Inspired by classic dungeon-crawls such as Might & Magic, Eye of the Beholder, and Ultima Underworld, Legend of Grimrock is a rare occurrence in today’s gaming market. In an era of gaming saturated by auto-aiming, mass-looting, cinematic elements, and cheesy writing attempts to become the next Planescape Torment, Legend of Grimrock just shrugs and provides a fun dungeon-crawl without hand-holding. Modern-gaming needed a game of this intricacy in order to remind players how to stretch those brain muscles in ways that the average game hasn’t in recent memory—just when you might have thought that Portal wouldn’t see any competition in puzzle-designs. This, ladies and gentle-gamers, is how you design a game that utilizes a combination of role-playing, puzzles, action, and looting.
One rather surprising aspect of Legend of Grimrock is the constant dread of not knowing what lays dormant around the corner, combined with your characters’ ticking food-meter and torch-light dimming. You might have purchased this game expecting a throwback to the titles mentioned above, only to realize how terrifying those classics were, and how much more terrifying Legend of Grimrock is as a graphically-technical achievement. The realistic shadows, the dim conditions of what awaits beyond your torch-light’s radius, and the ambient sounds of wind howls mixed with occasional rat squeaks will set you on edge and cause you to look over your shoulder plenty. Despite having a locked grid interface as a potential immersion-breaker, many of the enemy attack animations jolt a sense of fear in the player, from winged creatures diving into your screen, to giant spiders lurching out and wrapping their legs around you. You’ll even find yourself cringing nervously during puzzles, especially if it’s a room wide-open for unexpected interruptions.
Playing this game for a set of hours will give your brain a good work out. The sense of accomplishment from spending a few minutes searching for answers, only to stumble on a tiny button or realize an eye-opening clue on a scroll you found, is something this article cannot do justice toward. You really need to play the game yourself and experience, at first hand, the utter joy of navigating through the dungeon levels. And what’s clever about it all is the fact that the puzzles aren’t the only things keeping your brain busy. You could argue that the game, itself, is a puzzle, since you’re trying to survive and bypass the obstacles while also keeping an eye on your dwindling food and light supply; it’s actually reminiscent of the dread of darkness from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, only without the light source dying on you after ten seconds; a wise move on Grimrock’s developers, since the torches last long enough for you to find more by the time they deplete—don’t let that warning fool you, however, as a careless player will still find themselves short on food and light if they’re not consistently wary of their surroundings. Fortunately, despite having a challenging atmosphere, Legend of Grimrock is never unfair to the player—deaths are always a result of the player’s mistake, which is how a proper challenging game should be. It awards the patient, tactical players and punishes the opposite. What’s the reward for that persistence? Loot, of course.
Thankfully, Legend of Grimrock handles loot correctly, in that it doesn’t shower the player with valuables, but, rather,makes the player work hard for those treasures. What’s one of the earliest valuable items you get early on? A plain longsword—why? Because you start the game off completely naked, forced to fend off super-sized snails by chucking rocks and stabbing them with crappy daggers. The satisfaction received out of finding a secret door that leads to a basic spell for your mage, or hell, even a bow for your rogue (an item which you actually don’t receive for quite a while), is spine-twitchingly satisfying. This is a game, where the loot is not the forefront, but the cherry on top of the deal. Instead of being focused on one primary aspect of game-play, Grimrock carefully divides itself between the puzzles, loot, atmosphere, and combat— the combat, of which, is an interesting concept.
It should be stated that, while the game’s puzzles and atmosphere are well-handled, the combat is a touchy subject, since its ideas and intention lean toward the humble style of classics. Yet, to some players, especially those who don’t ‘get’ the aesthetic, it might be the part that makes or breaks the deal. Like the classic dungeon crawlers, the game-play is handled via first-person with four characters; combat is real-time and emphasizes flanking, singling-out, and kiting in many cases. One aspect that keeps the combat exciting is that, on the first play-through, you won’t expect many of the encounters that are thrown at you. One minute you’re thinking “This is easy, I can just move around in a strafing circle and they can’t hit me.” And then you enter a room where you can’t circle-strafe—but there is a switch that triggers floors to open, thus allowing you to lure enemies onto these traps. Casting spells is an interesting concept, as players must input a combination of runes on a 3×3 grid in order to cast a spell; this sounds like a recipe for disaster for hotkey-lovers, but it actually works well, since you can prepare the spell while you aren’t in combat, and the spells, themselves, do an immense amount of damage, creating a subtle balance by not allowing players to instantly cast them. Overall, your opinion of Grimrock’s combat will form out of a few notions: Does the grid-based combat bother you, and can you handle a first-person fantasy RPG that isn’t Skyrim? If you said no and yes respectively, then you’ll enjoy Grimrock’s unique take on combat, and thus enjoy the entirety of the game.
Legend of Grimrock is, without a doubt, a necessary step in modern gaming, because it reminds many new and old gamers what a game can really do when reaching beyond the simple mediocrities we’re so used to seeing, time and time again. The fact that you can also choose other campaigns (of which there are none as of its current release) is an exciting thought—maybe there could be a potential toolset for player-made-campaigns if we keep our fingers crossed. The game is solid enough that replay-value is possible, but playing new campaigns through its engine is more than welcomed. This isn’t one of those nostalgic rebirth-titles that will only appeal to a small audience, either, so hopefully new gamers who didn’t have the pleasure of experiencing the classics will have a fresh take and perspective on this genre.
Legend of Grimrock is available now on Steam, GOG.com and directly on Grimrock.net.