Gaming on a Timer

Games I’ve Been Playing: Legend of Grimrock

After careful deliberation, I’ve decided to try a less formal mode of writing for the next few posts, which will also coincide with a recap of my gaming life in the past year. So, in short:

In these next few blog posts I’ll be describing the few games that kept me company during last year’s absence (which I’ve already talked about in a previous post). Starting things off is Legend of Grimrock, a retro-inspired dungeon crawler made by  newcomers Almost Human Games.

It’s not hard to see why Legend of Grimrock would appeal so strongly to my demographic (aged 30-ish and above), as we’ve been practically raised on this kind of game – first person dungeon crawlers where you must fight tooth and claw against not only monsters but the environment itself and the cleverly-built traps the dungeon’s makers have devised. Such examples that still evoke a smile and pleasant memories include Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima Underworld and a multitude of similar games that had but one premise: survive the traps, gear up your characters, slay monsters and maybe, just maybe, you will live long enough to escape captivity.
Legend of Grimrock aims to bring all this to the present, wrapping up the core gameplay ideas of the genre in a new engine (which, as of this writing, has just been upgraded with a great, easy-to-use dungeon creation toolkit), bringing it more in line with modern releases. For the most part, it succeeds.
The dungeon creator: More games should come with tools like these.

The game’s story is (predictably) simple: your group of four (custom or pre-made) prisoners has been thrown into Mount Grimrock for unspecified crimes. Mount Grimrock is a vast network of underground dungeons and caves, infested with monsters and riddled with traps; thus it has become a standard means of disposing prisoners in the game’s world. From there, there is precious little in the way of a plot – aside from some notes left behind by Toorum, a previous prisoner and a series of (mostly) incomprehensible “dreams” your characters have at set intervals, the story never proceeds past the general “escape Grimrock” premise.
I feel that Almost Human missed the opportunity to incorporate a few cosmology-establishing facts, like how Mount Grimrock came to be, where did the builders of the dungeons disappear to and a lot of other questions could have been answered via environmental storytelling (the aforementioned Toorum notes could have been expanded in this regard).
The character generator, in all its glory.
However, what Grimrock lacks in a solid story it more than makes up for in gameplay. At the start of the game, the player is given the choice to create a new party from scratch (there is also a choice for a pre-made party, which I haven’t tried); the standard trinity of fighter, mage, rogue are present – as is the usual quartet of strength, dexterity, vitality and wisdom, which in turn affect a series of secondary statistics such as attack power, accuracy and health. There’s also a choice of races between humans (all-round characters with no particular benefits), minotaurs (extremely strong but require more food than other races), insectoids (which are frail, but make excellent spellcasters) and lizardmen (the most agile of the bunch). Finally, there are choices for skills (which give benefits at certain thresholds) and two perks, which serve mostly as fine-tuning options for boosting secondary statistics.
Skill points are one of the few ways to strengthen your characters.

My only gripe with the character creator is that, for all the choices available, there are certain builds that are highly favorable and advantageous, while the rest underperform – thus forcing the player into building “what works best” in order to avoid difficulties in the later stages of the game.
Simple mechanics such as weighing down pressure plates…

The level design also merits specific mention, as Almost Human has shown themselves to be masters of the discipline; the game does a great job of introducing the (relatively few) puzzle parts in the early levels, such as pressure plates, teleporters and torch sconces – in lower floors these simple components are combined into ingenious puzzles, often leaving me stumped for a good deal of time before figuring the deceptively simple solutions and walking away with a lovely feeling of accomplishment.
…are later combined in clever ways to hinder the player’s progress.

Lastly, combat. I found this part to be a mixed bag, as it keeps an aspect of the old-school dungeon crawling mindset I’ve never been fond of: circle-strafing. More specifically, the enemies in the game are mainly hard but not impossible; even early enemies such as giant snails and the mushroom-themed myconids can pose a challenge to a careless player but more often than not a fight’s difficulty is more dependent on the level design itself – narrow corridors proved to be the bane of my party on more than one occasion as there was no space in which to strafe around my enemies, thus preventing them from attacking altogether if I was sufficiently fast on the movement keys. For this reason, several of the battles (especially in lower floors) felt very mechanical and stiff in nature, as I merely kept side-stepping around enemies before their “turn” animations could finish playing, then chipping away at their health – repeating as necessary until I won.
Combat: An affair of side-stepping more than anything else.
In conclusion, Legend of Grimrock is a very enjoyable game if you can “get” into the mindset of the genre; for older gamers it feels like a highly-polished revival of one of the prime genres of the 80’s, while also being a great introduction for younger gamers that might otherwise be put off by the graphics of these oldies.
Resources
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*Legend of Grimrock Official Site

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