Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Legend of Grimrock: Exactly What It Says on the Tin

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 12, 2012

The indie RPG Legend of Grimrock was released yesterday, and I pretty much took night off to play it. I don’t really do reviews here, but I do like to offer my “quick take,” especially when it has to do with indie adventure games and RPGs that I get a chance to play. And after the evening’s adventuring, I really don’t know how I could talk about anything else. This probably comes off a little more review-ish than my usual takes, but I do want to stress that I’m nowhere near done with the game. I’m still poking around on level three, and having a blast. It’s a good thing I died, or I would probably have forgotten to quit playing.

Legend of Grimrock was advertised as a modern-day return to the classic gameplay of a particular style of RPG – namely, that of the Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder series. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what Legend of Grimrock brings us.  Expect little more, demand nothing less, and you’ll be quite happy. Plain and simple. Short of firing up DOSBOX and  some abandonware, you aren’t going to find anything closer to that old-school experience. But it is a much, much prettier experience now.

The big question is – how does that old-school flavah hold up in a modern indie title?

The short answer: Extremely well.

The longer answer: If this was 1993, reviewers would be bitching about it. “It’s just a Dungeon Master Clone,” they’d complain. “Didn’t we just play this game last year? And the year before?” They’d further lament, “Legend of Grimrock offers little in the way innovation on a tired game mechanic. It’s a competent and entertaining entry but if offers few innovations to help it stand out from the crowd.”

Actually, if this was 1993, they’d take one look at the graphics, and their heads would explode. But in a good way. Even if the gameplay was total crap and they’d all have thrown their backs out heaping praise upon the game. But with solid gameplay behind it, there’d be little to stem the gush.

But regardless, this is not 1993. It’s nearly twenty years later.  The “Dungeon Master” subgenre is long gone.  Or it was, until this week. There’s no ‘crowd’ to stand out from. The graphics are still quite pretty, but unremarkable when compared to AAA games. Compared to other indie games, yes, the graphics are gush-worthy. And while you are limited to turning and moving only in the four cardinal directions, as usual with the game type, you can hold down the right mouse button to get something of a ‘freelook’ to admire the environment.

For me, the game felt like a time machine back to 1989 or something, when I first played Dungeon Master on a neighbor’s Amiga. It adheres to the classic style and  gameplay tightly enough to feel incredibly familiar and awaken plenty of nostalgia, but it’s fresh enough to feel like I’m playing these games for the first time. This is an amazing feat. It really speaks of the polish and creativity that was put into this game to make it more than a modern remake of an old game.

As far as what’s really new here for the old-timers from a mechanics standpoint: Not much. There is a little bit of crafting potions that I don’t recall seeing in games from two decades ago. The leveling up / skill system is really pretty cool and worthy of mention on its own – more on that in a few paragraphs. But for standard gameplay, it’s the good ol’ fashioned puzzle-solving, secret-finding, pressure-plate triggering, monster-dancing gameplay that we came to expect during the brief reign of Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder. For newcomers to the game style, or folks like me who have forgotten their old skills, Grimrock does an able job of steadily ramping up the challenge and letting you build up your skillset gradually. And it does this without falling back on the crutch over-employed by modern games: the tutorial. While Grimrock has a simple tutorial accessible from the menu, this is a game you learn by playing, not by hitting your marks in a long-winded tutorial script. HUZZAH!

Maybe there will be new surprises for me later in the game, but so far, I’ve encountered no NPCs to talk to, and no merchants to sell to. The story is threadbare but serviceable. But these are not really negatives! Like its spiritual predecessors, Grimrock has scoped down the RPG experience to the bare essentials that define this category of games, and has focused on making these few things work perfectly. If you love exploration, solving puzzles, and simple but tactical real-time combat, this is a game you are going to really enjoy.

Combat is very much like what Scorpia called, many years ago, the “Beholder Two-Step” (based on the Eye of the Beholder series). Yes, you can stand toe-to-toe against enemies and mash the attack and spellcasting buttons whenever they cycle.  If you do that, you will probably have to re-load your saved games a lot, because they hit hard, and they also deliberately yield you a tactical advantage that you are not exploiting.  This kind of combat is all about real-time maneuvering. It’s not rocket science. Your party can move and turn faster than the monsters. It’s best to attack quickly as soon as the enemy moves to the square in front of you, and then quickly backpedal or sidestep to avoid its own attack. Much of the time, you can lead the monster to an area where you can do this indefinitely.

The trick to combat is a combination of timing, precision, memory (avoiding accidentally backing yourself into a dead-end), and of course fighting multiple monsters at once.  Getting yourself cornered can be extra harsh, as the flanking monster will be able to attack one of your (generally weakly protected) rear characters.

There are lots of levers to pull, pressure plates to step on (or weight down with a discarded item), buttons and secret loose rocks to push, items to manipulate, keys to find, riddles to solve, teleporters to manipulate and step through, secret areas (and treasures) to discover, and so forth. Puzzles may incorporate monsters – either as traps or penalties for failure, or as part of the puzzle you manipulate.  This is bread-and-butter gameplay for this style of RPG, and Legend of Grimrock absolutely nails it. They keep throwing more variety to keep things from ever getting stale. There are frequently clues to help you figure out what you are supposed to do, which gives the game a dash of riddle-solving to round things out.  While tricky, none of the (mandatory) puzzles have really stumped me for more than a few minutes.

Time is a consideration, as there is limited food in the dungeon, and torches get used up quickly once you remove them from the wall sconces. Conveniently, you can trade an almost-dead (but not completely burned out) torch for a fresh one in a sconce, and the almost-dead torch will once again burn at full brightness forever – as long as you leave it alone.

You can start with the default party (for people who want to jump straight into gameplay), or you can make your own party from scratch. There are three classes – Fighter, Rogue, and Mage – and four races (Human, Minotaur, Lizardman, and Insectoid). You can also choose your starting attributes (Strength, Vitality, Dexterity, and Willpower), and choose two starting traits. A couple of the traits are limited by race, but they give your character an additional advantage in the game.  Finally, each class offers a set of six skills unique to the class, and you can assign starting points in those skills.

In a game where you play a whole party, it is best if the characters are easy to customize and level up. This is the case in Grimrock – you choices are limited to which skills you increase with skill points. While the skill list is small, the skills all carry extra bonuses at various tiers. This may take the form of something like a bonus to one of your primary attributes, or additional fire resistance, or an armor proficiency. This is a lot more interesting than simply raising your attack bonus from +5 to +7. It’s simple but interesting. And then of course, there’s the equipment. There seems to be a decent variety of stuff and some of it has some very amusing descriptions. I like the loincloth.

Just like its single, deep dungeon, Legend of Grimrock succeeds by keeping it simple and going for depth instead of breadth. For me, it has proven to be exactly the kind of RPG experience I was expecting and craving.  Maybe in 1993, the formula was getting a little stale, and maybe a future sequel may have to expand the concept a little bit more to keep things interesting. But for 2012, Almost Human Games has done an amazing job of taking a dilapidated old game style and giving it a long-overdo renovation for the modern era. It feels fresh again.  It’s focused, tight, polished, and quite simply a joy to play. In this way, Grimrock is better than a time machine to the early 90’s – it’s letting me re-experience what gaming used to feel like back then without requiring me to take off the rose-tinted glasses.

Filed Under: Game Announcements, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Incidentally, I created a custom party with a minotaur fighter and human rogue on the front rank, and two mages – a human and an insectoid – in the rear. They are the ones in the middle picture. And I so dearly love the fact that my minotaur gets bonuses for carrying around skulls!

  • Demiath said,

    Love the game, and as expected your analysis of what makes it great is spot-on.

    I was introduced to DM-style dungeon crawlers via the wonderfully atmospheric Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skulkeep around 1995-1996 or so; which means that subgenre effectively died immediately after I had just discovered it (with the divisive Stonekeep and the underrated Anvil of Dawn arguably being the last mainstream releases of that kind). It’s great to see this classic gameplay formula return in style, and now I only hope that Almost Human will be able to follow this up with a more large-scale adventure including overworld locations, towns to buy loot in, NPCs to interact with etc. Grimrock 2 could easily copy the Torchlight 2 model of merely increasing the scope while retaining pretty much everything about the gameplay which they have already nailed down so wonderfully.

    On second thought, before all that happens I wouldn’t say no to some DLC/mini-expansions (i.e. a new dungeon/tileset or two)…

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    My only real experience with such games was Eye of the Beholder, which I really wanted to love, but I never liked the combat. I guess when I look for real-time combat I’m looking for something like Ultima Underworld. EotB and DM never held much attraction. Give me turn-based tactical combat any day of the week.

    I do love the look of the game though, they’ve done a wonderful job there. Such a good job, I’ll probably end up buying it even if I don’t play it much.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Demiath: Since the game has you select from a list of *one* dungeon, I suspect additional content may be planned… 😉

    @Andy_Panthro: That was one of the big complaints at the time, too. By the time EoB2 came out, the reviewers were all pushing for Ultima Underworld style gameplay as the “evolution” of the 1st person perspective RPG. So by 1992, their days were numbered.

    But now going back, even though it’s more ‘gamey,’ I can definitely feel the appeal of the old grid-based RPGs like this. 🙂

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    There is at least one mechanics innovation that the modern graphics make possible. It took me a while to figure it out, but if you douse all your torches and all nearby light sources you can often spot secret doors by the thin crack of light shining through at the bottom (if the secret room has a light inside).

    I also don’t seem to remember the old dungeon crawling games letting you automatically pick up and re-equip thrown weapons like LoG does. That is another improvement I welcome.

    I love how the game gets progressively more clever with its secrets and puzzles (I’m on Level 7 of the dungeon at the moment). At first many of them were difficult to figure out, but once I learned how the developers’ thought processes worked, it became more intuitive. For instance, I have been exhaustively mapping and secret hunting each level, but once reaching Level 5 I got the nagging feeling from seeing how well disguised some of the current secrets were that I may have missed some earlier ones, so I backtracked up the stairs. Boy was I right! I discovered several more secrets I had missed on levels 1-4. Even level 1 has a surprising number of secrets. I could kiss who ever it was that added the ability to write your own notes on the automap!

    The game is definitely giving me flashbacks to summers of playing Eye of the Beholder. It looks how I remember Eye of the Beholder in my memory if that makes any sense. I’m loving it.

  • Xian said,

    I loved this type of game, and it has been a long drought on the PC for this type of gameplay. I think Eye of the Beholder III was the last I had played of this type. I did play Orcs and Elves and Etrian Odyssey on the kid’s DS a couple years ago.

    I played every one of these I could get my hands on. Dungeon Master and Galdregons Domain on the Atari ST, The Black Crypt and Bloodwych on the Amiga, and the EOB series on the PC, so of course I already had my preorder in for Grimrock.

    @Late White Rabbit
    I noticed the auto re-equip of the weapons too. You always had to go round up your thrown weapons after a fight before. I may have to back track too after reading your comment – I don’t remember finding any secrets on the first level, and only a couple on the second.

  • DGM said,

    Never liked the Beholder Two-Step style of combat, but otherwise it sounds interesting.

    What about healing magic, though? Do mages handle that? Do all classes get some form of it? Items only?

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    Played for 1 1/2 hours yesterday. It’s a nice game, and maybe once I get further in, the puzzles will even make it great. I never played Dungeon Master or EotB, so Nostalgia is not really a factor for me. So far however, I prefer your own game, Rampant – it may be ugly in comparison, but it’s far more ambitous in scope and far more complete as a RPG, and so far at least, I think I prefer your TB combat model, too.

  • shaf said,

    As much as I love this game the one trick I used in Dungeon Master can’t be used here. You can’t kill monsters by closing doors on them.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @DGM – I don’t know of any healing magic in the game. So far, I haven’t found any, but that doesn’t mean it does not exist. But you can find & create healing potions.

    @GhanBuriGhan – Well, I’m definitely not going to protest your preference. 🙂 You can go small and tight and polished – which is what indies really *should* do, I guess, and what Almost Human does here – or you can go for broke and go broad in scope and hope people will forgive you on account of your willingness to go where angels fear to tread. Which is what I did. And I guess Notch and the Dwarf Fortress guys, so it’s not necessarily a losing strategy.

    @shaf – Yes, I noticed that last night. I did manage to drop a spider down a pit though.

  • qpqpqp said,

    you can land on enemies under pit traps too, which is pretty cool. I like this game but I think the systems feel a bit simplistic. Only the rogue really seems to give much replay value, and the races seem overly simplistic. I’m loving seeing this game again, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. The dungeon itself is flawless, a gem.

  • Thomas T said,

    I get sickness from any 3D computer games. I did manage to stomach playing for 30 mins or so, its quite old school not too bad. I just wished there was a wandering shop keeper selling weapons in the dungeon.