In our modern, indie- and mobile-friendly games market, the term “old school” gets bandied about frequently, the label haphazardly applied to any phone or PC game with 8-bit character art or a chiptune soundtrack. But the recent dungeon crawler Legend of Grimrock from newcomers Almost Human Games actually earns its right to wear the title proudly. The game is unabashedly, unapologetically retro in its design and its implementation: from grid-based movement and combat to a purposeful arrangement that bucks the current trend of procedurally generated environments. Still, it brings its fair share of new ideas to the table. Let’s see what veteran Press X or Die writers Kyle and Miodrag thought of it.
Kyle: Hi Miodrag. I believe both of us have completed the game at this point, though from our talks before it seems to have given me a bit more trouble than it did you. What was your strategy to tackle the horrifying depths of Grimrock?
Miodrag: Kiting like a boss? Although, seriously, that was my solution to most encounters. If I had at least a two by two area to move around and only one enemy to tackle, I’d just run circles around them and stab them until they fell over. Thankfully, the game was aware of that, so I had more than a few moments where I couldn’t resort to this.
Kyle: Yeah, it became clear very early on that getting attacked from more than one side was nearly always a death sentence. If multiple enemies locked on to my party, it was either a full-on retreat until I could separate them with a door or a desperate bashing of the Quickload key.
Miodrag: You know, I believe this kind of exploiting of the game mechanics was only possible thanks to the one non-oldschool element: the real-time combat. If Grimrock as it is now was turn-based, I have no idea how I would have completed it (assuming one move from you equaled one move from every monster).
Kyle: It’s as good a time as any to address the real-time battle system and its implications. There were two perspectives or paradigms that I felt Grimrock could be approached with: either the real-time combat feels like a very slow version of something like Skyrim or Daggerfall; or else you could approach it as a very fast take on turn-based dungeon crawls. Approached as the latter, I feel it is very successful as it adds tension and immersion that would otherwise have been lost.
Miodrag: I’d say that the combat wasn’t immersive, but rather all the other elements of the game, like graphics, sounds and general atmosphere made you forget you had four guys standing in one square, moving on a grid. The thing is, I don’t mind the combat as it is. I just accepted that those were the rules of the game and went with it. I guess you could say I looked at it as a fast paced turn-based game (kinda like Chrono Trigger).
Kyle: Yes, there are definitely legitimate comparisons to the old Square active-battle system games like Chrono Trigger, at least from a mechanical perspective if not an applicational one. But the aspect of the combat that for me made it all work was the grid-based design. Without that, the entire thing falls apart. Grids are easy, grids work–it’s why board games, miniature games, and pencil & paper games have used them forever. I’m sure an attack will land–dependent on my character’s skill level of course–because of the certainty that the grid provides. All hail the grid!
Miodrag: So, what band of bad dudes did you lead through the dungeon?
Kyle: Being the boring square that I am, I left everything on default. So I had an upstanding looking gentleman in the top-left, a minotaur-type beast in the top-right, a foxy minx in a suspicious hoodie in the bottom-left, and a dastardly magical man in the bottom-right. Played it through on “Normal” difficulty to round out my squareishness.
Miodrag: Default? Awww… That breaks my heart. I had a minotaur axe fighter, minotaur monk, lizard grenade assassin and human fire and frost mage.
Kyle: No need to get all high and mighty on me; we survived the deadly snares and monstrous beasts of Grimrock all the same! My front two fighters concentrated on their melee weapon skills–swords and axes, respectively; while my bottom two companions focused on throwing weapons and magic missiles. It worked out okay for the most part, though in elongated battles the back row ran out of ammo and energy fairly quickly. Also they could only take something like an attack and a half before they died.
Miodrag: The equipment part of the game seems very unkind to certain builds. For example, your sword and axe guys? How long did they need until they actually got a sword and an axe? I know my first axe took quite a while and my first good axe took about fifty dead frog demon things first.
Kyle: That’s an important element to discuss, the pre-designed worlds, monsters, and loot; and I’m sure we’ll explore that a bit here. As for my fighters, I actually climbed skill trees based on the arsenal I discovered around the first few levels. In fact, I think my Minotaur was originally geared for maces and flails before I switched to axes due to having four or five of them gathering dust in my inventory.
Miodrag: That seemed a far better approach than mine. I had the concept for all characters during character creation, so I was left kind of punished for my choice in specializations. Then again, same could be said for your approach? Spreading yourself thin and never getting skills as high as they could have been. It is fulfilling to know you’ve been investing so much in something like fire magic for example, only to find a perfect item that boosts said type of magic. Then again, it would have been insanely frustrating if I had no ranks in Fire and ended up with the same item. The game just seems to reward certain skills more than others, which kills the point of giving as much freedom as it does during creation.
Kyle: But it’s a design that does not shy away from consequence. I think that’s intentional. It can be incredibly frustrating to be sure, but in a way it’s a big middle finger to all the procedurally-generated, be-what-you-want-and-it’s-okay RPGs floating around nowadays. In Mass Effect 2 and 3, you can pick whatever class you want and excel through the entire game. In Grimrock, you can pick whatever classes you want, but you might die a horrible death for it.
Miodrag: Truth be told, being indie gives you the luxury of being generous with middle fingers in design decisions.
Kyle: The way some of the levels were designed, it feels like the folks at Almost Human have five middle fingers on each hand.
Miodrag: We are talking about the spider level, aren’t we?
Kyle: Oh goodness, the spiders. My wife and family can attest to the number of times I shut off my computer in a fearful frustration. And if I never see another ice raptor in my life, it will be too soon.
Miodrag: I don’t know whether this was a bug or not, but I actually had a spider jump out of a pit behind my back. I can’t remember the last time a game made me swear out loud to such an extent. However, it’s all forgiven, since I really, really enjoyed the puzzles in the game. Never did I feel like they made no sense and some really made you think outside of the box. In particular, there was one puzzle that made you use general items you find along your way, rather than scavenging the floor for puzzle-specific pieces. It’s been a while since I saw that in a game.
Kyle: Without spoiling too much, I set my very last one of these common items on a switch two or three levels beforehand, and it was a-backtracking I go. There are those middle fingers again!
Miodrag: I’ve heard people complain about all these brutal design choices, as well as lack of randomly generated dungeons, but to be honest, I think Grimrock is quite refreshing in that aspect. I don’t need another Dungeons of Dredmor, since I already have a Dungeons of Dredmor.
Kyle: At the same time, it is on an identical wavelength as Dredmor, as neither game holds your hand or promises to pat your head at every turn for your character build and playstyle decisions. In Grimrock and Dredmor alike, you win or you die.
Miodrag: However, Dredmor revels in your suffering. Grimrock is more of a “life is hard” type of game. It doesn’t seem to enjoy your suffering. There’s something else I wanted to talk about and I could be alone in this, but what were your thoughts on Toorum? If you found any of his notes?
Kyle: I did find some of those notes. It seemed similar to the “Ratman” character from the Portal series, though if you’re hinting there’s a Shyamalan-esque twist to him that I missed, I did.
Miodrag: I won’t spoil anything, but well, Toorum was more of a friend in that game than side characters in other games that were actually present. I really liked the execution. And yes, the Ratman comparison is fitting, although I think Toorum had more of a direct presence in Grimrock than the Ratman in Portal.
Kyle: The concept certainly added to the immersion factor, along with the periodic “Gears of Snore” dreams and violent earthquakes. The first time I was fending off spiders, slugs, and walking plants and the whole room started to buckle, I froze in my tracks.
Miodrag: I think we can safely say that Grimrock is immersive and well-crafted in that regard. Did you have any actual qualms about the game, though? I’m counting the middle fingers as positive frustration, personally.
Kyle: Yeah, I mean, they are positive frustration unless you’re not into that sort of thing. If that’s the case for any readers, I’d steer away from Grimrock altogether in the first place. But as far as the implementation of its vision, I did have a few gripes with the UI. The little tutorial or lesson slides that you can pull up just don’t have enough content to cover the intricacies of spell-casting, inventory management, and the like, so I had to pick a few things up on the way.
Miodrag: Agreed, the game does a terrible job at explaining some basic things. For example, I only found out after I had finished the game that you could resurrect dead party members at life stones. I thought death was permanent, so I kept loading my save states.
Kyle: I think we can agree that by five or six levels in, you’ve mastered most of the UI though. I have two other complaints to air: one, the game doesn’t give enough feedback as to whether enemies are infinitely respawning or not. I still don’t know in some of those levels whether I was supposed to try to clear them all out or just run (I usually ran). And my second issue is that the difficulty curve takes a sharp leap for the sky right around the time the Reapers appear.
Miodrag: I agree with the respawn thing. I don’t mind infinite respawns, but I wish the game had been consistent about it. It’s not like it was even exclusive to certain puzzles, as it happened in a few other places “just because”. As for the difficulty curve, I didn’t see one personally, save for the final boss. Then again, it may have something to do with me being a completionist and combing through every grid on every floor.
Kyle: I, being a grade-A runawaytionist, had a hard time with many of the levels beneath the first Reaper appearance. I did beat them, but my F9 key no longer functions. Again, that brings us right back to where we started: the punishing design will definitely be a turn-off for some. I know I was tempted to give up on several floors.
Miodrag: It’s definitely not a game for everyone, but if it sounds like your kind of thing and you don’t mind a lack of hand-holding, I can’t recommend it enough.
Kyle: Agreed through and through.