Legend of Grimrock: Review
We have gotten to a point in our gaming lives that the growth of the indie scene has become quite notable, to the point where I often look forward to indie releases more than most AAA titles. I mean, I’ve already named Botanicula as my so far top contender for game of the year. Indies do produce a lot of muck like everyone else, but outside of smartphone apps they’re pretty much the only ones trying to do something different, stuff that the big publishers would have us believe is no longer possible.
Legend of Grimrock is one such game. I was really too young in the early nineties to really remember the first-person dungeon crawler genre, though I vaguely recall reading about games like Ultima and Might & Magic, though they did not seem appealing to me at all at the time. I will readily admit to not remember hearing about series like Dungeon Master or Wizandry, but I have to also admit that in spite of never having played such a game before or having any interest to do so, Legend of Grimrock was a title I kept my eye on ever since I first heard about it, if for no other reason than the novelty of such a game being made in 2012.
I didn’t get it immediately at launch. First off I watched Totalbiscuit’s “WTF is…” of the game, and even watched Lewis of the Yogscast take a crack at it. Feeling more than intrigued, I gave people money for it, and sat down to delve into the dark corridors of Grimrock myself.
The gist of Legend of Grimrock is that you are a band of four prisoners who as punishment get cast into the top floor of Mount Grimrock. As soon as you’re cast in, you’re absolved of your crimes, and if you make it out alive, you’re free to go. No one has made it out alive so far, so the odds are against you. It doesn’t have much in the way of a story, and what little there is is told in dream sequences and hand-written notes.
The game itself relies on grid-based movement from a first-person view, where WASD moves you around and Q and E are used for quick 90 degree turns, though you can also use the mouse to slowly look around (or even enable a fully mouse-driven interface if that suits you better). Right-clicking an object in a character’s hand will use it as a weapon (or open the spellcasting menu with certain wizard objects), and left-clicking is used to drag things around. Right-clicking something in the inventory screen will use or consume it if possible. Because of the real-time nature of combat, it can become quite hectic and stressful to keep dodging and moving about, trying to remember where you’ll crash into a wall and where you can actually go, while you try to use your weapons are effectively as possible while not getting outflanked.
Trying to also cast spells while in combat takes an extra level of concentration. The spell system works as follows: you right-click a mage’s empty hand or wizard object (like a staff or an orb) that he’s holding, which brings up the 3×3 rune menu. Then you select the runes you want and left- or right-click the cast button. What spells you can use depends only on how many skillpoints you have in a certain wizarding schools, but to find out the actual combinations, you have to either experiment or find scrolls where they’re written down. But so long as you know the combination and have the right amount of points, you can cast the spell so long as you have enough mana. Trying to do this while fighting fast enemies is incredibly tricky, but sometimes necessary.
Other stuff you’ll have to worry about is inventory space, though the weight carry limit of your character usually becomes important before he runs out of space. You also need to collect food and remember to eat occasionally to keep up your party’s strength. Resting is also an important thing to remember, as it’s the best way of recovering health and mana, just make sure you’re in a safe area while doing so, or you might be rudely awakened by a hungry monster. And of course you need to worry about light. Carry torches with you and make sure you always have one equipped. Torches will burn out in your hand (though strangely not when mounted on walls).
The game does automatically map things out as you move around, but if you don’t want that, you can activate an old-school mode in which there’s no automapping. Instead you’ll have to print out graph paper and draw the map by hand. It’s a feature I’m sure some gamers will like, but which I personally stayed away from.
There are also a load of puzzles in this game, often involving hidden buttons and pressure plates that need to be activated in the right order. Some are a lot trickier than that, but that’s usually for optional secrets. Just beating the game rarely presents you with any overly tricky puzzles, though you will probably get stuck occasionally.
When it comes to saving, you can actually do that at any time, though there are also life stones around, big, blue crystals that you can click to heal yourself and which will automatically save your progress.
Legend of Grimrock is challenging and uncompromising, but it’s never unfair. Whenever it’s unleashing something horrible on you, there’s always an audio cue for it, and apart from certain puzzle areas, enemies will never respawn. So I always felt like my deaths came from “oh, I was an idiot” or “oh, I wasn’t good enough”, and never “that’s cheating, game”. I still got angry enough to ragequit a few times and not play for a day or two, but in the end I always came back.
When it came to starting the game, I opted to set up my own group. You can pick from four races: Human, Minotaur, Lizardperson and Insectoid; and three classes: Fighter, Rogue and Mage. Since your party is arranged in a 2×2 square, I put a human fighter whom I levelled up to favour swords and evasion, and a minotaur fighter levelled up to favour heavy armour and axes in front, while in the back I had a lizard rogue that focused on ranged and thrown weapons, and an insectoid mage focusing on spellcraft and earth magic, with a few points in fire for good measure. While you can change the formation at any time in-game, I stuck to that set-up for 99% of the game. It’s important to make sure you aren’t attacked from the sides or behind, since that exposes your weaker back row to direct damage.
As I was dropped in, I immediately found a secret right behind me, and felt I’d gotten off to a flying start. Sadly secrets are a little more sparse than I’d first hoped, but there’s still plenty to be found, some quite close together, which I assume is in an effort to throw you off if you just find one and believe that’s it.
The atmosphere of the game also got to me pretty quick. It felt tense and oppressive, and I felt very alone. There were monsters everywhere, and none of them could be taken lightly, but I had no friends down there, it felt like. It’s why I clung to the little hand-written notes left by earlier prisoners thrown down here. Once the whole mountain started shaking periodically I became even more nervous, believing the roof could come down on me at any moment.
I was in just such a mood when I rounded a corner and saw my first spider. An impossibly large and horribly spiked thing, it came for me and I panicked. I screamed, turned around and ran the corridor into a more open room, turned and saw it was right behind me and screamed again, running down another corridor and making several turns before it even occurred to me I could fight back. Two of my people got poisoned, but I slew the fell spider and retreated into a room where I could lock the door and rest to recover.
After emerging from the room and exploring further, I found a lot more spiders. I started to dread every door I saw and every button I pushed because it might reveal another spider, or worse, several more spiders. I was doing okay though, and after clearing out an area of spiders I stood there focused on sorting my inventory when suddenly a spider screamed and pounced at me from the side. At that point, my heart nearly stopped, it gave me such a fright. I clearly hadn’t cleared the area after all.
I had several moments of terror during the game, and it always kept an awesomely tense atmosphere throughout. While I hated it for scaring me, I also loved it for being able to affect me in such a way. While games have produced many emotions in me, the ones that do always seem to be few and far between.
All in all it was a refreshing revival of an old genre. I was new to it personally, but it still felt pretty easy to get into. And it had a lot of surprises along the way, not to mention the final boss whom I never could have imagined, yet somehow made sense in hindsight. It’s very tight and focused, and any issues I had with it were never because of bad game mechanics. Though since it’s been a few months since I last played it, maybe I have an inkling of rose-tinted glasses already.
In conclusion: It’s competent, atmospheric, interesting and unique in our current market. If you have the slightest bit of interest in it, you’d be doing yourself a great disfavour by overlooking it. Go check it out.