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