Legend of Grimrock Review «

Legend of Grimrock Review

It would be easy to dismiss Legend of Grimrock as little more than a first-person party-based RPG nostalgia trip. A group of adventurers. A dungeon. The promise of loot. Magic, monsters, and mayhem. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the likes of Mass Effect 3, but in what seems like an age ago, this was all you needed in a roleplaying game. This adaptation of the old Dungeon Master formula (which dates back to 1987) shows that this sort of RPG can not only exist in the fancy-schmancy era of modern RPGS, but succeed as well.

Grimrock is fun. It’s frustrating. And more so than many RPGs today, it’s atmospheric. You can almost feel the dungeon’s weight pressing on you, as if the darkness that cloaks the corridors laying just outside the range of your torch is tangible, as you explore its halls. It develops tension well, as you hear monsters slithering in corners unseen, the telltale click of pressure plates, and the whoosh of a fireball after you deftly sidestep it. Its got pit traps. Teleports. Spinner squares. A rune-based magic system. And monsters that leave edible chunks on the floor when ya kill ’em.

Regardless of your party’s makeup, you’re goal is simple: Find your way out.

Grimrock starts off simply: Your party of prisoners (which may be comprised of pre-generated characters or your own creations from four classes and races) is thrown into the dungeon. The classes come straight from the good-old days: Fighter, Rogue, and Mage. The races are a little more interesting: In addition to humans, you’ve got Minotaurs, Lizardmen, and Insectoids. Humans are good for any job. The raw strength of the Minotaur is well suited to the warrior arts. The realm’s peoples view Lizardmen with distrust, and their swift manner makes them excellent Rogues. And not much is known about the Insectoids, making them a good fit for the mysterious way of the Mage. Regardless of your party’s makeup, you’re goal is simple: Find your way out. But as you plumb Grimrock’s depths, you discover that something else is going on, something more than just a mere prison for down-on-their-luck adventurers.

A Faithful Adaptation

What makes Grimrock so fun is its authenticity. I was giddy as I explored the first level (though that giddiness sometimes turned to frustration while coping with some of the more difficult puzzles deeper in the dungeon), lost in the old-fashioned fun of pressing buttons on walls to open gates, flipping switches, clicking on my character’s weapons for attacks, assembling spells from runes, and picking loot off the floor. I found I had especially missed the “assembling runes” spell system, something I first experienced in Dungeon Master and that you don’t see in RPGs anymore; while the dungeon provides formulas for a number of spells, you can also figure ’em out for yourself. The combinations don’t allow for you to boost the strength of spells, as they do in Dungeon Master. And you can’t create potions with spells, either, as you could in Dungeon Master.

You’ll have a very hard time making friends in the dungeons of Grimrock.

Instead, you make potions using ingredients you find in the dungeon and a mortar-and-pestle. Energy isn’t the limiting resource; it’s the ingredients. And this means if you don’t have the materials handy to craft a healing potion, you’ve got just two options: resting and resurrection stones (most levels have one). When you rest, you regain hit points and energy, and resurrection stones not only bring you back to life (this is the only way to bring back dead characters) but also heal you and save your progress. And don’t forget: Monsters can attack you while resting, so be sure to pick a save place before doing so. This in itself is another throwback to old-school RPGs; remember running back to the Adventurer’s Guild, bereft of spellpower and low on health, while exploring Skara Brae in The Bard’s Tale? Don’t be surprised if you find yourself racing back across a level (or even upstairs to a previous level) in order to heal your party or bring back the dead. I certainly don’t mind this, though I would’ve enjoyed creating potions with spells over ingredients. Maybe some modder will find a way for us to do both.

You have a variety of weapons to choose from, but I found myself sticking with one or two per character.

Combat’s a lot of fun, but it suffers from the same weaknesses as Dungeon Master and its ilk. After each attack, there’s a cooldown on your weapons and spells, one that takes longer than many of the dungeon’s inhabitants’ attacks. You have a variety of weapons to choose from, but I found myself sticking with one or two per character. In order to make the best of each weapon, you’ll want to put as many points into its skill as possible, and this naturally results in focusing on one weapon per character. For example, my Rogue split points between missile weapons and thrown weapons, which is handy for throwing bombs enchanted with cold or poison.

Get ready to become besties with resurrection stones.

The greatest weakness in Grimrock’s combat is that while monsters grow progressively stronger as you move deeper into the dungeon, they still remain vulnerable to the time-honored tactic of “cheesing:” moving rapidly around the monster and attacking before it can react to your movements. Yet with its limitations, I enjoyed — and sometimes exhilarating — to hunt monsters in Grimrock. You can see how much damage you’re dishing out, but since your foes don’t have health bars, you’re never quite sure when they’re going to die (especially the first time you encounter one). As the giant spiders and other critters skulk about the dungeon, their feet (be they chitinous, shod in rusted metal, or not even feet but wings) scrapping along the floor, you sometimes get the sense that they’re stalking you. Some of the creature designs are aces, like the land crabs, which are covered in spiky chitin and make an unsettling chirping sound when they attack or are hit. The “Cthulhu priests” are especially frightening–with tentacles hanging out of their hoods and lamps swinging in their hands, these robed figures chase after you with spells of fire, ice, and lightning.

One of the extras is a PDF file of stylized graph paper.

Grimrock comes with an automap feature which allows you to also add notes, but one of the extras is a PDF file of stylized graph paper. I mapped out the first level, but it was painstaking work; it’s much quicker to let the automap do so for you. You must decide at the beginning whether or not to use it. The manual also reflects Grimrock’s old-school nature, even showing you just a sampling of the the monsters, hinting at the some of the other dungeon’s other dangers.

A Thinking Man’s RPG

The best aspect of Grimrock is its puzzles, which have been largely abandoned by RPG developers in this age of Internet hints and walkthroughs. Some of the puzzles are easy, and others rely on the “institutional knowledge” of playing this sort of RPG in the past (like using combinations of pressure plates and teleports to open doors). A portion of the more challenging puzzles become easier thanks to hints left on scrolls around the dungeon; some are easy to find, though you won’t earn a few of them without figuring out a puzzle or two . Others are true mind-benders (I never figured out how to open the gates into one lightning-spouting room deeper in the dungeon, and I finished the game without exploring this part of the level). One puzzle is unlike anything I’d experienced in this sort of RPG before — I don’t want to spoil it, but it does involve the demon heads you see periodically. And yes, sometimes you have to dive into a pit to figure out a puzzle, so don’t hesitate to do so when other solutions don’t work (and sometimes, these have valuable treasure.

Make sure you spread the love (see: skills) around.

What makes Legend of Grimrock so fantastic is that, even if you beat it, you likely won’t solve all of its puzzles and find all of its treasures. Grimrock begs for further exploration, testing party builds and the limits of the dungeon’s inhabitants. And it isn’t long (I finished in 34 hours, but I spent time trying out different characters, experimenting with many traps, and, ahem, got stuck once or twice; focused players should finish in 15 hours or so). Legend of Grimrock is a strong debut for Almost Human, and I’m excited to see what other dungeons they put out and the mods that players create.


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