The Legend of Grimrock Review
The world spins, our skin grows saggy, our hair turns grey and then one day we wake up and the face of gaming has changed beyond recognition. Barely able to distinguish between films and games, having to worry about our moral decisions for fear of repercussions, controlling our avatars with every limb of our body - this is not the future, it's today and it is scary.
New development house Almost Human may have heard our harrowing plea. The world they have created in The Legend of Grimrock is tiled, statistical and harks back to simpler and, dare I say, nerdier times. It is a clever mandate: mimic the heart and soul of those first-person dungeon crawling classics and infuse them with the beauty that the modern world provides. And, for the most part, it works. The Legend of Grimrock is an engrossing escapade into some of the deepest, darkest, cruelest dungeons man has made. It drives your mind back to the days lost in a dirty teenage bedroom (if you were unfortunate to have been that age), lost in the realms of Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder or Ultima Underworld and fills you with once forgotten nostalgia. The only issue is that at some point, somewhere in this dank labyrinth, you may wake up from this retrospective dream. Then you suddenly realise there's a reason the world keeps spinning.
Taking control of a team of four heroes, exiled to the dungeons beneath Grimrock mountain, you must lead your chain-gang convicts through these treacherous corridors and escape, gaining your freedom. Of course, no one has ever found their way out of this labyrinth. And, as you progress deeper into its heart you begin to understand why. Almost Human have made no pretense that this will be an easy ride. Like games of yore, even on its normal difficulty, you will find yourself slaughtered at the hands of armies of insects, slimes, snails, golems, even massive trolls as they crush you with their mighty clubs or tumble down around you after you set off yet another deadly trap.
Everything you would expect from a game made twenty years ago can be found in The Legend of Grimrock, and this results in a very mixed bag of nostalgia driven links to the past and frustrating unevolved mechanics. It is all here, weapons with varied statistics, torches that begin to fade over time, inventories that fill up with useless junk overburdening your player, potion creation, sparse autosaving, essential riddles that can take days to solve, unavoidable traps based on touch plates, secrets hidden behind sliding walls behind sliding walls behind sliding walls... if all of these make you weak at the knees and come over in a flush then you are the game’s target audience.
The gameplay is based around a first-person mechanic where your team can only move in four directions and one tile at a time. For anyone unfamiliar with this concept that became the dominant role-playing mechanic in the late-eighties it may feel bizarre and confusing, but once one gets to grip with the idea it begins to feel natural. Your foes move in a similar style, not as per some conventions in a turn-based manner, but in real time. This results in battles that seem rather flawed and almost laughable as you circle (squarcle?) around your opponents ensuring that you can hit without them ever having the chance to retaliate. It feels like this modern remake of a classic idea could have done something to overcome such a problem. If anything this is a sentiment that resonates throughout the entire experience. Events become more interesting as you battle greater numbers of foes, avoiding being cornered or tumbling down pits, and dodging missiles but it unfortunately still ends up being simply odd, rather than retro or nostalgic.
Other attempts to recreate the past fare rather better. The maps are cleverly designed with genuinely intelligent puzzles and hidden areas so maniacally obfuscated that only the most devoted adventurer will discover them. Those avoiding internet walkthroughs will feel shivers of joy as they discover hidden switches that open secret passageways with gleaming rewards behind. There are entire levels of dungeons set aside purely for players who manage to uncover the devices that unveil them. It is a treasure hunter’s dream. I am sure that one day someone will discover that if you take a specific rock from the first room and then place it down in a special place at the end of the game you will discover the most incredible secret. It is that kind of game. That being said, there are essential riddles, especially later in the game, that need to be solved to progress further, some of which are so obscure that it may leave you screaming at the screen wondering why the designers hate you this much. For some that may be cathartic joy; others may simply never return.
One feature that developers Almost Human have failed to grasp from the past is depth and balance. For a start there are only three classes (Fighter, Rogue and Mage) to choose from, effectively destroying replayability since your team of four will inevitably contain all character types, but also each class, with the possible exception of the Mage, feels like it is a weak shadow of the avatars we are used to seeing in role playing games. Fighters for example have no option than to simply pick a single weapon type from the start and level this up as they progress since splitting your points across other styles will inevitably result in a weaker character. Furthermore, the Fighters’ options are limited to just a basic attack, with random elements causing extra damage. There are no special moves, double handed fighting or clever tactics available. This results in rather uninspired character progression that remains unchanging throughout the game. The Rogue, which arguably is actually a bit of a misnomer, fares even worse since they have been stripped of their common roguish duties such as picking locks and disarming traps which are oddly omitted from the game. And, since their missile attacks seem neutered to the point of being virtually useless, the class seems completely irrelevant.
The Mage class ends up being by far the most interesting, it makes one wonder whether the designers simply forgot about the rest. Using a surprisingly sophisticated system of runes, which the player must individually click on, the Mage can potentially cast a huge range of spells. Though this is limited by whether you can discover (by reading or through trial and error) which combinations have an effect. Furthermore, unlike the other classes, there is a wider range of possibilities available depending on how you choose to invest your experience points. Fully invest in the fire elemental tree and your Mage will be roasting trolls for breakfast, but one small flanking attack from an agile enemy will see him fall. Alternatively by levelling the staff fighting category your may end up being a surprisingly resilient character but never quite as powerful. It is just a shame the other classes lack these intricacies.
The Legend Of Grimrock looks fantastic. Despite the deliberate use of repetitive tiling, the dungeons end up being very charismatic, almost charming. The level of detail that has been put into each individual building block is impressive and miraculously it takes a very long time to get weary of looking at what is essentially the same block of wall over and over. Fortunately just before it becomes too nauseatingly repetitive, the theme changes and you are imposed with a whole new set of tiles to contend with. Credit must also be given to all the little touches that have been added to fully envelop you into the dungeons. The way the fire of the torch light flickers off the walls, the warming ambient glow of the crystals that represent your resurrection and save points. Even the sparse sound effects, which echo creepily throughout the caverns, drive you deeper into that sense of all encompassing unease.
It is a shame that I cannot recommend The Legend of Grimrock more. While it may be a genuinely clever attempt at recreating an extinct genre, it fails to capture the entire spirit that made the original games interesting to begin with, most notably depth of character and plot. Over the course of the fifteen hours or so it takes to emerge from the darkness, the game flounders at points and while it does pick itself up again towards the end, the final showdown is laughable almost to the point it feels like a satirical poke at the games it tries to mimic. The true value of the game will rest solely on what may happen in the future. There is promised extra content from the developers, which could hopefully fill in the shortfalls of the original. Perhaps if it develops a loyal modding fan base then there is the potential that it may mutate into being something that can really reinvigorate the dungeon adventuring genre. However as the game stands at present it feels more like a weak, but still lovable, mutt rather than a loyal and faithful pedigree.