I was lost. There was no point in kidding myself. As I poured over the crumpled sheets of graph paper in front of me I shook my head in dismay. None of this made any sense. I really had no idea when I took a wrong turn or whether it was my lack of proficiency in cartography which was to blame. In the end none of it mattered; lost was lost. Two minutes later I wasn’t just lost; I was surrounded by enemies. Skeletal spearmen and something nasty with horns. Oh dear.
I was dead. I suppose that meant I was no longer lost any more. Was that good? I had been stumped by puzzles, confused by labyrinthine sprawl, and beaten to death by enemies that I had nothing against. I was having a fantastic time. Legend of Grimrock is one of those rare games that by all rights shouldn’t exist in this dreary modern world, but the fact that it does makes me a very happy man.
Four prisoners — their lives a blank slate and their crimes unknown — are given a chance at redemption. It’s not much of a chance though. After being taken to the peak of the imposing Mount Grimrock they are flung off the edge and into its hollow chambers. Their one shot at freedom is to make their way down to the bottom of the mountain, through hordes of monsters, waiting traps, and brain mocking puzzles. There’s a shadow of a story: some dreams, a prisoner who came before you, a few appropriate twists and turns. It’s fine, it isn’t really necessary so it seems more like a pleasant bonus than anything else. The meat of the game is the fighting and exploring — the journey itself. And what a journey it is.
Upon witnessing your fall from the top of the mountain, you are given the option to select a pre-made group of four adventurers or make your own. Four races are offered, each with distinct strengths and weaknesses as well as some specific skills. Humans are, as always, the generic jack-of-all-trades. They can comfortably fill any role, yet excel at nothing in particular. Minotaurs are hefty folk with some interesting skills and a proficiency at beating stuff up and soaking up damage. They make pretty good front-line warriors. The shifty lizardmen are natural rogues and ranged combatants, staying out of the fray because lizards are wusses. Finally there’s the insectoid race, hideous and, frankly, creepy as hell. They have an unlikely skill for arcane antics, but they just made me feel uncomfortable. I just don’t like insects.
Two modes are available, the main difference between them being the in-game map. In normal mode there’s an auto map feature which makes navigating the maze-mountain less arduous. In old-school mode there isn’t. Not a map in sight. Instead, it’s up to players to craft their own maps. As the game is grid based, graph paper is your best friend should you opt for this punishing mode. Most players will likely find this frustrating, and possibly even boring. But then it’s not actually for most players. Those that remember games like Dungeon Master or enjoyed the slightly more forgiving map mechanic of the more recent Etrian Odyssey series for the Nintendo DS will find a lot to love here. It’s slow going, a real slog, but it feels like a real adventure. There’s something especially wonderful about working through the game on paper, something that doesn’t really happen much these days.
The perspective is first person, so you only see your group as little portraits. They wander through the dungeon in two little rows. It’s important to make sure to place your melee combatants and damage takers in front, while the ranged folks stay back, away from all the brutal slaughter. The back row can still participate in melee combat, however, if they have appropriate weapons such as spears or specific skills like the rogue’s extra reach.
While the game world is on a grid and characters can only move forward one square at a time or turn at 90 degree angles, Almost Human have done a sterling job adapting the style of gameplay for a modern audience, while giving up absolutely none of its old fashioned charm. Players can move the camera around freely, which is extremely helpful when looking at items and traps, and everything happens in real time.
Foes move one square at a time, just like you, but in the middle of battles it still feels frantic and fast paced. Abilities are on short cool downs, which gives you a chance to select actions for other characters, but casting spells is a bit more involved. Selecting the actual runes takes a second longer than a standard attack, and while that might not seem like a long time it’s one second where you aren’t doing any damage. When only facing one monster it’s not a huge problem, but god forbid you take too long if you are surrounded.
The game delights in secrets, puzzles and traps. While the small handful of tilesets may not seem like much variety, there’s plenty of nooks, crannies and brain teasers to keep you occupied. Sometimes they are simple and just require players to find particular items or hunt for little buttons secreted on crumbling walls, but they merely exist to build up your confidence. When you’re finally hit with your first truly challenging puzzle you’ll feel like a buffoon merely playing at being an adventurer. That only makes success all the more sweet, however. Grimrock is a tricky, troublesome dungeon and it never lets you forget that you’re at its mercy.
There’s a limited supply of food and potions to keep your party edging ever closer to freedom with their bodies intact, but taking a brief nap is the most efficient way to heal. It’s not without great risk though. If a monster should happen upon the slumber prisoners then it’s most certainly going to take a bite out of their health. Clearing out areas and finding safe rooms blessed with gates or doors is necessary for any sleep deprived party.
Legend of Grimrock is simply a marvel. It seamlessly tickles my nostalgia bone, or cranial area, or wherever it is one keeps their wistful memories of a bygone age and yet it doesn’t ignore how the medium has developed over the course of several decades. I could complain that monster animation is repetitive and graceless, or how it can be a bit annoying obsessively staring at every single wall just in case it contains a button promising to reveal amazing treasures, or at least a new hat. I suppose, at a push, I would confess that it would have been nice if I actually felt like I was controlling an actual group rather than just a bunch of different mechanics. I could do those things. But they aren’t really problems. They almost certainly could be in some titles, but not this one.
The only genuine complaint I have is that enemy AI feels almost non-existent. It’s remarkably easy to exploit the simple system by attacking, then retreating, then attacking, and retreating again. It is lazy design, but it’s not a problem unless one is actually the type of player who happily abuses exploits. Doing so takes all the fun away from the experience and is also extremely tedious. It doesn’t excuse the design flaw for a second, yet it didn’t actually affect my time with the title and I simply refrained from ceasing my enjoyment. It’s a problem, but one that can still be rectified by player restraint.
Everything you could want from a challenging dungeon adventure is there, and then some. With the addition of the dungeon editor and player fashioned mazes its life-span has been given an extra jolt, which is most certainly a good thing even if it was already a complete package. Escaping Grimrock might be the goal of the game, but after finishing it I’m more interested in getting back in there. Do yourself a favour and get thrown in this fantastic prison. The food is terrible, your cell mates are horrible monsters, and you’ll probably die. It’s awesome.