Review: Legend of Grimrock

LegendOfGrimrock

The term dungeon crawler was not always a derogatory term. In the modern era the term is used to signify that this is literally all one does in the game: crawl through dungeons, presumably fighting monsters and gathering treasure with little and less story. There was a time when that was the entirety of what a role-playing game was, a cheap version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that could be played alone on a computer with all of the mechanics and none of the character interaction afforded by human contact.  A certain geeky stereotype might be called to mind when the mind draws forth an image of fans of this style of game.  Where one might see a nerd at a glowing Intel 80486 computer in their parent’s basement, others might see a guy on a school night that wanted to do something fantasy-related at a time when none of his friends had a car. A fantasy activity that was a little more complicated than whacking slimes for fives hours, then red slimes for another ten. Outside of Japan, the dungeon crawler format has fallen out of favor in the role-playing game genre since its heyday of the 1980s to early 1990s.

Seeking to either cash in on nostalgia or bring back the formula in the West, the Legend of Grimrock is a modern-looking game that plays like an old RPG in the vein of the games of Wizardry, Might and Magic, and the original Bard’s Tale. It has all the same flaws and appeal of an older game, but the newer visuals help to make things more tolerable than its dated inspirations.

Players will take the role of four prisoners condemned to enter the structure known as Grimrock. No particulars are given for why they are in jail, but it is stated that the sentence is reserved for the worst criminals. As no information is given and character background is not a piece of fluff this game is interested in, imagination can fill in the gaps to assume they’re all convicted Level 3 sex offenders. This way anyone that gets a big, fat “Game Over” message after the last surviving perverted party member is skewered by some skeleton’s spear will at least feel satisfaction that justice has been done. This world has airships and massive, multi-layered, magical dungeons, but no effective means of behavioral reform beyond tossing someone into a pit where none have ever returned. Or maybe the imagination will conjure a history that the prisoners all poached a single deer together out of the Olde King’s Woodes to feed their starving families. It doesn’t matter. Players control a party of adventurers that go into a dungeon and can’t go out of the entrance.  The essential, “Here’s a dungeon, go for it,” is a setup that is perfectly in keeping with the games that inspired this one.

The default option upon hitting “New Game” is to be issued a stock party. For anyone not used to min/maxing fantasy characters, this is probably the best option as it is possible to make a completely ineffective party if you don’t know what you are doing. Players can mess around with stats and choose various modifiers and races. The races have no story impact and only change base characteristic values and alter what character portraits are available. The only thing that changes, other than numbers, with an all Bugman crew is that characters will make weird insectoid chirping noises when they are struck. As they level up, each character will gain some skill points to spend as he or she sees fit. Fighters can get better at swinging a sword or wearing armor and mages can cast spells more effectively. Thieves get certain bonuses to dagger use, missile weapons and light armor, but not the suite of lock picking and stealth they typically get in RPGs. Perhaps moving as one with the hulking minotaur warrior with a massive axe makes these things difficult.

One thing that is not well done with the skills system is how they are used to determine what happens in the game. As certain skill thresholds are met, passive bonuses are conferred. As an example, as a mage gets to 15 or so in Fire Magic, she’ll become more resistant to fire damage. These passive bonuses and the level at which they are unlocked are very clearly spelled out when the skill is scrolled over on the character sheet screen. What is not spelled out is that spell and weapon damage increases substantially the more points a character has in the relevant area. A value for strength may be important to rolling for damage, but not as important as the number of points in the Swords skill. This is not explained well and it is possible to remain ignorant of this and go through the game with a party that does little damage and dies more often because all of their skill points were distributed evenly, making for weak attacks. Like in any old game, min/maxing is key.

Looking at screenshots should very clearly show why this game is different than its predecessors; it looks really nice. Gone are the days of wire frames giving a hint that the player is in a hallway and low-rez sprites conveying the essence of a skeleton. Dungeon walls are complex, sometimes containing hidden switches and walls that slide to the side to reveal hidden treasure. The enemies are all fairly expressive and detailed. Fire ghosts, hooded mages, and even the glowing balls of slime are impressive. The real show stoppers are the creepy giant insects and arachnids. Panic and fear swells into the heart as a clutch of poisonous, giant, eight-legged arachnids attempts to swarm the party. They are freaky and make disturbing clicking and chitterling noises, and attack frequently with poison.  The sound of them scrabbling about on the rocks is enough to fill even the most stout heart with despair. Seriously, fuck giant spiders. This thought will occupy many a player’s mind until a few levels later when something even more horrifying is encountered and then one wishes it was only something as mundane as a large bug. The game does a good job of escalating the creep and depression factor by sparingly doling out the nasties. Now, everything functions as though it was an older game as the party will move one “square” at a time, but it looks as though the entire game could have been a modern first-person game. It is possible to look freely around in any given square, rather than only move ninety degrees at a time, but it is not required and ruins the mystique of grid-based dungeon delving.

Unlike many classical dungeon exploration games, the combat in Grimrock is all done in real time. The party will move around on the gridded dungeon floor and the enemies will wander randomly until they spot the PCs and then make a B-line for them to devour their tender flesh or whatever fire elementals do with dead people. Standing toe to toe with a baddy shows a very simple AI scheme at work, as the enemy will continue to attack until every member of the party is dead. They start on the guys in the front and then tear into the back rank. When attacked from behind, the mages will get it until everyone turns around. Most enemies only have one melee attack, but some shoot from a distance or at point blank range without a care for how close other foes or the party might be. These ranged attacks can occasionally hit other enemies but as this is not DOOM, the foes all get along and will not try to kill one another. As combat is in real time, if the caster is a few squares away, it is easy to avoid enemy spells if there is room to strafe to the side. There are not usually very many monsters in a given room and most encounters will be one creature on four adventurers affairs. Consequently, even simple creatures like the lowly giant snail attack faster than any one party member and take far more damage than one would anticipate.

Because enemies take such a great effort to kill, maneuverability becomes a major concern as the game progresses. With most enemies it is possible to move around in a circle of four squares and time attacks so that only the party gets its shots off. It takes a moment for the creature to turn, and in that instant the warrior can strike and the mage can cast a prepared spell. This tactic may feel a little cheap at first. Later, when one of the larger enemies corners the party into a dead end and cuts down each of the level 14 characters with one stroke, one after another like so many shorn blades of grass, it may feel less cheap and more like the sole means of survival.

It is very easy to die in Legend of Grimrock. Pits do damage. Traps do damage. Enemies roaming the halls do lots of damage. The game appears to be designed to get the party’s health to zero and then rub the player’s face into the GAME OVER message. There does not appear to be any concept of fair play in the game. If players get surrounded or caught unawares by enemies, panic and fall down a pit into a nest of trolls and skeletons, too bad. Welcome to Grimrock. Many enemies, in addition to constantly attacking, will have a chance to either poison a party member, damage over time, or cause an infectious disease to spread, no effective rest possible until cured. The only ways to heal these conditions or depleted hit points are to rest, create magical potions out of the few components found lying about, or to touch the one large magical healing stone found on each level. Touching a stone will fully heal the party and revive any fallen party members. I can accept difficulty, but what is troublesome is that this is the only way to restore a dead wizard, other than loading a prior game save. The healing stones go inert after one use, so unless someone happens to fall near the stone, it becomes just as easy to save and load frequently.  Without resorting to the reload, the party must either back track all the way to the last unused stone, perhaps three floors above, or try in vain to progress to the next one.  Neither alternative is fun.  This can break the game up considerably. As death can come swiftly, reloading may become a once every ten minute affair, which removes death as a threat and makes it more of an annoyance. There should have been a better solution for the problem of player death.

Another way to die is to starve to death. A lot of old games had Food as a resource that was necessary to adventure. Having done a fair amount of hiking and camping, I can say that it is true that the ability to eat is key to any good adventure. That being said, I am not sorry that time has forgotten this little detail in the realm of digital adventures. The inclusion of food as a resource has, until recently, struck me as a slavish dedication to realism that murdered fun with no reasonable or rational game impact. Now, having been reminded of the mechanic, I understand why it was there all along.

At any point in time the party may rest to regain health and stamina. If an enemy happens along a resting party, it will attack, score an automatic critical hit on an unlucky member, and then wake the party up to engage in battle. This is, however, a minor threat as there appears to be a set number of foes per level who do not roam far and it is possible to barricade oneself into several rooms, safe from all harm. Thus, the purpose of food is to keep players from resting at the end of every encounter. Once the game starts, the party has a limited amount of time to finish the game as there is only so much food in the dungeon and if everyone runs out of snacks, they cannot regenerate heath without a magical potion.  Without restored HP, the party will eventually die by attrition. Now, this is a very long time limit as there is a lot of food lying around and some enemies will drop portions of their body as sustenance, but there is not infinite food. Towards the end of the game, starvation became a legitimate concern for me as the level of available munchies declined rapidly the lower one goes. By the end I had few scraps left.  It may be possible for someone to lose the game and have to start over if they rested too much and wasted their food. It is interesting for a game to make a bag full of mole jerky a solid find, equal in appeal to that of a rune-enchanted sword.

A bone of contention some may have with this game, if they can get past the idea of a new dungeon crawler in 2012 with a food mechanic, is the magic system. As mages level up they can spend their skill points in four schools of magic and find scrolls in the depths of the prison to cast spells using regenerating mana points as represented by a blue bar under the health bar. Nothing new there. The change comes from the real time nature of the magic system. Clicking on a mage’s empty hand or on an equipped staff causes a little three-by-three grid of runes to appear in place of the character’s portrait. It is then up to the player to remember the correct combination of runes to dial in and then cast. If an incorrect combination is entered, the spell will fizzle and some mana will be wasted. I could very well understand if some would hate this system as it is possible to screw casting up while running around or to forget the spell parts and die while looking through four inventories to find the right spell scroll. Not just possible, it is likely that at least one time in their Grimrock tour even the most seasoned role-player will fail to cast a spell properly. This tension serves to keep the action interesting because otherwise the spell mechanics would be no different than the missile weapons action, which is somewhat boring.

As for the dungeon of Grimrock itself, there are only a few tile sets – uniform art assets that serve to make the same three-square-long hallway look different – and even fewer objects with which to interact. Torches can be taken in and out of sconces, pressure plates tripped, and doors opened, but that’s about it. This crawler is an ode to Wizardry, not to Shenmue. The prison is broken up into discrete levels where the only interaction is when items, or parties, fall down pits. Like in games of yore, progress is hampered by monster encounters as well as environmental puzzles and riddles. Most of these puzzles are fairly simple and almost entirely dependent on how many scrolls the party has found, which give obscure clues as to how to open gates or find keys. If these are not found, the party will long starve before they will randomly happen upon a solution, so anyone wanting to escape best be on the lookout for clues. There is an old school mode which turns off the auto map feature and calls upon players to invest in graph paper. I get why this function is there, but I am glad it is turned off by default. Manual mapping is lame, the levels are complex, and at least one puzzle requires looking at a map of inhumanly good spatial reasoning to complete. There is a Steam achievement for beating the game like this, but as at least a game as early as Might and Magic 3 had an auto map feature, if at least one member of the party joined the cartographer’s guild for 50 gold, I do not think it is core to the experience or even representative of the classic dungeon crawler.

Everything that was good about old RPGs is here, and so is everything that was bad.  Roaming through similar looking halls for hours on end, it is easy to see how similar everything is.  Since enemy encounters aren’t particularly tactical or intelligent, the only decision to make is whether to fight on or retreat and rest up knowing that food resources are being devoured by calorie-starved adventurers.  Even with all of this, there is a draw to Grimrock, the same draw that was in the ancient wireframe dungeons.  After reloading for the tenth time in an hour, having died again and again on the pincers of a giant crab, and then die again because of the other giant crab hidden behind that one, I still felt a desire to see what was behind the next corner.  To see what secrets and perils the next hallway or level might bring.  This sense of impending discovery is critical to the dungeon crawler sub-genre and this game has a lot of it.  There is a bit of a story that develops through messages in dreams and notes found lying around, but the dungeon is the real thing that matters.  The modern visuals and low price make it easy to recommend to anyone who wants to try fantasy gaming that is delivered one square at a time.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Classic dungeon crawling action and exploration
+ Good looking dungeons and detailed enemies

Cons:
– Puzzles can be frustrating
– Not much replay value
– Difficult to write a review without making a dated Transformers reference

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Almost Human Games
Developer: Almost Human Games
Release Date: 4/11/2012
Genre: RPG
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.