see in an old horror film, providing the sense that these are things that really could be standing there in front of you. Somehow, though, they don’t come across as campy. It’s a bit disappointing, then, that the dungeon looks fairly uniform, with pretty much the same wall texture pasted all over the dungeon with only minor variations as necessary to outline hidden buttons, or to provide a space for an object to rest.
The puzzles one encounters, on the other hand, have a good deal more range, from the basic “find the hidden button” trope to mazes of teleporters. One particularly difficult one comes to mind, involving a pair of teleporters that rotate around a central tile, which contains a drop down to the floor below (surely the most common of traps in the game). The door is straight across from where you begin, and the pressure plate required to open it is in the corner next to it, but the way from the tile with the button to the one with the door is blocked by an impassable grate. It required knowledge of both the game’s mechanics (which were blessedly introduced intelligently in the beginning) to solve, but the “aha” moment was a powerful one and definitely to the designers’ credit. It’s a game that’s good about hinting, but doesn’t feel the need to spell your next step out for you, leading to experimentation and trial and error, generally without becoming trying or monotonous over extended play sessions. That isn’t to say that extended play sessions won’t be stressful, but that has to do with the game’s atmosphere rather than any flaws in its gameplay.
It pays to remember that Grimrock is an RPG, and so has most of the trappings one would expect therein. Characters have classes that grant them distinct skills and, when they level up, they have the opportunity to put points into these skills. This can grant a warrior new attacks or the ability to wear heavier armor without penalty, while a rogue might learn how to strike from the back row or deal more damage from behind and the magic-user gains the ability to use more powerful spells in different elemental schools. This is all in addition to the stat increases peppered throughout every skill tree. Characters may also choose a few traits at character creation that affect them in more unique ways, such as one that increased a character’s attack power for every skull they are holding (skulls can be found on the ground, sometimes, though they’re rare enough to keep this from being a game-breaking ability). Though there are only three classes, the race one chooses also has benefits, and there are some esoteric options (insectoids, for example). But, if you don’t feel like taking the time to make your own party of four prisoners, Grimrock lets you take the default party of two warriors, a rogue, and a sorcerer. Well-balanced and fairly functional.
The story of Legend of Grimrock is fairly unobtrusive, mostly disappearing after you’re first cast into the dungeon (absolved of your crimes in the process, though getting out is entirely on you). Rather than climbing to the top of a tower, you’re working your way down from the top level of the complex to its ground floor, slaying monsters and solving puzzles the whole way. There are, occasionally, hints from another adventurer who preceded you, as well as some equipment he decided to leave around for various reasons. The second half of the game introduces some surprisingly jarring plot twists that really take the game in a different direction than one would expect, shifting the focus from pure escape into something perhaps a bit more noble and far-reaching. I don’t want to spoil too much, in this capacity, so we’ll suffice to say that the story will often be out of your mind, leaving you free to contemplate the dungeon’s creepy atmosphere. This atmosphere can be enhanced if one opts out of seeing damage numbers, making it ambiguous how much effect one is actually having on enemies, or turn off the game’s auto-map, putting the onus on the player to memorize the layout or craft their own map, which makes getting lost a frighteningly real prospect.
This isn’t to say that Grimrock is without flaws. While the combat is relatively intuitive, its interface is mouse-driven and can get a little too hectic for what it is, especially when you’re managing a spell-caster, since spells are cast by selecting from a grid of nine runes. The rune combinations must be punched in anew each time, requiring that a player memorize their favorite spells for repeated use, such that, especially in the early game, most will probably find themselves falling back on the same one-rune spell in combat over and over again for expediency’s sake. That you can’t see the amount of mana you have remaining while casting is also an issue, and managing the inventory at all during combat is pretty much impossible, since it doesn’t pause the game when you open a character’s backpack.
These are fairly minor nitpicks, though, especially since Legend of Grimrock is not a combat-focused game, and even its combat is more puzzle-like than anything else. The focus is on atmosphere and brain-teasers, both of which the game pulls off with absolute aplomb and unbelievably slick production, to the point where one can almost smell the grime and mold on the dungeon’s walls. It’s a tense and enjoyable throwback to a type of game that seemed to have long since faded from view.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Stunning monster designs and brilliant lighting create an atmosphere of true dread, which had me jumping in surprise at times. That said, the walls all use pretty much the exact same texture, which is a bit lame. 3.8 Control
Very good, but combat can be a bit hectic due to its speed combined with the tile-based movement and the necessity of looking from the weapons you’re clicking the screen to make sure the enemy is still present. And magic is just frustrating, at times. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
You’ll hear the spiders skittering around as you make your way through the earlier parts of a floor, providing a foreboding sense of what’s to come. The music is fairly forgettable, but doesn’t get in the way. 4.5 Play Value
Though this is a fairly short game, Almost Human intends to open it up for fans with a level editor. Given the tile-based movement, it should be fairly intuitive to create more content for. 4.3 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best