April 10th, 2012 | By Dominic Tarason
If Almost Human’s Legend of Grimrock is a love-letter to 1987′s seminal Dungeon Master, then Dungeon Master might want to consider getting a restraining order worked out, because Grimrock knows exactly what DM did last summer, and has proposed wearing DM‘s skin in order to be closer to it.
This is all well and good, really. Terrifying stalker metaphor aside, that is. Dungeon Master was among the first in a particular breed of first-person dungeon crawlers that has all but faded into extinction, kept alive only by occasional fringe indie releases on the PC (such as Demise) and a smattering of console-borne retro romps such as the Etrian Odyssey series. Grimrock takes things back to basics, stopping just short of being an unofficial remake of Dungeon Master. It’s a glowing testament to the original DM’s design that the formula holds up so well 25 years later.
Plot takes a back seat in this retro dungeon crawler, with your four prisoners (pre-generated or hand-crafted, according to player preference) being little more than floating blobs of stats with fancy hand-drawn portraits attached. These four, shackled to each other at the ankle, are thrown naked and unarmed into the dungeon that begins atop Mount Grimrock, an imposing spire of stone so steep and tall that the only way to reach it is via airship. While the plot does slowly reveal itself as you dig deeper into the mountain, your goal is fairly simple from there on in: survival against the odds. The dungeon is deep, packed with traps and hungry monsters, and there’s a time-limit of sorts imposed via hunger. While you’re never rushed, you can’t linger forever as there’s only a finite amount to eat in the dungeon.
To say that this game makes a good first impression is an understatement. Beyond the immediately charming theme tune heard in the trailer below, and playing on the main menu, Grimrock is a beautiful game, with the simple, tile-based environments (each tile being roughly 10ft²) lushly textured and lit atmospherically by flickering torches, or your own party’s light-sources and illumination spells. While there’s not a great range in tilesets to be seen, it seems like a deliberate decision that keen eyes will find to their advantage, as slightly mis-arranged brick formations usually hint at secret passages. Anyone who has ever played an FPS will slip comfortably into the controls, with six buttons on the keyboard handling all your tile-based movement, and the mouse letting you interact with the environment, and right-click on your party’s panel of weapons to take swings at whatever is standing in front of you. So far, so simple, right?
Well, that’s the thing – it is simple, but it’s not easy. Grimrock harks back to a time when games had no concept of mercy, and the only way to overcome an obstacle was through practice, lateral thinking and even a little bit of sheer bloody-minded determination. Right from the start, enemies – fought entirely in real-time – are potentially deadly to your entire party if you stay there and hack away at them. Everything seems to have a statistical advantage over you, even if you do outnumber them four-to-one. The trick isn’t immediately intuitive, given the block-based nature of movement, but you have to keep dodging. Strafing out of the way of attacks and getting in a quick swing at an enemy’s flank before it turns to face you again lets you deal damage while avoiding it yourself. It requires a fair amount of dexterity and positional awareness too, as it’s all too easy to back into a corner, or try to strafe down a corridor only to barge straight into a wall. And woe be to anyone who gets caught between two or more enemies – death comes quickly if you’re unlucky enough to end up like that.
Combat itself is very simple, evasion aside. Your front two characters (they’re arranged in a 2×2 formation) handle most of the brawling, while the back two rely on ranged and magical attacks. There’s little to no subtlety involved in hitting something with an axe or firing an arrow, but pressing the spellcasting button will open up a small panel of 9 runes, representing the four elements and a few modifiers. Each spell requires a specific pattern of runes to be selected. In real-time. Manually. As such, it requires a lot of dexterity to accurately cast spells, and while spells can be pre-prepared before entering combat, recasting doesn’t happen automatically. My personal attempt to conquer the dungeon with a custom party of four magic-users was a frenzied blur of clicking as I tried to remember and cast four different schools worth of elemental magic simultaneously while dodging incoming fire and moving the wounded to the back row. Manic, but kinda fun. Probably not an advisable way to play for newcomers, though. The default group is probably the safest way to go.
Combat is only half the game, though. The other half is puzzles. The dungeon is hand-crafted (as opposed to being procedurally generated) and every room, and every encounter, is very precisely laid out. There’s plenty of pits to fall through, hidden switches in the walls, pressure pads on the floors, teleport fields in the air, inscrutable riddles scrawled on notes and even the occasional bit of backstory found in the form of a previous visitor’s diary pages. Every floor contains quite a few mental challenges, ranging from the dead simple (put a rock on a pressure pad to open a door) to the fiendish, such as navigating a disorienting maze of moving teleportation fields. A task rendered absolutely brain-breaking if you opted to play the optional ‘old-school’ difficulty setting, which disables the handy automapping feature and forces you to find your bearings via a compass. In addition, each floor hides several secret areas, which, while rewarding enough to find, require a little bit of additional puzzling to open up. Combat and puzzles overlap quite often, too, with large groups of enemies requiring splitting up through careful use of remotely activated doors or pitfall traps, as fighting more than one thing at once is very dangerous.
Progression is strictly linear in Legend of Grimrock – the dungeon levels are pre-set, and you advance through them in the same order. While replay value is decent due to multiple difficulty options and the range of possible party builds you can come up with (while there’s only four character classes, there’s a good range of skill development options for each), there’s no huge reason to come back once your initial 10-15 hour adventure comes to a close, especially as changing your party and difficulty only really affects combat. Well, no reason to return until the developers release their promised editing tools, allowing you or other players to come up with their own dungeons, puzzles and complex combat encounters. There’s a good range of content for your money at the moment, but the promise of effectively infinite dungeons greatly increases the value the game offers in the long-term.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows – while this game is very well produced and a fantastic tribute to Dungeon Master‘s style, the game does occasionally wander into the realm of being a little too retro. While solving a challenging puzzle is a buzz, getting stuck on one can waste hours of time, only for you to discover that the solution was clicking on a barely-visible hidden switch you’d walked past a hundred times. The melee combat is possibly a little too simple as well – while magic is fun and involving, hitting stuff up close is a matter of just clicking on a weapon icon when it lights up. One minor flaw in the otherwise fantastic presentation is that while enemy movement and combat animations are almost flawless, there are no enemy death sequences. Defeated foes just melt into a cloud of particles upon death. It’s a satisfyingly bright and clear particle spray, but I’d much rather have seen skeletons falling apart, or flying lizards flopping to the ground.
The flaws do pale into insignificance compared to the triumphs of the game. As a first outing, Almost Human have proved that they’re capable of great things, and the promise of editing tools and possible official expansions are sure to extend the life of Grimrock. They’ve also proven that just because a design has fallen out of vogue, it doesn’t mean that it’s inherently flawed in any way – the Dungeon Master style holds up excellently to this day, with only a few tweaks needed to make it more palatable to modern audiences. For newer RPG fans looking for something different, or old-school gamers looking to relive their formative gaming years, Legend of Grimrock is an easy recommendation.