Legend of Grimrock is an old school dungeon RPG that is more than capable of standing on its own as a modern game. You take control of a party of four as they are thrown into pit to repent for their crimes. Plenty monsters, loot, and secrets await. I was hesitant at first when I saw that the game forces the player to navigate via a grid system even though the game moves in real time. It seemed like it would be overly restrictive and tedious, but the grid system is actually perfectly implemented and serves as the foundation for all of the game’s puzzles and the personalized combat system.
Another surprise came from how Legend of Grimrock handles the loot and monsters. In most dungeon crawlers the player simply plows through hordes of inept enemies and then needs to sort through a mountain consisting of mostly useless vendor trash. Most of Grimrock‘s horrors pose an actual threat, and fighting more than one enemy at a time can often prove fatal. The player must carefully use the grid system to their advantage by keeping themselves outside of their opponent’s immediate range as abilities recharge. Once ready, you leap in and strike with all you have before returning to your evasion. Being able to maneuver in such a way requires an effective knowledge of one’s surroundings in the maze of tunnel and chambers, and is further complicated as later foes gain more troublesome attacks.
When compared to other dungeon crawlers Grimrock‘s loot is scarce. Many monsters drop consumable items that can be used to keep your characters fed, but armor and weapons are rare. A lot of the best finds are hidden away by the game’s many puzzles, serving as a powerful incentive to explore. Between the four characters I was given I found myself swapping out equipment and weighing my options with what I had right up until the end of the game. Because the player spends the entire game in the dungeon useless loot is simply thrown away, which is perhaps my favorite part of this system. No more of that business where you horde every shiny object within a square mile so that you sell it all for a ton of gold that you’ll never spend. If an item ceases to be useless you have no reason to keep it, and the game is all the better for it.
If you’re going to find powerful equipment though you’re going to need to get acquainted with the dungeon’s many puzzles. Many floors of the dungeon have as much as half of their floor space hidden away behind secret passages and locked doors, so solving riddles takes up a large portion of Grimrock‘s play time. There can be a bit of a learning curve, but before long you’ll hunting for pressure plates and hidden switches like a pro. The developers seem to have known exactly when this transition takes place because the difficulty of each trial only gets higher. Nearly every puzzle can be solved with patience, keen observation, and lots of experimentation. There were a handful, however, where I had to find the solution online in order to progress and even then the answer made no sense to me. These instances were thankfully exceedingly rare. The vast majority of the puzzles in Grimrock felt very clever and were satisfying to overcome.
The way Legend of Grimrock handles puzzles, loot, and monsters serves to create a very important distinction from other games in the genre. While I still enjoy similar games, I often play them while multitasking and can never really get all that invested in the experience. Click on enemy to kill, grab useless garbage, run around until quest is completed, return to town. Grimrock got me to care about what was going on in a way similar to that of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls. Each encounter is a credible threat, new equipment can mean the difference between life and death, traps are anything but a joke, and all progress through the game’s world feels earned. I actually found myself looking through the maps of previous floors, marveling at how far I had come.
The dungeon in Legend of Grimrock is claustrophobic, impressive, and terrifying. Caution is the only option as any room or hall may erupt with a fatal trap at a moment’s notice. Between the traps, the quakes, and the sounds of not-so-distant creatures slithering about you never really feel safe in the dungeon. I was put off by the constantly repeating wall textures at first, but noticing minute differences in the environment turns out to be a vital skill for puzzle solving. Without some degree of sameness in the environment this would have proven overly difficult. This choice also should be a perfect fit for the incoming level editor, which is certainly something I’m looking forward to.
The game takes a Portal-like approach to storytelling. You receive occasional communication from a source you have no access to, and this one-sided conversation becomes increasingly relevant as you progress through the game. I won’t spoil anything about the story, but I was both surprised and satisfied by where it went.
Legend of Grimrock knew exactly what it wanted to be and accomplished its goal in spades. This is a must play for any lovers of dungeon crawling and deserves to be a part of 2012’s game of the year discussions.
Just save often.