Legend of Grimrock Review

Legend of Grimrock is addictive in a perfectly old-school way. It’s an efficient melding of tried-and-true styles and modern visuals. It’s hard to put down. I had a good time with it.

Okay, okay, back up. Grimrock is also something of an anomaly. It’s a grid-based role-playing dungeon crawler the likes of which many gamers have probably never seen, because it’s something that just isn’t done anymore. In the world of fast-paced 3-D titles and heavily story-driven open-world games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Mass Effect 3, Grimrock is a bit of an anachronism. There’s little or no dialog, nothing in the way of character development, and the story is fairly superficial.

Legend of Grimrock (2012): PC
Developer: Almost Human Games
Publisher: Almost Human Games
Released: April 11, 2012
MSRP: $14.99

You play a group of four prisoners, each with a different class, moving together in formation on a grid through the vast multi-leveled dungeon of Grimrock. Keyboard controls allow you to move in any of four directions through the dungeon, and two more keys allow you to turn either left or right. The mouse allows you to interact with objects and controls, and each character can equip each hand with a weapon or shield or whatever.

The formation means that two of your characters are standing in the back and two in the front, and thus the back characters can’t attack effectively unless they’re using ranged or long weapons, or magic. Those attacks are executed from a small menu on the right side of the screen when you encounter enemies.

There aren’t too many enemies to encounter, however, which makes each battle a strategic and sometimes harrowing affair. You can move around the grid as you battle baddies (and they follow the same rules), so it’s possible to quickly avoid attacks and hit your foes from the sides or rear as you battle them. It’s also possible to back yourself into a corner or expose your weaker back-line characters to attack in the same way. There’s little in the way of attack animations for the player characters, and everything boils down to numbers in a menu.

Magic — one of your characters is a mage — is handled with a menu of runes, with your spell selection controlled by both your magical aptitude (determined by spending experience points) and whether you actually know the spell. Clicking the right combination of runes allows you to cast; doing so under fire is both a survival necessity and a practical difficulty when strained. It’s just another aspect that makes the methodical combat feel lively and frightening.

The downfall here is that for much of the game, monsters are really powerful, and it often means that strategy takes a back seat to running, dodging, exploiting the grid system and tricking enemies because they’re computer programs and you’ve got a real brain. Sometimes the environment lets you outsmart enemies by tricking them through traps, which is fun; other times, you’ll just dance around a bad guy, landing blows on its exposed side while it struggles to turn and face you because you inherently can move much more quickly than most anything you encounter.

In order to make it through a lot of battles, you’ll need to figure out how to exploit the game; that kind of work weakens the overall tension Grimrock’s combat sometimes manages to attain. It can be fun, but it can also be repetitive, as fights all tend to play out similarly. Couple the repetition with the fact that you’re not being a tactician but rather a cheap bastard, and Grimrock’s combat ends up being its weakest element.

You’ll also spend a lot of your time with all that regular RPG stuff that many gamers love. Inventory management is a big part of the process, and you’ll be rearranging what each character is carrying on a regular basis, to make sure the right people have the right items for when you need them most. Characters can be specialized somewhat in their classes by how you choose to level them, putting emphasis for your rogue on assassinations or throwing weapons, for example, and for your frontline warriors on armor specialization or particular weapons. Dealing with all these things in preparation for a fight is often as important as what goes on in the battle itself.

Yet for all the menus, grids and numbers, Grimrock mostly works well as a fully functional and modern version of a game genre long since overtaken by more involved and complex iterations. You quickly find you don’t need bells, whistles, detailed magic animations, five-minute cutscenes or conversation trees. All you need is a sprawling, dank dungeon, a torch to light the way, and whatever the hell you can find to keep yourself alive. And that’s what Grimrock provides.

It also packs in some challenging puzzles that grow more difficult over time, and are always satisfying to complete, involving everything from finding tiny switches hidden among the mortar work of a wall, to activating pressure plates and timing teleporters. One room early in the game mentions a “pillar of light” standing alone in the darkness: solving it entails lighting torches on the room’s large central pillar, while snuffing those in the room around it. Often players will come across big iron doors that usually hide special loot, but are more difficult than other doors to figure out. Opening them is a moment of triumph; many get left behind in defeat, to remain sealed forever. But Grimrock doesn’t compromise, nor does it coddle, and those are two of its best features.

Also rampant throughout the dungeon of Grimrock are hidden secrets. Solving puzzles to locate the next needed key or open a door is satisfying, but noticing an out-of-place rock that’s actually a switch and reveals a stash of healing roots or powerful armor is completely addictive, as always. I found myself scouring every wall for telltale signs of secrets. There are many moments when you’ll find a switch without knowing what it does, or happen across an out-of-place stone in a wall face that clicks to reveal a hidden room. Searching fro these things becomes a major endeavor.

The goal in general is always to move forward and see what else the game has in store for you. Grimrock manages to convey a lot of atmosphere without necessarily requiring a lot of story to go on. As a prisoner dropped into a dungeon with a pardon waiting for you if you’re able to survive it (no one ever has), it always feels like the walls are closing in and like death is around every corner — mostly because it is. Not every fight is a disaster, but many are really difficult. Saving often is a must. Getting steamrolled because you wandered into a room unprepared for the showdown hidden there occurs regularly. You’ll quickly find yourself taking steps carefully and straining to hear what’s approaching in the dark.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with RPGs before The Elder Scrolls, if you’re a fan of the genre at all, put Legend of Grimrock on your list. Go buy it for its easy-to-afford price of $15 on Steam or GoG. It’s a role-playing experience that hits all the right notes and for which many have been yearning.

Pros:

  • Creepy, oppressive dungeon atmosphere
  • Old-school dungeon-crawling gameplay that works beautifully with modern graphics
  • Lots of challenging puzzles
  • Good mix of strategy and action, even without a lot of animations
  • Unravels a slow-burn story in an interesting way
  • All the RPG goodness you can handle

Cons:

  • Overpowered monsters will kill you a lot — save often
  • Combat difficulty forces you to exploit enemies’ AI weaknesses rather than outplay them tactically
  • Fights tend to all play out the same way and get a bit tedious
  • Not a lot in the way of varying textures or art assets

Final Score: 85/100

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