Written by  :  Daniel Saner (3238)
Written on  :  Mar 06, 2017
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  2.83 Stars2.83 Stars2.83 Stars2.83 Stars2.83 Stars

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Nostalgic dungeon crawler with pacing issues and a lack of variety

The Good

It's a modern tribute to a much-beloved classic genre, and does a decent job with its main concepts. Exploring the dungeon and looking for secrets can be motivating for quite a while. There are a lot of items to find and monsters to fight. The dungeons also often look very nice, despite showing little variety. Especially the lighting effects are very convincing. A dungeon editor and more extensive modding capabilities allow players to extend the game with their own content.

The Bad

There is a glaring lack of variety in content. Too much of the dungeon looks the same, enemies may look different but the fights rarely require any real tactical thinking from the player. To top it off, character progression is almost entirely irrelevant to the game. It's not that the game is hard to beat, but that the choices have very little effect at all, and improving talents rarely makes any noticeable difference. Ultimately, the game looks like an authentic recreation of classic dungeon crawlers on the surface, but its problems with pacing and variety keep it from really reaching the same level of quality.

The Bottom Line

Legends of claustrophobia

You can't accuse Legend of Grimrock of making false promises. It never claims to revolutionise a genre or introduce novel concepts. What it wants to be is a traditional, nostalgic dungeon crawler action RPG. The obvious inspirations are even mentioned by name in the official description: Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, and Ultima Underworld served as more than just a little inspiration. If you're familiar with those games, particularly if you played them around the time they were released, you will know that they're some big names to try and live up to.

It's easy to dismiss this kind of tribute as unimaginative and formulaic, But when criticising games for not taking risks and sticking to established concepts, one tends to overlook that the reason these concepts became popular in the first place is that they're fun.

Three basic elements are responsible for the addictive qualities of dungeon crawler games. First, the exploration of environments riddled with traps, puzzles and secrets. Second, real-time combat against various monsters with some tactical challenge. Third, the collection of equipment and improvement of characters, in order to survive increasingly dangerous areas and fights. So, very systematically, I'm going to check how well Legend of Grimrock does in these qualities.

To the underground!

That you rarely journeyed above ground in the early titles of the genre, but spent your time exploring dungeons and caves, was probably mainly down to technical limitations of the time. Graphical performance and memory limitations meant that there was a trade-off between size and detail of the game world. Some games, like The Elder Scrolls: Arena, used procedurally generated worlds to fake expansive landscapes. The role models for Grimrock, on the other hand, went for spatially limited, but in return all the more detailed underground worlds.

So you start your game inside the titular Mount Grimrock, an unnaturally high and vertical mountain at the border of a typical fantasy kingdom that is not described in more detail. At its peak, reachable only by airship, old statues and an obviously artificial entrance into the mountain's interior are evidence of a previous civilisation's activities.

The king would like to know more about that, and explore Mount Grimrock further. This already earns him some sympathy in my book. Whereas most fantasy monarchs are primarily interested in power, wealth and territory, this one seems to care about science and knowledge, too. A quality that is sorely lacking from many real-world positions of power. Unfortunately, the king's efforts so far haven't proven very successful. Only very few expedition members have ever left the mountain alive, and their reports speak of brutal monsters and confusing hallways.

The characters players will take control of are not in the king's good graces. All of them are convicted criminals, and about to be thrown into the gorge of Mount Grimrock. This is not strictly a capital punishment, though. Chosen for their abilities in combat, the king hopes that these prisoners might have a chance to explore the mountain and survive its dangers. Should they manage to leave the mountain alive, they'll get a royal pardon. The court would gain knowledge about the secrets of Grimrock, the prisoners their freedom.

Just like back in the day, but prettier

Wide, open landscapes are no longer problematic to realise these days. Still, Legend of Grimrock profits from sticking to the claustrophobic undergrounds of its spiritual predecessors. While a small, independent development studio probably doesn't have the resources to compete with the massive game worlds of The Elder Scrolls or The Witcher, they can achieve pretty competitive results within the limited confines of a dungeon.

Those lend themselves exceptionally well to nice lighting effects. The flames of torches let pillars throw dramatic shadows, magical light sources douse caverns in a mysterious, blue aura. That's why it's a bit of a shame that while playing the game, you'll usually be carrying a rather calm light source with you, to find your way through the hallways. The visually most impressive moments are always when a torch happens to go out, or you have to create some darkness in order to solve a puzzle.

But the light also lets the walls of the dungeon itself look pretty decent, with a clearly visible profile on the rockface. If you're going to limit yourself to corridors of grey and brown stone, it's only fair if those look decent. It's only a small consolation, though, for the fact that there is very little visual diversity in the game. The walls changing their design every few levels has to be enough for the most part.

The enemies are very nicely modelled and animated, too. The group of heroes itself remains invisible, though, as the game is played strictly from a first-person perspective. The attack animations and spells are very simplistically rendered, as well. A few simple overlays and particle effects are all you get. You don't really see much of those anyway, though, as during fights you'll mostly be focussing on the buttons that you use to manually trigger all the actions.

Clicking in the dark

Each attack, each throw of a rock, each spell, has to be activated separately by the player. There are two action buttons per character, one for each hand. Weapons and items held there are activated through a click of the right mouse button, after which they will be locked for a certain period of recovery. The challenge of the fights therefore consists mainly of coordinating the timing of attacks, while manoeuvring the party of heroes around enemies to provide little surface of attack. The latter is naturally not very easy in a system of tight hallways with only occasionally a few wider rooms.

Spells are particularly challenging, since they have to be composed each time, using one or more runes out of a set of nine. Because there are only a few spells, the important ones are memorised quickly, but the many clicks required are still a challenge in the heat of battle. You can find the rune patterns on scrolls found throughout the game, or discover them through experimenting (same as with the alchemy system, where mortar and pestle, empty flasks, and herbal ingredients combine into potions).

Mages are additionally weakened by their energy resources for casting spells not really increasing much even for later parts of the game, while recharging only very slowly. Especially in longer fights, they tend to quickly end up rather uselessly trotting along with the other, still actively engaged fighters.

The fights lose their appeal very quickly. There is not much diversity, the tactics of all the enemy types are pretty much identical, and due to the grid-based movement, players can't get too creative either. Most fights end up in the same pattern: lure single enemies into an area wide enough to avoid their attacks, moving around them in circles, and attacking them from the sides or behind whenever one character's attack cooldown timer is up. A 2×2 area is almost always enough for experienced players to completely avoid taking damage, as long as there aren't multiple enemies attacking at once. The monsters, who for the most part stick close to fantasy genre archetypes, also don't show any signs of intelligence, and just attack whatever they can reach in a straight line.

Characters without character

The lack of depth extends to character progression. The heroes can belong to any of four races and three classes. You don't really have to think about any of that, nor do you need to make compromises. Ultimately, any character will simply focus on one of melee combat, ranged combat, or spellcasting. A relatively sensible default group is available if you don't feel like customising. There is hardly any reason to deviate from the standard group composition. There also isn't much point in changing their battle formation (characters in the back row can't take damage from enemies attacking from the front, but also can't attack them using most close-quarters weapons).

Much worse is the fact that decisions made during the game have practically no impact either. Characters gain experience and rise through levels, each time earning skill points that can be distributed across six talents per class. But compared to the length of the game, not nearly enough experience can be gained to make the system interesting. You'll get to reach maximum skill level, and the corresponding bonuses, in at most one talent per character by the time you reach the end of the game. There's virtually no point in investing in more than one or two skills, because then you'll never earn the more interesting rewards.

Most of the rewards only affect numeric values anyway, though. With time, your heroes will survive some tougher fights, are more resistant to specific dangers, or attack harder. You don't have to adjust your way of playing for any of that, so Legend of Grimrock plays very much identically from the beginning of the game to the finale. Spells and certain weapons can only be used if a minimum skill level is achieved. But because items are fixed, and you'll find the same ones in the same places every time you play, there are also strictly beneficial and pointless choices when deciding how to train your characters. If you don't train those skills that allow your heroes to benefit from the strongest weapons you find towards the end of the game, their talents are simply wasted, and you'll have a slightly harder time in later stages.

A one-off pleasure

In summary Legend of Grimrock does a good job imitating the genre standards of exploration, combat and character progression, but offers way too little diversity. You fight your way through several floors of rocky labyrinths, which are broken up infrequently with some more interesting rooms, click through numerous tactically identical fights which quickly become more tiring than challenging, and never feel like you have any real influence on your characters' development. Replaying the game a second time is not very tempting either, except for a personal challenge with a higher difficulty level or a more challenging group of heroes. Each playthrough will be identical, down to the location of every last treasure and rock.

This also impairs the offered «old school mode», which deactivates the automatically drawn map of the dungeon, and urges players to draw their own on grid paper. The game even comes with a template to print out and use. However, if you would like to try that mode, you should do so from the very beginning, or otherwise be okay with the fact that you'll remember much of the dungeon's layout and secrets from your first playthrough. It's not possible to change the level of difficulty, or switch on or off the automap, after a game has begun.

None of this prevents Legend of Grimrock from being quite a bit of fun the first time you play it through. If you can live with the visual uniformity of the dungeon, you can really enjoy exploring it. There are many secrets to discover, and notes scattered throughout tell a side plot about a previous explorer. Looking for every last secret might not be everybody's cup of tea, since you're mostly examining walls for less obvious buttons, which is closer to a hidden object game than to a mental challenge. Two or three riddles are also quite unfair, not really giving any hints on what you're supposed to do. But I never felt that this was the case for puzzles required to complete the game.

What could be a bit irritating to experienced players is the fact that you're not supposed to avoid the pits and trapdoors. Unlike what you might be used to from other games, they never lead directly to the death of your characters. They will drop down one level, and get hurt just slightly. Exploring the pits is therefore even necessary in order to find all items and secrets of the game. Given the genre conventions, it might have been helpful to point out that fact a bit more clearly.

The main adventure is taking on more interesting aspects as you get contacted by a mysterious figure who seems to know more about the history and background of the mountain. It only really falls apart towards the end of the game. The story twists towards a surprising revelation – and is then resolved in a final battle that is both logically inconsistent and dull to play. It's not that the fight is particularly difficult to win, it's actually easier than several fights in earlier parts of the game. But the pattern of attack and the circumstances of the area eradicate even the last pretence of tactics. It ends up being all about repeating the same trick a few dozen times. The ending is not very satisfying either, even though it's told through very pretty, hand-painted pictures, same as the story's introduction.

The dungeon editor that comes with the game might have helped its longevity somewhat. But because the game itself sorely lacks variety, creating your own dungeons and adventures is not all too motivating either. Only relatively few genuinely interesting modifications seem to have been released by the community. However, it's of course very admirable that the possibility is there in the first place.

Duration: about 15 hours
Skill required: medium
Mental challenge: low