It would be easy to hate The Legend of Grimrock. The unquestionably old school gameplay flies in the face of all the modern conveniences of the roleplaying genre. Characters getting hurt? No problem, just run to a local store and buy a stack of potions. Someone die? A mere trifle! Just use magic (or items) to bring them back and why not call forth magic powerful enough to bring down the heavens while you’re at it? Harkening back to the early days of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale, Grimrock strips away such creature comforts and pits players against the most dangerous of adversaries: the unknown. As a result, The Legend of Grimrock can be a frustrating, unfair and keyboard throwing experience but once you understand and play by the game’s rules, you’ll discover a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive adventure.
Deep within the mountains of an unnamed world lies the mighty spire of Grimrock. Shrouded in mystery, it has become a dumping ground for criminals who are promised absolution of all misdeeds if they can successfully navigate to the deepest depths of the dungeon. Problem is, no one has ever escaped (well, except for one). As Grimrock’s latest victims, you’ll need to guide a party of four through each floor of the dungeon solving puzzles and battling terrifying monsters.
Before I get into the review proper, I want to emphasize one important tactic: QUICK SAVE. Quick save is your friend. Quick save as often as possible. Quick save. Quick Save. QUICK SAVE.
The Legend of Grimrock is a first person roleplaying game that obeys a lot of rules established in old pen and paper tabletop games. You may choose to create your own party (or have the game build one) choosing from a number of races and classes, assigning initial traits and distributing skill points. Classes include warriors, sorcerers and assassins and each come with their own unique talents and abilities that can be developed over time. A sorcerer’s skill in performing spells is based on what field of magic you spend points in and Minotaurs can earn skill bonuses with certain gear by collecting skulls. Building a proper party to tackle the creatures in Grimrock is a major key to success, so be mindful of creating a “jack of all trades” group. The formation of your party is important to consider as well. Stronger members should be placed in the front row (as they will bear the brunt of any attack) and your weaker, support party members kept in the back.
Each floor in Grimrock is a complex, grid-based map and movement is limited to one step forward, backward or left and right strafe. As you would in a tabletop game, your party must pivot left or right in order to interact with objects and face enemies. With each step, the party’s path is marked within a journal that can be called up at any time in order to visualize where you’ve been and for added convenience, notes can be created to remind you of danger spots or tricky puzzles. The map feature is incredibly useful, unless you opt to play the game in Adventure Mode which does not track your progress, so keep plenty of graph paper on hand.
Your initial foray into the dungeon is light, allowing for the opportunity to familiarize yourself with movement and navigation before the monstrous denizens make an appearance. Combat takes place in real time and attacking is done by clicking on your party’s equipped weapons in order to strike. Spamming attacks isn’t possible as the actions of your party are dictated by energy costs and cooldown periods. At first, a weak party will experience difficulty with fighting as attacks often miss their mark, but the more experience you earn to level up makes the group a force to be reckoned with. When characters level up, skill points can be allocated to different abilities that yield useful perks such as increased health, evasion and weapon and armor proficiencies.
Most of your battles will take place in long, narrow corridors, but large open spaces allow for a degree of strategy (or cheating) by giving your party an opportunity to flank from different sides in order to obtain helpful attack bonuses. Damage against your party is determined by its position relative to the enemy, so it is imperative to be aware of your surroundings at all times lest you get flanked or trapped in corners. Grimrock is a underground menagerie of monsters, from giant slugs to skeleton warriors and slimes, but no matter how powerful your foes may be, you can easily game the enemies by following an attack/retreat/attack/retreat strike pattern or, if you happen to be standing in front of a door, use an open door/strike/close door routine. Exploiting the weakness of the AI and the environment can make your victories feel somewhat hollow, but when an Ogre has killed all but one member of the party, you’d be willing to take any advantage you can get.
Monsters are not the only thing you’ll fear in Grimrock as the dungeons are littered with nefarious puzzles designed to keep people away (from what, hmm?). Approaching each puzzle is an exercise in trial and error, recognizing movement patterns and scribbling down notes. The game really doesn’t offer any help, save for cryptic clues left behind by a previous explorer. While many puzzles will lead you to items necessary to advance to the next level, each map holds a wealth of secret alcoves and passages that lead to valuable gear and items. Finding these secret areas, however, require sharp eyes as triggers have been built into the walls. It is worth your while to seek out these hidden areas as the items they yield are incredibly valuable. Because there are no weapon or item shops in Grimrock, furious scrounging is a must.
Each party member has their own inventory that can be expanded by collecting sacks and chests found throughout the game. That said, every object has weight and should your party become overencumbered, movement and combat effectiveness is significantly reduced. Just as each character has their individual combat role, these roles apply to item management. Ideally, the sorcerer will hold flasks and herbs in order to create potions, the ranged fighter will hold all throwable objects and warriors keep the heavy equipment. With every step, swing and moment of rest taken, the party will eventually go hungry. Random bits of food can be found hidden away in various nooks and crannies and in some cases, monsters will drop consumable items. Keeping your party healthy and properly maintained is just as important as finding good gear.
The Legend of Grimrock is a slick looking piece of software that uses the Unreal Engine to create some truly stellar lighting effects. Shadows dance as the light from torches and portals flicker in the wind and giant slugs glisten as light reflects off their slimy surfaces. For the most part, monster designs are fairly generic. Until you have your first encounter with an Ogre, that is. I love how the massive beast lumbers throughout the dungeon, how the low roof forces it to hunch down slightly and the genuine feeling of terror experienced when the beast lets out a roar before charging in your direction. Just seeing it move out from the shadows is enough to wet your pants. Screenshots ultimately don’t do the creature’s animations justice.
The environment of Grimrock changes as you descend into the depths and what starts out as an old, abandoned cave eventually shifts to a temple-like area, complete with proper masonry and giant carved statuary. The game’s UI is clean, compact and tucked into the bottom corner of the screen and inventory menus appear off to the side so you won’t have to worry about floating windows obscuring your view of the action.
Grimrock does a great job of taking players outside of their comfort zones, forcing them to adapt to an older style of play that comes with its own sets of rules. While it takes some getting used to, sticking with the game for an extended period of time quickly becomes a rewarding experience. There’s a great fear of the unknown in Grimrock as it is impossible to know what lies just around the corner. Monsters don’t go out of their way to announce their presence, save for their footsteps. The footsteps of skeleton soldiers or the flapping of bat wings gets to be so unnerving that a deep feeling of dread and terror easily sets in. Fear is not limited to monster encounters. I recall moving around in the third map when my torch started going out. As the light dimmed, I ran around frantically searching for another light source before being swallowed in darkness. When I eventually picked up a fresh torch, I was filled with a sense of calm and peace as the adrenaline rush wore down.
As exciting as moments like this can be, Grimrock isn’t without its faults. Many players will find it difficult to adapt to the wildly different RPG experience and if one were to blindly rush into combat, the game will end quickly. Regardless of how you approach combat, it is easy to feel frustrated with the frequency at which your characters will miss the target. Despite placing a large number of skill points in a warrior’s Sword ability, he will miss from time to time. And missing a target counts as a move, so you’ll have to wait for the cooldown to expire before striking again. Still, moments such as these help to increase the tension and keep you on the edge of your seat.
In a way, The Legend of Grimrock is a lot like Dark Souls. The game rewards calculated, meticulous play and any severe injuries or deaths are likely a result of not taking in your surroundings. There are a lot of ways to die in Grimrock and if you’re not paying attention, taking the time to search out better gear and learn to craft potions, you’re going to have a difficult time with it. However, there’s a great feeling of accomplishment as you traverse each floor, defeating powerful monsters and figuring out puzzle solutions on your own.