Monday, April 16, 2012

Legend of Grimrock Review

The last decent first person dungeon crawler I have known was Wizardry for the PS3 and in that there was 2d enemies within 3d environments, but even Wizardry was a stone throw away from the glory and excitement of the classic dungeon crawlers, like Might & Magic or Dungeon Master. Legend of the Grimrock has taken the genre to new heights, setting a new standard that should be followed by any who wish to follow in its successful footsteps. It integrates 3d fully and impressively, while also bringing back much of what fans of the genre clamored for, like hidden dungeons, secrets, unique items, custom characters and puzzles that often require you to think differently. I will say it right now, Legend of Grimrock is a splendid game and there is a lot to discover in it. Read my review as I dissect it and show you what makes it such a delightful experience, yet an experience that is held back from perfection by a few problems.

If you don't know Dungeon Crawlers, let me briefly explain what Legend of Grimrock is all about. This a first person RPG in which you create a party of four characters, four characters with fairly generic RPG classes like fighter, rogue and mage. You can cosmetically alter each character a tiny bit, but most of their customization comes in form of their skills (which determine what weapons will use) and attributes like strength, vitality, dexterity and willpower. Story wise it is about your party of four being dropped in a dungeon, Grimrock, and being told that you are prisoners, but you may escape if you manage to fight your way to the bottom of it. There are thirteen floors in the game, each of which has a good deal of secrets, like hidden switches, and also quite a few monsters. Unlike the majority of the previous games of this genre, Legend of Grimrock is real time, but dungeons still have a square by square grid that feels right at home. It is currently only on PC, but Almost Human Games is contemplating porting it to Mac and Linux. Lastly it is not a full scale big budget release, more of a small indie game that costs $15.

Legend of Grimrock hasn't shied away from 3d, like many other games of the genre, and they've created morbid dungeon-like environments and eye-catching monsters, all with a modern graphical look that makes the game look a little bit like Amnesia the Dark Descent. Watching an ogre descend upon you is a lovely and terrifying experience, especially when it kills one of your party members in one hit.

+Impressive monster animations
+Each section of the dungeon has a unique graphical look to it
+Graphics are used against you in order to conceal hidden buttons
+Lighting is believe-able and contrasts against darkness appropriately
+Most models are highly textured
+Magical effects are well done
+Artwork for weapons/armor/items generally look great
-Your own party isn't graphically pleasing in anyway
-Your character's attack graphics, other than magic attacks, are less than stunning

A few explanations are required here. Overall the graphics are a huge step up for the genre, but it feels like they made everything but your own party look great. Walls are fully textured, the ground reflects the lights across the ground in impressive patterns, but your own party is entirely 2d and has very few customization options. You can choose between several different races, but there are very few portraits and no genre improvements when it comes to character validation. If you get a full set of fantastic armor you can "see it" equipped on your character, but nearly the same as if the party system was out of a dungeon crawler for fifteen years ago. If you are a fan of that style and have nostalgia towards those types of systems, great, but when the rest of the game is graphically unique for the genre your own party feels left out; this same idea also applies to attack animations for your party.

+There is a fantastic soundtrack that makes you want to stay in the game
+Dungeons sound quiet and eerie
+Monsters are loud and can be hard from far away, which is helpful
+Combat, axes swinging, bows firing etc, sound great
+Spells, especially large spells like fireballs, sound appropriately huge and powerful
-Soundtrack is rarely heard, majority of the game is just dungeon sounds

There is very little to dislike about the sounds in Legend of Grimrock. Mostly everything sounds like it should, but just because it sounds like it should doesn't mean it has an excellent sound quality overall. For instance, the soundtrack, specifically the main menu song, is quite wonderful, but you only music from the soundtrack during the menu and the ending. It would have been exciting to have that music filter into the game in someway that doesn't break the atmosphere of the cold dark monster filled dungeons.

+Combat is exciting and challenging, even on the normal difficulty
+Large variety of monsters to encounter and adapt to
+Real time mechanics make combat feel fresh
+Finding secrets is very rewarding, but often incredibly tough
+Puzzles are various and require you think in new ways
+Death isn't overly punishing
+Huge variety of armor sets, weapons and items to find
+Very balanced gameplay
+A lot to discover about the prison of Grimrock
-Some puzzles have no hint what so ever *explanation below*
-A few bugs
-Story is a bit of a let down

This is one frustrating game, especially when you get into the later levels. Puzzles go from being challenging to making you want to slam your head into a wall, but solving those challenges without outside resources actually feels rewarding, especially if you are playing the game "old school" (a mode that removes the map and makes you rely on a compass, designed for hardcore fans of the genre). With that said there a few puzzles that I deem unfair. It's perfectly fine for a puzzle to be really tough, but when a puzzle is part of the main path it must have a hint of some kind as to how to get through it. The most frustrating experience was running into a puzzle that seemed to require you to look online in order to solve it, or through sheer luck, but it was a rare puzzle and the majority of the puzzles in the game are fair in their difficulty. The are a few bugs when it comes to areas and enemies. You may see an enemy stay on the other side of a gap, somehow unable to figure out that it needs to go around to get to you, or you may run into an area that refuses to acknowledge your existence and will then it turn not open doors that should open, but these are both rare occurrences at well, both of which I only experienced once or twice in fifteen hours.

+UI is minimal and clean
+Combat UI is smooth, especially when it comes to moving party members
+Damage display is well done
-Inventory can be unpleasant to sort through
-Tough to change weapons, or reload a weapon, in the middle of a fight

When you hit an enemy in combat you will see how much damage you to them in the bottom right, by your character, but you will also see it visibly on the enemy. Almost Human Games managed to do this, like the rest of the UI, in a very minimalistic way that get's the job done, but stays out of the way. Inventory could use an auto-sort feature of some kind, especially when it comes to putting small things, like food or alchemy ingredients, into a container within a characters backpack. While they balanced the UI with spells, making it tough to cast tougher spells in the middle of a hectic fight, they made ranged fighters a little unbalanced. Unless you are able to run around a corner or lose an enemy for a few moments, it is really tough to change ammo for a bow or switch from a bow to a melee weapon, which is likely intentional, but can make things frantic in an annoying way sometimes. They could have easily fixed the problem by allowing your characters to have two set ups that they can switch between, merely to make the versatile rogue feel more useful.

Before I go into my final words, do take a look at the game in action.

Last Comments
There is a lot to like about Legend of Grimrock. Graphically it brings the dungeons to life with lifelike lighting,  monsters of all size and unique features that make each section look different. The sound hits all the right the notes, but doesn't excel at anything in particular. Although the sound isn't likely to disappoint anyone who is a fan of the genre, but for those coming in with no pre-conceived notions they could find certain aspects a little lacking. There is a great deal of content in the game, about 15-20 hours (unless you are cheating and looking everything up), and mod tools are the on the way, plus it is an addictive and pleasure-able experience that will keep you wanting to hunt for secrets, hidden treasures, locked vaults and epic items. Almost Human Games did a lot right with Grimrock and it deserves the success it has already received. All I hope is that their next game, if it's of the same genre, perfects what they have started. 

Violent Score: 4.5 (out of 5)

You can find Legend of Grimrock on Steam or through their Main Website, but if you purchase it from the developer directly you get a much better bargain, plus you still get a code for Steam. It is $15, except it is still on sale for $13.50. Thanks for reading. 

-Written by Sean Cargle


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