Archive for May, 2012

Mazes and Monsters

Old-school is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. By me, by you, by every poseur who liked it before it was cool. Legend of Grimrock is firmly an old-school game, though. It hearkens back to both the earliest PC RPGs like Wizardry, as well as the dedicated dungeon crawlers like Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder. The focus here isn’t on open-world exploration or deep character interaction – in Grimrock, it’s about solving puzzles, putting together clues, and surviving long enough to make it to the lowest levels of the dungeon. It’s about killing monsters, leveling your party and finding better equipment. And it’s about scouring every inch of the dungeon for hidden secrets.

Mastering the Dungeon

Legend of Grimrock drops your party of four into the titular dungeon with just the clothes on their backs. Your party can be composed of any combination of fighters, thieves, and wizards from four races – humans, minotaurs, lizardmen and insectoids. Humans are average jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none types; minotaurs are tough and strong but consume more food; lizardmen are quick but not very energetic; and insectoids are frail but superior mages. A careful mix is necessary, as too many minotaurs may leave your party weak and starving, while too many insectoids may leave them unable to fend off even weak attacks.

The game is played in real time, and the map is segmented into a grid. If you decide to play in old-school mode, the game doesn’t automap for you (meaning you’ll have to break out some graph paper). Basically, it’s  classic dungeon-crawling at its finest. You fight monsters, solve puzzles (many of which require both brains and dexterity on the keyboard) and hunt for secrets. In Grimrock, secrets aren’t just little bonuses – some of the hidden stuff that requires a lot of work to get to can make the game significantly easier. While you’ll find a decent amount of bog-standard longswords and breastplates lying around, the best magic scrolls, arms and armor are well-hidden behind secret doorways and dastardly traps.

The magic system involves clicking a series of runes and then clicking the “cast” button, allowing you to quickly fling up a powerful spell or keep one ready for the unknown that may be around the corner. The game doesn’t include a spellbook; rather, you have to hunt through the dungeon to find scrolls that list the rune combinations needed to cast spells. You also have to have the appropriate amount of ability points put into the particular school of magic (i.e. air, fire, earth) that you want to use.

Which brings us to the leveling system. The leveling is pretty straightforward; you gain experience through battling monsters and when you level up, you gain a few ability points to advance your character’s skills. Depending on the amount of points put in, skills can add more powerful attacks, increase attributes, unlock new magic, or offer the ability to use heavier armors with penalties. Each class has a few unique skills that the others can’t access; for example, a fighter can specialize in swords or maces but not in daggers or throwing weapons, which a thief can. It’s functionally a very simple system, but balancing your character can take a bit of thought.

Between Grimrock and a Hard Place

Despite the simplicity at its heart, make no mistake: Legend of Grimrock is not an easy game. Even playing on Normal difficulty there were times when I could barely scrape out of some encounters with my party intact. Sometimes winning fights is about a well-timed sidestep rather than just swinging away and throwing fireballs. You can’t rest infinitely – if you rest every time you fight, you’ll soon find yourself running out of food. In the lower levels of the dungeon it can be a delicate balance if you’ve been struggling along and not hoarding every bit of food you come across. Grimrock definitely rewards you for mastering movement as well as the leveling system.

As far as technical measures go, the graphics are fine. Nothing groundbreaking, but they do their job. Creatures (especially skeleton legionnaires and mind-flayers) look pretty good, and are well-animated. There is no music in the game besides the title screen theme, instead going for atmospheric ambient sound. The lighting effects are excellent, although these will tax weaker rigs.

The Final Verdict

It’s impossible to overstate my enthusiasm for and enjoyment of Legend of Grimrock. Almost Human did a terrific job bringing the classic first-person dungeon crawl into the modern age. It may not break any new ground, but it’s a game that’s fantastic to play, with numerous well-designed dungeons and mind-bending puzzles. And especially considering its price: I’ve had more fun with Grimrock than with some games that cost quadruple its modest $15 price tag. I hope we hear from Almost Human again, real soon.