Few games have both enthralled and enraged me as much as Grimind, a new 2D horror platformer for the PC from solo developer Pawel Mogila. With a set-up reminiscent of Limbo and as horrifying an atmosphere as that of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, this game puts a peculiar spin on the horror genre and keeps you guessing until the end.
Grimind begins and ends in darkness. Players are put in the strange (metaphorical) shoes of an unnamed creature whose species remains rather ambiguous. To me, he seems to resemble a hedgehog. He wakes up alone and amnesic in the midst of what appears to be a network of underground caves and tunnels. Because it is, after all, a horror game, he soon discovers that he is not truly alone. As players struggle to solve complex and treacherous puzzles to progress through levels they must also survive the dangers lurking in the shadows.
If, like me you are an average gamer with a passion for scary stories but only middling levels of puzzle-solving confidence and patience, prepare to feel your blood-pressure rise. The riddles and obstacles of Grimind are touted on the official website as being “challenging,” and it’s no joke. While the deceptively easy first level serves as a basic tutorial stage to introduce players to the controls and physics of the game, the rest of the game is guaranteed to tease your brain to the point of breaking it completely.[private_insider]The creativity behind the puzzle designs is inspiring; it is generally only in the technical manifestation of those ideas that flaws appear. I appreciate good, stimulating brainteasers – especially ones as interesting as some of those found in Grimind. What I do not appreciate is being forced to repeatedly slog all the way through the same brainteaser fifty times because of a slightly misjudged jump or a badly timed step. There is no manual save option, so if the trial-and-death mechanic tends to drive you insane, you might end up pulling all your hair out and talking in tongues by the end of the game – if you manage to get that far. As of this writing, my death count stands at over 300 and I have only found four of twelve secrets, three of which proved fatal.
As far as aesthetics go, Grimind is imperfectly wonderful. Though the graphics could conceivably be more detailed and a bit more sophisticated, the level design is varied and colorful enough to keep even a jaded horror game player’s imagination engaged. Shadows flicker and move realistically, whereas the plain little black boxes that serve as enemies seem disappointingly crude in comparison. Ragdoll physics are fun at first, but become frustrating when solving puzzles requiring dexterity and accuracy.
The illusion of depth, however, is delightful. As in Limbo, there is a distinct foreground, middle-ground and background for each landscape which helps to create a creepy impression from very early on that you are being watched. The only pitfall in this regard is that, on rare occasions, the combined obscurity of multiple layers of depth makes it so hard to see that frustration begins to outweigh the fear factor, though generally shadows are used advantageously to play on gamers’ innate fears of darkness and the unknown. Moreover, the introduction to each new chapter features simple but beautiful sequences featuring glowing lights which are animated so well as to appear almost three-dimensional.
Although there were (many) times that Grimind made me want to put on some war-paint and take a sledgehammer to my computer, the game taught me a valuable lesson: in order to truly rage, one must first truly care. What kept me coming back in spite of the risk of mental breakdown was a combination of story and the best horrifying atmosphere I’ve seen since Amnesia scarred my soul for life.
What is actually going on in terms of plot remains relentlessly vague throughout the story – due in part to unfortunately awkward translations of dialogue – and it is up to the player to decide how literally to understand it. The enemies may just be little black boxes, and your “friend” the glowing light may just be a random glowing light. Or perhaps they are metaphors for the eternal (and/or internal) struggle between light and dark, good and evil. Of course the title itself, an amalgamation of “grim” and “mind,” definitely suggests some sort of deeper meaning. It is also a pretty good clue about the game’s gloomy outlook on life and existence.
Whatever you think of the story or the enemies – which in my opinion are much scarier when you can’t see them – the atmosphere of Grimind is undeniably terrifying. If you do not own good headphones yet, buy a pair before you play it; if there is one perfect thing about this game, it’s the audial ambience. Empty, lonely silence quickly gives way to creepy-crawly scritches and scratches and awful wet, squelching sounds sure to cause a serious case of goose bumps. Just when you begin to get used to one set of sounds, some new and equally unnerving noise is introduced to put you back on edge.
Grimind is not a game for the weak-minded or the faint of heart. Side effects may include overemphatic rage-quitting, severe paranoia and repeated death. If these risks are not enough to deter you, the game is available to download for $10.00 from the official site, as is a free demo version for the warier gamer. You can also currently vote for the game on Steam Greenlight.[review pros="Terrifying atmosphere and sound effects, innovative and intricate puzzle/level design, interesting use of light and dark" cons="Extremely difficult challenges relying on frustrating physics and a trial-and-death method, enemies less frightening when visible, awkwardly translated narration" score=83][/private_insider]