Six levels down and the party is slowly succumbing to starvation. The mage has taken it the hardest. After that last battle he’s been suffering the effects of disease. Even though every turn takes you further into the labyrinthine depths of the mountain, you must press on. Suddenly, a lumbering shadow shifts in front of a torch across the room. The beast roars, signalling a thunderous charge but also giving your party precious seconds to dodge out of the way. The creature is swallowed by the yawning shadows of the hallway behind you. Your quarry groans from blackness as you prepare a flank for when it emerges. The shambling ogre takes one step from around the corner and your warrior manages one strong blow before the ogre’s mighty cudgel crushes half your party. Sigh. Reload.
Legend of Grimrock is the reason I’m sitting here staring at a sheet of paper with several hastily scribbled maps, a numerical sequence used to deduce the order in which switches should be pulled, and a running tally of the times I’ve rage-quit (I’m up to 8). Grimrock is a first person dungeon crawler that has caught the eye of the gaming community. Players and monsters are confined to a grid but still move and attack in real time. The developers of Grimrock champion the game as a throwback to old school titles like Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master. Of course in the current gaming lexicon, old school is a pretty slippery term. For some it simply means a nostalgic or simplified artistic style. For others, old school represents a long gone golden age of game design where developers took risks and pushed the boundaries of genres. For most though, the term old school means one thing: you’ll die a lot.
From the start, the game seems deceptively simple. You select a difficulty and customize a party using a fairly basic character sheet. You can use a premade party, but what kind of self-respecting RPG fan would do that? The hand-painted character portraits are a nice touch and with a recent patch, you can even import your own. The four races, Human, Minotaur, Lizardman, and Insectoid, each emphasize your typical RPG roles. Minotaurs are great fighters and should always be on the front line while Lizardmen make good rogues and Insectoids’ naturally high willpower makes for excellent mages. As always, Humans are the jack-of-all-trades race but make up for their lack of specialization with more starting skill-points. It should be noted that though the races tend to veer towards certain classes, it’s not as though unique race-class combinations are totally unviable. Insectoids for instance can select a special trait that gives them more armor and their high willpower allows them to perform more combat skills before needing to rest.
After party creation, you’re giving an opening slideshow explaining that your party of four are actually prisoners who have just been pardoned. The problem is that your crimes are only absolved as you fall into a pit atop Grimrock. It’s here that it is also revealed that the party is chained together. The opening moments of the game seem almost insultingly basic. The layout of the rooms and the simplicity of the early puzzles may make you wonder if the game is just going to be a series randomly generated rooms and tunnels.Don’t be fooled though; Grimrock grows in complexity very quickly and there are many secrets hidden in the early levels of the dungeon. When you encounter your first monster, combat too is rather basic. Your party members in the rear cannot attack without ranged weapons or magic but are also safe from melee attacks from the front. You can also flank your enemies for an increased chance to hit and more damage. While the easy monsters of the early levels don’t require much in the way of tactics, learning to flank effectively is invaluable at the later stages of the game. Sadly, even at the lowest levels, single opponents can still be defeated without the party taking any damage at all because of numerous ways one can exploit the grid.
While the combat can be extremely exciting/frustrating, the puzzles are the real meat of Grimrock. They range from complex logic problems that frequently punish players for using trial and error to hidden switches that are subtly etched into the walls. I myself have spent more than an hour on a particular instance of the latter. That hand-drawn map I mentioned earlier was not an exaggeration. The sheer size of the levels demands exploration and completionists will pull their hair out at the staggering number of secrets (there are entire levels of the dungeon that are cut-off to all but the most meticulous adventurers). Magic itself is handled as a miniature puzzle through a 3×3 grid of runes. In your downtime, you can experiment to find the combination for each spell or you can learn them through scrolls hidden in the dungeon. During combat, having to key in the spells adds a hectic dimension to otherwise stale battles.
Where Grimrock starts simple and stays simple is in the story. Aside from the brief introduction, there are snippets of story revealed through dreams when the party rests. Without giving anything away, the plot is streamlined enough to give the game a kind of self-containment without ever explaining too much. The physical edition of the game actually comes with a map of the world but other nations aren’t even mentioned in game except in item descriptions. While a simple story isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it seems curious that so little in the game is ever actually explained. Additionally, after the main story has concluded there isn’t much of a drive to play through the game again. There are additional difficulty levels that speed up the combat and there are always more secrets in Grimrock, but the game loses the essential sense of mystery and exploration that powers the first playthrough.
Overall though, Legend of Grimrock is a fantastic start from Finnish developer Almost Human. Looking beneath the simple and repetitive surface of the game reveals a great deal of polish and balance. The opening menu also hints that there could be more dungeons (either from the developer or the community) added later to extend the life of the product. As it stands currently though, it’s a fantastic experience especially for the $15 price tag.