Grim Dawn Steam Early Access Impressions

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Iron Lore Entertainment may be no more, but its spirit is being carried on vicariously by former members of the studio behind Titan Quest, including that game’s lead gameplay designer, who are back doing what they do best at indie studio Crate Entertainment. Crate’s first game, Grim Dawn, picked up a huge following of backers and was successfully Kickstarted back in 2012, approaching two full years this May. It is now 2014, and while the game remains in alpha as a Steam Early Access title, in its current state Grim Dawn is a remarkably well polished and feature rich title.

If you have played Titan Quest, Torchlight, Diablo or pretty much any other action-RPG ever made, you’ll be right at home in Grim Dawn, which in terms of basic functionality and gameplay doesn’t break any new ground (and it doesn’t need to). You begin the game as what is known as one of the “Taken,” a person who has been possessed by the same evil that is causing the world’s dead to reanimate after the occurrence of a catastrophic event called the Grim Dawn. Unseen before the opening scene, this Taken was set to be hanged, but before death the spirit possessing your soon-to-be hero left his or her body and the Captain of a human survivor camp called Devil’s Crossing decides to set you free and use your talents as an expendable means to help the survivors. Succeed, and you may just earn their trust and be accepted as a member of one of humanity’s last remaining outposts.

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The setting is fairly unique for this style of game. Grim Dawn has the brooding tone of a post-apocalyptic zombie survival story mixed with elements of dark fantasy as well as some Victorian era inspirations. I haven’t found myself fully engaged by any of the storylines or characters just yet, but I’m only around six hours into the game so most of the quests up to now have been introductory in nature or typical fetch/hunt-style side jobs to promote exploring the world off the beaten path. Choices and consequences are supposed to play a major role in the advancement of the story, I just haven’t made it far enough in to encounter any plot-altering events. At this point the grim atmosphere and detailed visuals are more than enough to suck me in.

In the current build the game offers four starting classes, but by the time the game is complete it will contain a total of five. So far I have dabbled with a level 5 Soldier, but my main character is a Saboteur who is currently up to level 15. Saboteur is not one of the starting classes, but rather one of the possible dual class builds. I began as a Demolitionist, a class specializing in ranged firearms and various types of pyrotechnic bombs and traps such as grenades, Molotov cocktails, flashbangs, and electric shock jacks. At level 10 the game provides the option to dual class, which I decided to do by incorporating some of the skills of the Nightblade class into my arsenal, thus creating a Saboteur.

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Character development offers a wealth of options. Upon leveling up, you are rewarded with three skill points and a lone attribute point to improve the stats and abilities of your avatar. The skill trees for each class are especially robust. With the three points awarded at each level, you can choose to increase the potency of active and passive abilities you’ve already learned, or spend them to increase your class mastery level in order to gain access to higher ability tiers. Whether dual classing or specializing in a single job, there are many possible ways to spec a character to your preferred style of play as each class has around a couple dozen skills to choose from. If further on down the line a skill choice proves to be poorly made, a Spirit Guide NPC in town will allow you to respec skill points for a fee of iron bits (iron is the valued currency in this game, not gold).

Additional customization is provided in the form of looted components and, as of the latest build update that just came out this week, a blueprint-based crafting system. I really like the clever design of the component system. Certain enemies will drop things like claws, fur, blood, gems or shells which can be socketed into weapons and armor to augment gear with elemental properties and stat bonuses. Instead of applying them to gear, parts can also be stacked on top of each other to multiply the bonuses, and eventually combining the same part together enough times will create a complete component which sometimes unlocks an actual spell or ability in addition to the attribute benefits. I only just completed the quest necessary for accessing the blacksmith, but I do like what I see from the crafting system as well. Blueprints can be found as loot drops or by completing quests. After right-clicking to learn the recipe, visiting the blacksmith allows new gear to be created from the necessary ingredients.

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The only noticeable thing missing from character development is appearance customization. Options to change hairstyles, facial features, body type and so on aren’t available in the opening character creation process, which as of now consists of choosing a name and gender (class choice isn’t presented until the first level-up). Looted weapons and armor do alter the avatar’s appearance, but not in a significant way as far as I have seen. For example little details like weapons imbued with elemental damage do not give off particle effects to show that they are more special than a regular sword or rifle. These are small touches that really aren’t detrimental to the experience, but hopefully will be added in future builds to add extra polish and attention to detail.

The combat system is absolutely spot on. Point, click and hold is the name of the game as you guide your hero through abandoned towns, swamps and caves and hack apart walking dead, snake beasts, spiders, giant mosquitos and goblin-like creatures from an isometric perspective. Chasing and chopping enemies holds true to ARPG tradition, but the quick pacing, diverse selection of skills and weapons, and sheer spectacle of the violence really helps to elevate the satisfaction of mowing through hordes of baddies. While the little details are missing from character customization, they are not from combat. From the perspective of the Demolitionist, I love how his explosives leave craters and scorched earth on the terrain, or how when using ranged weapons I am able to shoot incoming enemy projectiles out of the air before they hit me (enemies are able to do the same with my grenades). The ragdoll death animations also add impact and even a hint of gory comedy as shield bash shockwaves hurl groups of creatures (and sometimes dismembered body parts) into the air like confetti of rotten flesh.

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Most early access games tend to feel clunky and rough around the edges, as is to be expected when development is still ongoing. However, if I didn’t know Grim Dawn was in early access before playing it, I wouldn’t have been able to tell because the interface and overall engine performance is rock solid (no crashes or even a smidgen of slowdown for me as of yet). Important details like quick travel (yes, there is a “scroll of town portal” style personal riftgate spell in addition to larger rifts placed around the world map), clear, informative maps, an easy to follow quest log, an on-screen active quest tracker, intuitive ability hotkeys, inventory auto-sorting, a day/night cycle and dynamic weather effects show a level of polish not commonly seen from a game in alpha. The latest build also added a Veteran Mode difficulty modifier which increases the spawn rate of tougher champion and hero “elite” enemies and seems to increase the drop rate of higher end loot.

Looting is a bit clumsy though. A handy setting allows you to filter how loot drops appear based on their quality/rarity classification so you can limit the screen clutter of junk items, but as a player who obsesses over looting everything in sight I would like to see an option to turn on auto-loot so that your character picks up items as you walk over them instead of having to manually point and click each loot drop. Perhaps there could even be the same filter settings to determine which items auto-loot. It’s mildly annoying that personal riftgates are not saved when you quit the game as well, which means if you’re in a dungeon and teleport back to town to unload your inventory and then decide to save and quit, when you return the rift leading back to your last location will be lost and you will have to retrace your steps back to where you were. Those are the only real criticisms I can muster and I’m sure such details will get worked out over time.

Even though it isn’t even feature complete and fully optimized yet, Grim Dawn stacks up favorably against any modern action-RPG released within the last handful of years or so, and if you ask me it is already a whole lot more fun and rewarding than that third Diablo game people are always talking about (yeah, I said it). I can only imagine how great Grim Dawn will be once the full breadth of the campaign is implemented and major features like online multiplayer come to fruition. ARPG fans are going to eat this game up and enjoy every last, bloody bite.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!