Legend of Grimrock is a throwback to old school dungeon crawlers, combining punishing, yet rewarding gameplay with precise design. Grid-based movement with real-time combat leads to interesting combat scenarios, and the preset, non-randomised dungeon allows for excellent level design and complex mazes. The focus in Grimrock is on surviving and solving traps, puzzles and riddles while fighting off the dungeon’s less-than-friendly inhabitants. The oppressive environment is extremely immersive, and it builds and capitalises on the sense of fear, uncertainty and urgency.
The team behind Grimrock, Almost Human Ltd, has combined its prior experience in the field – among other things, they have been involved in the production of Alan Wake and Shattered Horizon – with their love for old-school dungeon crawlers like Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master to make a unique experience.
Grimrock offers the choice of using either a preset party or customising each member’s appearance and skills. Customisation of appearance and race could definitely use some improvement as currently, there is not much variety. The roles the characters play fall squarely into three distinctive classes – rogue, warrior and mage. Skill sets are modest. Do not expect to learn many flashy, powerful abilities as the majority of bonuses obtained by skills are stat-based or just slight improvements in combat performance. The main function customisation serves is to build role-playing potential, as choices other than that of class have little impact on gameplay. That said, while levelling up, you must choose wisely – the inability to redistribute skill points and the focused nature of most skills can force commitment to a particular skill build even if it does not suit your style of play.
Attacking is done by clicking on the weapons of choice under each member’s portrait, or in the case of mages, the required runes to cast spells.
The first few levels are designed to impart familiarity with basic gameplay mechanisms like gates, hidden buttons and levers. The carefully planned level design provides an elegant approach to the learning process, and the severe atmosphere is maintained by minimising the intrusion of distracting prompts. Initial levels are relatively uncomplicated, with clearly visible levers and rudimentary puzzles. Later stages become much more complicated, with interesting and innovative puzzles, traps and secrets that are a lot less obvious. The linearity of early levels soon gives way to relative freedom, and the player can choose their own way to deal with groups of tasks, which must be completed to progress.
The grid-based movement system works well for most part, but when in a hurry, it can feel clunky and it is easy to end up taking unnecessary, potentially lethal steps. This is especially painful during sequences that require timing and quick navigation, which Grimrock has aplenty. The player controls four prisoners, who are chained together and forced to cooperate in order to survive. They march in file, with two members in front, and two behind. The ones behind cannot reach enemies with most melee attacks and generally resort to using spells, ranged weapons, and whatever they can get their hands on to throw at enemies. Combat can be extremely challenging, and execution of well thought out attack strategies along with quick reflexes is needed to survive most major confrontations. The numerous traps can often be used to your advantage though and with some quick thinking, it is possible to avoid and even dispatch enemies with them.
The map allows for inserting notes on each tile and this serves as a handy navigation tool.
As the game progresses, the party is forced to make best use of its limited inventory and hold onto the items it needs most. The goal of the game is survival, not pillaging, and though there is an abundance of loot to be found in the depths, only a fraction of it can be carried along while still making space for important resources like ingredients for potions, food and torches. Failure to manage these can lead to incapacitation of the party.
The narrative, though sufficient in its own right, is not the strongest point of the experience. Some of the many scrolls, wall-carvings, letters and notes you stumble across during your exploration help to develop it, but it is possible to have a satisfying experience without getting too involved in the game’s story. Paying attention to signs and notes is important, however, as they can often mean the difference between life and death – offering hints to puzzles, warnings of traps and hinting at the location of hidden stashes. Rune combinations for spells and ingredient lists for various potions can also be found in this manner.
The interface is straightforward and there are no redundant systems, but at the same time, it suffers from a lack of accessibility. The charm of using the mouse for the majority of actions and interaction can quickly turn to frustration in combat. Small additions like key-bindings and the ability to secure items to the hands of party members (currently, a moment of confusion can lead to accidentally throwing your sword away in the middle of a fight) could go a long way towards eliminating the few inconveniences in an otherwise polished game.
Factors like light and sound play a crucial role in building the ambience, and there are many interesting ways in which the game approaches atmosphere building.
The dungeon of Grimrock is brought to life and given character. It is not just another monster-filled labyrinth, but is an adversary in itself that tries to trap, kill or drive insane any who dare intrude. An excellent job is done setting the mood for a good dungeon crawl, and this is one of the defining aspects of the game. Graphically, Grimrock might not be able to compare to the detail and textures of high-budget games, but it still manages to look impressive. Weapon, monster and environmental design are fairly varied, with a promise of additional content and a level editor in the future.
For a four-man team and a development cycle of just over a year, Almost Human has produced a work of great refinement, breathing fresh air into a genre that has not seen many innovative and successful releases over the last decade. The thoughtful, reserved pace of gameplay might not appeal to all audiences, but fans of classic role-playing games and dungeon crawlers should definitely consider testing their mettle in the depths of Grimrock.