Legend of Grimrock is a dungeon crawling role playing game with an oldschool heart but a modern execution. A group of prisoners are sentenced to certain death by exiling them to the secluded Mount Grimrock for vile crimes they may or may not have committed. Unbeknownst to their captors, the mountain is riddled with ancient tunnels, dungeons and tombs built by crumbled civilizations long perished now. If they ever wish to see daylight again and reclaim their freedom the ragtag group of prisoners must form a team and descend through the mountain, level by level.
What We Think
The long anticipated dungeon crawler Legend of Grimrock has been something of a curiosity to me. Having never played the oft referenced Dungeon Master that many hail as Grimrock’s spiritual ancestor I was eager to find out more about this apparently long dormant genre. Now that I have had that opportunity I’m pleased to say that Grimrock deserves a lot more than mere curiosity.
For others who are new to the genre, Legend of Grimrock is a revival of a kind of RPG/dungeon crawler represented most memorably by Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder, released in 1987 and 1991, respectively. The game involves leading a team of four adventurers through a large dungeon by navigating a grid like labyrinth from a first person perspective. Movement and combat involves traversing rooms one square at a time but the game is not turn based and you must react quickly when enemies are encountered.
From the town of Grimrock, They’re a page right out of history
Beginning a new game in Grimrock involves making a few decisions that will have a substantial influence on your gameplay experience. Firstly you will have to decide if you want to play in “old school” mode or not; this disables the in-game minimap so that you will have to play the cartographer and jot down your own map on grid paper. The second choice available to you is somewhat more significant and allows you to decide whether you will use the pre-built team of four adventurers or make your own.
Character creation in Legend of Grimrock meets a happy balance of depth and ease of use. There is a healthy selection of options including the traditional trio of classes (fighter, rogue and mage) and a decent set of skills. The races available include humans, lizardmen, minotaurs and insectoids. It’s good to see developers being a bit more original with their use of fantasy races but I have to say I was pained to miss out on my traditional dwarf tank. I would highly recommend making your own team in Grimrock as it makes the adventure feel that much more personal. The only genuine flaw I could find in the character creation system was a poor selection of portraits. That said, you can always download some player created portraits instead.
With your dungeoneering party ready you can get stuck into the game proper. The intro is provided through a text story and a set of stunning still images that paint a grim (no pun intended) picture of the towering spire and the unfortunate circumstances that lead your adventurers to its peak. From here they are plunged into the top of the mountain and a simple goal emerges- get to the bottom, and freedom, or die in the bowels of Mount Grimrock.
From the outset Grimrock offers an engrossing atmosphere that wraps you in its world. While it may seem unusual to gamers who haven’t experienced it before, the grid based movement system actually supports the immersion, giving you an almost claustrophobic perspective as you navigate the dark halls of the mountain dungeon.
The most dominant aspect of Grimrock’s gameplay is a sense of exploration. The labyrinth harbours secrets from the very outset and every room may contain precious loot or intriguing insights into the story. The dungeon is divided into named levels separated by foreboding staircases that descend into the darkness below. An especially neat touch is that you can actually fall down into limited sections of these lower levels before you reach the end of the current floor; an experience that never ceases to feel eerie and exciting as you get a glimpse of a deeper area in the mountain.
This “glimpse” often comes in the form of hearing new noises that you don’t recognise through the walls. This is something that Grimrock does very well; each kind of enemy makes a distinct sound that will either alert you to the presence of a familiar foe, or fill you with a mixture of curiosity and fear as you hear the pitter-pattering of some new creature in the distance. These kinds of dynamic ambient noises are fantastic and it makes for a much more engaging use of sound effects than the usual looped track of background sounds you find in dungeon exploration or horror games.
A Puzzling Affair
As you explore you’ll find more than secrets and puzzles along your route. Grimrock houses a veritable zoo of dangerous, and often quite unnerving, creatures. From the gigantic snails of the earlier chambers to the bizarre but threatening walking mushrooms, there’s plenty to do battle against. Some of them can even have you jumping out of your seat thanks to the 90 degree movement system- a sudden turn to your left to reveal a lunging set of fangs can be a nasty surprise. There are a couple of particularly unsettling foes but I’ll leave them for you to find- the fun is in the fear after all.
Another ever-present foe you will face on your travels is hunger and you’ll often find it more of a pressing threat than even the most fearsome mushroom-men. As your adventure gets started you’ll likely feel quite comfortable with your sizable bag of tasty snail goo. As you descend, however, food becomes scarce and a need to ration begins to grow. The rate at which you find food is perfectly scaled and you will always have a sense of urgency powering your search for your next meal.
The difficulty also scales at a healthy pace. Grimrock is a refreshingly challenging game but it never feels unfair or cruel. The puzzles will give you a furrowed brow on more than a few occasions and there are plenty of difficult battles but you’ll always find a way to solve your current predicament. On top of this, your party of adventurers grow in strength at a nice pace, gaining new spells and abilities regularly.
The story of Legend of Grimrock is told in a relatively subtle way, eschewing the long conversations and dialogue options typical of the RPG genre in favour of eerie hints and revelations dotted through the adventure. These come most commonly in the form of scrolls that reveal limited information about the dungeon and its creation. Other events are more significant in the unravelling of the narrative but to reveal them would be treading dangerously close to spoiler territory. All I will say here is that you should sleep regularly for more reasons than keeping the health of your adventurers up.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Grimrock is that the developers are currently working on a level editor. Once this is released we can look forward to the possibility of downloading as many dungeons as we can handle. Until then Legend of Grimrock offers more than enough dungeon exploring to keep us and our adventuring parties occupied for the foreseeable future. With stunning visuals, a great atmosphere and some superb retro gameplay, Grimrock is easy to recommend.