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Swing your partner and face the sides... as we square dance around in Legend of Grimrock
Review - posted by DarkUnderlord on Wed 26 September 2012, 03:09:53Tags: Almost Human Games; Legend of Grimrock
Legend of Grimrock is an action role-playing game from Finnish indie developer "Almost Human". The game is a 3D grid-based dungeon crawler inspired by classic 1980s and 1990s action role-playing games Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder and Ultima Underworld.
... or at least, that's what Wikipedia says. Personally I wouldn't know because in my list of "games I've never played" are Dungeon Master (1987), Eye of the Beholder (1990) and yes, Ultima Underworld (1992). While they are games I collectively write-off as "before my era", I was playing something some-what similar not too long later, called "Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol" (1995) - a windows based thing that I had a lot of fun with... but we'll get to that later.
If you've never heard of Almost Human before, don't be surprised. They're a small outfit, consisting mainly of five Finns who handled all the programming, art and creature animation... and Grimrock is their first game. And for a first effort, it's a damn good one.
Grab your partner dosey-doe, now all step forward - down the pit you go!
The game is set in Mount Grimrock, a tall imposing spire of a mountain found in the middle of Dearthfang Ridges. Its top, only reachable by airship. Near the top, next to a ring of statues, is the Gaping Maw - a deep dark pit that descends into the mountain. Legend tells of a party of 12 men led inside by Lord Perel, only one of which ever came out again. He lived just long enough to tell the tale of a labyrinthine dungeon and an endless network of tunnels inside, along with untold horrors...
... which of course makes Mount Grimrock the perfect place for dumping prisoners. The King, set on finding out just what's inside, collects the strongest prisoners every year and throws them into the pit, in the off-chance that just one of them might make it out alive and live long enough to tell him all about it this time.
Of course you, your crimes unknown, get to lead a party of these four prisoners inside to discover the mysteries of the mountain. Your reward: Freedom and a pardon for your crimes.
It's a fairly standard plot with no surprises but really, what did you expect? After all, you do need some reason to be chucked in a dungeon without any equipment or experience.
Put your points in what you please, will you choose melee - or a mage with freeze?
Upon starting the game you'll have a choice of using the pre-built party consisting of two Melee fighters (one of which is a Minotaur), a Rogue and a Mage - or of creating your own group of characters. The game can be completed (or so I've heard) without Magic, or even without melee fighters, so you shouldn't feel restricted in what you choose. Just be aware that there could be some traps or secrets that you might have some difficulty with. Thankfully though, you don't need to get everything - at least not on your first play-through.
Character design is a fairly simple affair. You first get to choose your race from Human, Minotaur, Lizardman and Insectoid (look ma, no Elves!). Each race comes with different starting values for their four key attributes of Strength, Dexterity, Vitality and Willpower. You'll be given 10 points to play with to buff these as you so desire and that will affect how much damage you do, how much crap you can carry, health, energy and so on. You haven't got much to play with though, as most of the key attributes have easily reachable mins and maxes.
You also have to choose a class of either Fighter, Rogue or Mage. Your class determines the skills you will get to level up as you play. Fighters have a range of weapons' skills to choose from (Mace, Sword, Unarmed), Mages' get different schools of Magic (Air, Fire, Water) and Rogue's get missile weapons and special assassination abilites (such as double-damage when attacking an enemies' rear). Each class is your fairly typical affair and of course there are races suited to each - if min-maxing is your goal. And depending on your race, you'll also have a handful of skill points to distribute.
Finally, you can choose two traits for each of your characters. These will give you bonuses such as "+4 Attack Power" or "+2 Vitality". There are even some unique traits such as "+3 Attack Power for each skull carried" (Skulls are items you'll find in-game, usually in secret places).
Once you get in the game, levelling-up is a fairly typical affair, although it comes with some quirks. Like all RPG-type-things, XP is earned from killing monsters. Kill enough of them and you'll level-up, at which point you'll be given 4 or 5 skill points to distribute. You can put these into any of your skills as you please and each point increases that skill's effectiveness (putting points into Swords makes you a better sword fighter, duh).
However, you should note that your starting attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Vitality and Wisdom), once set, are locked in stone. To increase them, you will need to aim for the special bonuses as you level up your skills. Put 7 points into your Swords skill for example and you'll get a bonus +7 Health. Special attacks also open up at higher skill levels. That means you'll make an attack as per normal but it might randomly end up being a "Flurry of Strikes" or a mighty "Cleave" which will deliver additional damage. Rogues get options such as "25% faster attack rate with melee weapons" while Mages can aim for "50% faster spell casting", provided you put enough points into the requisite skill.
Skills are reasonably varied and you have some good options to choose from, but once chosen, you'll be best focussing on one or two key skills, rather than trying to spread points thinly across several areas. That means for Mages, you'll be focussing on one or two schools of magic (and if you pick Fire, you will of course encounter the usual fire resistant monsters), and Fighters are best focussing on one weapon skill, with a defensive skill.
You'll find a trap and give a shout, but it's time to ask - is that what this game's about?
As mentioned before, Grimrock is a "grid-based dungeon crawler". Now the dungeon crawler part is self-explanatory - you're dumped in a dungeon and have to crawl around - but it's the grid-based movement that sets the game apart. Unlike most modern RPGs where you might point and click with the mouse or simply walk around using WASD and use the mouse to direct just where you go, Grimrock uses a 2D grid for movement.
In a sense you use WASD as "normal" but tap W and you will walk forward from your current tile, into the tile ahead of you. If you wish to move sideways, you first have to press Q or E to face that way first. You'll turn ninety degrees the corresponding way, at which point you can tap W to walk forward again. You can side-step with A and D - which comes in handy when fighting monsters - but most of the time you'll want to see where you're going, lest you fall into a trap of some sort.
This odd (or should I say, classic) movement system will trip you up from time to time, especially during combat (more on that later), but it grows on you and it won't be too long before you find it wholly appropriate for the game. In fact it has a nice way of slowing you down and making you not only appreciate the level, but think more about what you're doing... and thinking is going to come in really handy, because the dungeons of Grimrock are full of puzzles, traps and other assorted challenges which will have you racking your brain for the answer.
The dungeons underneath Mount Grimrock are full of traps, puzzles and assorted things designed to trip you up. There are floor traps which you'll have to close... or figure out how to open, along with others which open in a sequence you'll have to memorise (and hurriedly follow). There are secret buttons for hidden (and powerful) weapons and secret combinations of levers. Thankfully (at least on normal difficulty), there are always clues not too far away and most puzzles can be solved fairly intuitively. The game, in that sense, has been very well designed.
You also won't get lost with the game's comprehensive automap which tracks your every move. If you're hard-core, you can turn this off and revert to using the old pencil and grid paper instead. But really, computers were invented for a reason and I don't see much point in turning off a useful feature - unless you really have too much grid paper to spare. Of course, along with the traps are the game's monsters...
All clap hands and dance around, avoid the pits or you're going down!
My first experience with combat was rather embarassing. A snail was crawling towards me... Given it was the first creature I had discovered, I expected I would be able to make short work of it. If only, that is, I could figure out how exactly I attack... I tried to move forward thinking it would auto-attack, sadly to no avail. After that came ctrl, alt, spacebar... left-click, right-click on the screen... all once more, to no avail. I back-tracked as quite embarrasingly, the snail was nibbling on my Minotaur.
I retreated backward, pressing random buttons and by now was screaming "How the fuck do I attack!?", "How the fuck do I attack!!!". It was at this point that I thought a quick-read of the game's manual might be in order. That ascertained that right-clicking was definitely involved. Another quick-read of the tutorial and the instructions to "Left click an item to pick it up from the slot and right click to attack with the item" finally resulted in me right-clicking on the item while it remained in my inventory hand, rather than left-clicking to pick it up and then trying to right-click to attack with it (which had resulted in some success with me lobbing a rock at the creature), or the previous failure of just right-clicking on the screen.
Derp. Needless to say, the snail was dispatched relatively quickly once I'd figured that out.
There are a range of different weapons in the game including axes, hand-to-hand, maces, thrown weapons (such as knives and rocks), spears and even bows an arrows. When you click on one of your weapons and attack, you swing and either hit - and deal damage accordingly - or miss, all determined by the corresponding skill level. Attacks take a moment to recharge (depending on the attack made and the weapon you're using). Beyond that, combat for the most part will then consist of circle strafing enemies in a slow, box-like manner as you right-click on your various attack options.
Enemies move in the same manner you do. That is, they turn, then step forward into the square in front of them and if necessary (such as when you've retreated sideways), turn again and repeat. Taking advantage of this allows you to gain advantages for attacking an enemies' flank or rear (double and sometimes even triple damage). Of course this results in you spending most of your time square dancing around enemies as you move backwards and sideways, they turn to walk into the square you just left, opening up their flank, you attack their flank... rinse and repeat.
This movement system did trip me up from time to time, hitting a wrong key and falling down a trap or trying to walk into a wall instead of running away and being killed as a result. And if you intend to play Melee characters, then you will be dancing like this with your enemies most of the time. Despite the quirkiness and confusion in sometimes getting turned around, it is pretty fun - at least a lot more interesting than playing whack-a-mole in your average Bethesda RPG. The only downside is that once you've got the hang of it, it can get a bit tiring. Some levels even have traps which you can take advantage of, such as luring opponents onto a pit and then triggering it to open so that they fall down to the level below (where you can eventually deal with them later).
Perhaps the biggest "cheat" though is simply fighting an enemy from the other side of the door. Flick the door mechanism so that the door opens, make a few quick attacks and then close the door quickly before the monster can respond. There are many times when I used this trick to my overwhelming advantage because I couldn't be assed dancing about. Still, it was pretty fun and there's a nice variety of monsters with different attacks to keep you amused.
So cast your spell - don't be a jerk; But fucking Magic, how does it work?
Along with melee weapons and ranged weapons (such as thrown axes and bows and arrows), the game also has magic. And it is the BIGGEST BITCH to use. While combat is a simply right-click on the weapon, magic requires you to enter runes. Right-cicking on your Mage's wand (or spell casting hands) shows 9 symbols arrayed in a 3x3 grid. You have to select the correct combination of symbols and click the cast button in order to cast a spell. You will find scrolls in-game which tell you what combination of runes casts what - your Mage also has to have enough skill points in the right school of Magic in order to successfully cast the spell too.
The rune system is one of those things that sounds like a cool idea on paper (much better than just pressing the "cast fireball" button) but which eventually annoys the shits out of you in game. Spells aren't "saved" so you have to re-select runes every-time. Add that to square-dancing and you can imagine moments of clicking the wrong rune and having your spell fizzle - or just not being able to get the spell out quick enough.
Even simple spells that require the selection of a single rune (such as the classic "ball of firey death" that wizards like to typically throw around in these types of games), can get seriously tedious. There's nothing quite like trying to move the mouse hurriedly over the cast button, hitting another rune by mistake and having a failed spell as something big green and hairy is chowing down on you.
If the runes of previously cast spells stayed "selected", so that you could just hit cast again, it would be a big improvement. Still, the system - as it is - isn't too bad and again, it adds to the overall impact of slowing you down and making you take your time. You'll need to think a bit and perhaps do some preparation (you can preset runes ready for the next spell) before you waltz into battle.
Oh and be aware: If you're playing the game in Steam, Steam has an annoying habit of popping up it's messages "Dickwad is playing some dumb popamole game" RIGHT OVER THE WIZARD'S CASTING AREA. FUCK YOU HABA. I DIED BECAUSE YOU PLAYED DARK SOULS RIGHT WHEN I WAS TRYING TO CAST FIREBALLS.
But along with spell casting, the game also has a reasonably simple Alchemy system. You'll find ingredients through-out the game, empty flasks and eventually, a mortar and pestle. Simply put a mix of ingredients into the inventory interface that opens when you right-click the mortar and pestle, add a flask and you have a useful potion. There aren't many potions to mix but the added mechanism of having to re-use flasks makes flasks a precious, precious resource which you will cherish once found. It also prevents you from simply mixing up 50 health potions and chugging them all the time. Instead, potions are valuable and only used in the tightest of tight spots.
If you do get badly hurt, you can rest. Which sometimes did seem kind of silly, especially when all you've done is just ducked around the corner away from the scary mage things. Sometimes your rest will be interrupted by a monster that'll attack - or your rest will be interrupted with dreams - but for the most part resting is a safe and easy way to regain lost health. Of course, you'll have a lot of trouble resting in a room with something attacking you, but I never found a fight I couldn't run away from (well, except one... or maybe two).
Check the walls for hidden treasure, it's all for your visual and auditory pleasure.
One of the things you'll notice about Grimrock are the visuals: They're simply sublime. I'd rather not salivate about wall textures and how awesome the statues look but you can't help but admire their beauty. Added to this is the gorgeous artwork which you'll run into through-out the game - the cut-scenes which consist of series of still images are brilliantly drawn.
Thankfully, it doesn't end there. The game's monsters are brilliantly designed and move with nice, smooth animation. Whenever I ran into something new, I found I couldn't help but take a moment to look at it - or run away and watch how it would come after me and attack (also useful in working out how enemies fight and gauging any weaknesses they may have).
On top of this all is some beautiful music and brilliant sound. Quite simply, the metal gates clang like a metal gate should and nothing seems out of place. You never have those moments where the enemy "moves funny" *cough* Oblivion *cough* or a sound just seems wrong. Grimrock really is a game where the developers got the basics right. Your inner graffiks whore will be pleased.
I found this extended for the entire game. Everything was not only done well, but there was never a time when I thought something could've been done better... Apart from level design. In fact, the only thing I did question at times was the layout of the levels. Simply put, the levels didn't have anything coherent about them. There were odd twisting halls and strange dead-end passages to nowhere (but hardly what you'd consider maze-like). At first, I thought they were simply randomly generated - which would've meant great replayability - but you soon realise (and replays prove) that the levels are all pre-designed.
This is a minor criticism because the hand-crafted traps and puzzles are all very well put-together but, as I said, it is a big dent in replayability. While you can mix and match your characters and maybe go for one or two different setups, Grimrock is simply a pre-designed thirteen level dungeon. It's well designed but it's clear the ongoing fun will come from the game's Level Editor (which is due to be released shortly).
For more Legend of Grimrock is what we yearn, but after all that, what did we learn?
As soon as you stop oggling at the wallpaper (have I told you the graphics are sexy hawt?), at its heart, I'd say Legend of Grimrock is a puzzle game with some interesting combat and a nice magic system. And it's a damn fine game at that. While I disliked some of the gamey things - such as getting a nasty monster on the other side of the door, opening the door, cycling through and right-clicking on all of my attacks, before closing the door again while my attacks recharge, before re-opening the door and repeating... all so that the monster didn't have a chance to hit me - I didn't mind them so much that I ended up loathing the game.
The game is also full of traps. Which is great. Some of them did annoyingly rely on perfect timing though, but it wasn't so bad that you hated it. More that you got so frustrated you found yourself repeating the same bloody thing over and over again until you finally got it right and had that FUCK YEAH moment (For example, there are soom rooms where you press a button and a trapdoor will close. You then need to step on top of the closed trapdoor, press another button - which closes another trapdoor - and then step backward and get on that newly closed trapdoor to press yet another button before the trapdor you're on opens and drops you. As a puzzle, it sounds like a good idea, until you fail because you can't quite get your mouse over the button fast enough or click and miss the button and fall down. Thus resulting in several repeated attempts before you nail the sequence perfectly).
The only real complaint I did have was the level design. At first, I really did thnk the levels were randomly generated. Randomly twisting corridors, dead-end rooms that made no sense and arbitrarily placed puzzles all made me think it was being generated on the fly. Unfortunately, it wasn't. This has two effects, the first being that replayability is limited - Legend of Grimrock is the same every time you play it. The second effect is that, in my opinion, they're designed like someone pulled something out of their ass, smeared it on canvas and said "that'll do pig, that'll do". Still, provided you never ask "just why the hell did someone build a room with this kind of trap / puzzle in it anyway?", you'll do fine.
As I've said before, the puzzles themselves are very well designed - with plenty of adequately obscure (but not too obscure) clues found nearby (if you look hard enough). It was only on Level 9 when everything went to shit for me where after successfully getting through the game without help up until that point, I had to google for assistance. Working out what to sacrifice, missing a switch in the wall and just how exactly one should slither... In hind-sight, the switch should've been obvious but after the slithering puzzle (a note I had written off as a clue on how to fight the Big Bad that the game continually hinted was coming up), I honestly thought I'd missed something somewhere. And I would have been completely stumped at the sacrificial altars without reading the help in the forums.
The game also has what I am going to call, ONE OF THE GREATEST END BOSSES EVER. At least for me, I found it completely unexpected and quite original for the game's setting.
It's just unfortunate that in the final level, the movement system seemed slow and unresponsive at times. Especially during areas when you just have to RUN. Turning, moving forward, turning again, etc... just seems to be slow and cumbersome at these moments. Sometimes causing you to hit forward twice, move too far and miss the crucial timing to get to an area or fall down a trap you never intended to walk on to, or turn around twice and end up walking the wrong way. Oh, and Monsters will occasionally respawn in some areas. Combine the two and you have a recipe for pain. Especially in one particular level, when your path to retreat is blocked by CONSTANTLY FUCKING RESPAWNING MONSTERS THAT YOU'VE KILLED EIGHT TIMES OVER ALREADY.
I seriously went from "This is fucking awesome!" to just repeatedly getting pissed because I was seeing the GAME OVER screen and having to wait for it to fade slowly, ever so slowly, back to the main menu. JUST LET ME HIT THE FUCKING F9 (Quick Load) KEY RIGHT THE FUCK NOW. RIGHT NOW. HERE. F9. GOGOGOGO. Only to reload and run right into a monster that pops out into my way, or another monster that pops into my other way. I must've seriously just saved at a bad spot because everything was right the fuck in my way whichever way I ran, and getting turned around by the movement system just made me extremely frustrated. Especially getting blocked by things that weren't that strong and were clearly just dumped into the level EN MASS just to PISS YOU OFF.
... still, I've never played one of these types of games before, and despite my frustrations with it, I can genuinely say that I loved it. I'm now salivating at the chance to get my hands on the game's level editor which is going to be released shortly. That will no doubt add hours of replayability and other challenges. And while I think the game could do with some fun things like hoarding loot, traipsing back to town and selling your wares at the local market, or randomised dungeons and a hundred more levels, it's pretty awesome for what it is.
And for $15? You can't go wrong. I can easily see Legend of Grimrock being a game I'll be playing for years to come as new fan-made modules are released.