Flash back in time 20 years to the sorts of games that RPG fans were playing and you will find that stories were thin but balanced combat gameplay was better implemented than most games now. However, the lack of internal maps coupled with dealing with the low-resolution graphics, MIDI sound, incompatibility with modern systems and so on make these older games nearly impossible to enjoy for all but the hardest of hardcore. Of course, where there is demand, there is somewhere to meet it – and in recent years that has meant indie PC game developers such as Human Head and games like Legend of Grimrock. Let’s see how they did!
Legend of Grimrock is a dungeon crawling role-playing game with an oldschool heart but a modern execution. A group of prisoners are sentenced to certain death by exiling them to the secluded Mount Grimrock for vile crimes they may or may not have committed. Unbeknownst to their captors, the mountain is riddled with ancient tunnels, dungeons and tombs built by crumbled civilizations long perished now. If they ever wish to see daylight again and reclaim their freedom the ragtag group of prisoners must form a team and descend through the mountain, level by level.
The game brings back the oldschool challenge with highly tactical real-time combat and grid-based movement, devious hidden switches and secrets as well as deadly traps and horrible monsters. Legend of Grimrock puts an emphasis on puzzles and exploration and the wits and perception of the player are more important tools than even the sharpest of swords could be. And if you are a hardened dungeon crawling veteran and you crave an extra challenge, you can arm yourself with a stack of grid paper and turn on the Oldschool Mode which disables the luxury of the automap! Are you ready to venture forth and unravel the mysteries of Mount Grimrock?
While some still dismiss indie games as a derivative nostalgia trip for older gamers, over the last few years most have realized something different. They see that what these games represent is an appreciation for some of the great moments of gaming, brought forth into the modern era. These ‘new old school’ games are never simply retelling an old story – they are re-imagined genre standards brought up to date by people who loved the originals but have also been touched by all of the modern games released since then.
‘Old school’ games like Legend of Grimrock have the potential to touch those who miss what games once offered, those who never played all of the classics but know of them, and even those without a clue about the older games to whom the experience sounds intriguing. Because of this, they do not exist in a vacuum – as an example, when we had to map our adventure in Etrian Odyssey, the developers knew it was something that would be nostalgic to some and foreign to others, so they dovetailed it perfectly into the gameplay.
So what is Legend of Grimrock ABOUT? Not much, really. This is a dungeon crawler at heart, and when we look back at those historically it is as if the developers were asking ‘we gave you a massive dungeon, tons of monsters, and plenty of weapons … what ELSE do you need?’ And that is very true here – you control a group of four prisoners who did something wrong, but are able to atone for your transgressions … if you can escape from Grimrock. Your group is dumped into the top of the dungeon and if you can escape through the bottom you will go free with all charges dropped.
Legend of Grimrock takes a minimalist view of sounds. It has a great song that plays over the opening screens, but there isn’t any additional music. There are environmental sounds, monster noises and combat sounds, all of which work well within the confines of doing exactly what is needed. It is always debatable if more music and sound would have added to the game, but for me I am glad that the developers focused on what was really important.
I was impressed with the graphics of Legend of Grimrock from the start, which was affirmed for me when my kids stumbled upon me playing and asked ‘is that Skyrim’? A short bit later they would be able to tell the difference, but that they would ever mistake the two games is a tribute to the graphical quality – this is not expected for a $15 indie game. Yet the game also plays well on a broad assortment of computers with fairly modest system requirements.
I mentioned that I was ‘glad that the developers focused on what was really important’, and what I meant was GAMEPLAY. This involves puzzles, the combat system, and the balance of powers between enemies and your party.
Combat is both strategic and challenging throughout. Movement is tile-based, meaning that all of the dungeons are composed of equal-sized blocks throughout the dungeon. And movement is done on a locally turn-based system, meaning that if you are in the room with enemies they will get to move one step for every step you move. But if you choose not to move, your enemy can get in additional moves.
The same is true during combat – each of your party members has a timer associated with attacks based on their abilities and the weapons they are using. The same is true for enemies – you will find that sometimes enemies are smacking you multiple times per round, and other times you are taking out enemies before they get a single turn. Attacking can be done with either primary or secondary handed weapons, using skills or spells if you are a mage.
The magic system is interesting in that you need to learn the spells, but also need to recast them using runes each time. This makes the casting process slower, which has a great balancing effect. You can try to guess spells, but more often than not your spell will fizzle and you’ll have wasted a round and some mana.
The overall combat balance is excellent. You will likely learn a harsh lesson early on – few enemies are trivial, and in packs they are ALL deadly. If you take a casual approach as you explore you WILL die, which constantly makes you manage your resources and keep an eye on your surroundings. Also, the different classes are well balanced, with each having strengths and weaknesses that ebb and flow throughout the game.
Finally, I found the puzzles to be excellent. They were well thought out, never sending you down the trial-and-error path. And if you felt like that was happening, based on the early puzzles you would realize that chances are you were rushing and just needed to step back and think a bit more because the answer is always just around the corner.
Legend of Grimrock is an extremely well designed game, with excellent class and combat balance, great puzzles, and just loads of stuff to explore. Also, at ~15 or so hours long, it feels like just the right length. If you want more, just start with a new group – or wait for the upcoming level editor to add your own dungeons to the mix. This is definitely one of the best games I have played all year, and at times it is hard for me to remember that it only costs $15. My suggestion is to grab the DRM-free version from GoG.com, but either way you cannot go wrong!
Here is the release trailer for Legend of Grimrock:
Review: Legend of Grimrock
What I Like: Loads of challenging puzzles; Great balancing and variety of combat; Excellent graphics; Cool magic system; Every class is worth playing
What Needs Improvement: Nothing.
Source: Personal Purchase