Developer: Almost Human Games
My first fifteen minutes with Legend Of Grimrock were bizarre to say the least. Starting out in a lonely dungeon with a party of four adventurers, I quickly realised that it was only possible to move in cardinal directions, with the environment split up into discrete squares. I prodded a loose stone to unlock a door. I worked out how to equip torches and armour. I found a couple of keys. Things were looking up, and I felt good about myself.
And then a giant snail summarily devoured my party because Legend Of Grimrock hadn't taught me how to attack. I scoured the options menu to no avail, proceeded to impotently watch my slimy adversary munch on my back row and then, to my eternal shame, ragequitted.
As the red mist cleared, however, I remembered that Legend Of Grimrock came bundled with a PDF instruction manual. Upon opening it, I was delighted to discover an arcane tome packed with story details, illustrations and critical information, the likes of which you rarely see these days.
That's Legend Of Grimrock in a nutshell. Almost Human Games set out to create a modern version of classic dungeon crawlers in the vein of Dungeon Master and Might & Magic - not to bring the classic genre up to date, but to create an archetypal, authentic experience that reminds us why we played these games in the first place. On the whole, they've succeeded.
Legend Of Grimrock's premise is fairly simple, and more than a little reminiscent of Jeff Vogel's Exile/Avernum series. A party of criminals are thrown into the top a network of catacombs and tombs, and by doing so, their crimes are immediately pardoned. To escape this bizarre penal punishment and return to normal life, they'll need to delve through Grimrock's thirteen floors, braving traps, monsters and puzzles. Though the story does offer a couple of interesting tidbits throughout the journey, it's mainly a brief hook that plays second fiddle to the gameplay.
As an homage to Dungeon Master and its ilk, players will explore some twisting grid-based labyrinths in a first person perspective. You can only move or rotate in cardinal directions, with each key press advancing your party by a single square. Simple cursor clicks deal with equipping items or interacting with environmental features (typically switches and doors), and while you can move the camera by holding the right mouse button, it's a purely optional extra that doesn't factor into the gameplay. This setup couldn't be any more authentic if you had to type "go north" into a text box, heck, veterans can even optionally disable the dungeon map to get the full pen and paper experience. Thankfully full 3D environments, atmospheric lighting effects and some monstrous creature designs (including insects, undead guardians and lumbering brutes) conspire to create a real sense of immersion, further bolstered by some creepy sound effects.
Your four-man party is assembled from a selection of three classes (fighter, rogue and mage) and three under-used fantasy races such as Lizardmen and Insectoids. This might sound fairly limited, but as you level up, you'll discover an enormous degree of customisation and specialisation provided by numerous special abilities, a massive selection of craftable spells and statistics to tinker with. Legend Of Grimrock refuses to hold your hand in any way, giving you free rein to create your own team and specialise them how you see fit - for better or worse. In this day and age, it's rare to see a game refuse to patronise or underestimate players in any way, and the success of Demon's Souls and Super Meat Boy proves that we love it when the gloves come off.
This philosophy factors into Legend Of Grimrock's main event: some beautifully-crafted puzzles. The thirteen floors start slow (a pressure plate here, a hidden switch there), but eventually proffer some wonderfully intricate mechanisms of pits, switches, portals and riddles. Trial and error will only get you so far, and the majority of the veritable smorgasbord of solutions requires players to step back, think logically and apply every ounce of brainpower they possess to the problem at hand. You'll howl with frustration. You'll cry and quit. You'll occasionally hover over your browser's search bar to find an FAQ before steeling your resolve and plunging right back in. The unadulterated joy of success - earned, not given - far outweighs any potential aggravation, and makes Legend Of Grimrock one of the most satisfying puzzlers on the market at the moment.
There are a few too many hidden switch puzzles, mind. Scouring stone walls for a single loose rock does get old.
Combat takes place in real-time, with enemies only able to attack when standing in an adjacent grid. Once you've worked out the incredibly clunky method of dishing out melee damage (I won't spoil the surprise), you'll discover an impressively deep layer of special abilities, cooldowns and spellcasting, which adds a pleasingly strategic edge to the proceedings. Again, Legend Of Grimrock pulls no punches - it will punish you without mercy or pause - but it makes you really think about timings and tactics, resulting in a glorious feeling of satisfaction once your plan comes together.
Until you get to the sixth or seventh floor, that is. At this point, enemies are capable of ripping apart your party in seconds, and the bad old ways come back in full force. It's possible to defeat them with clever use of skills and attacks, but Legend Of Grimrock encourages you to abuse its underlying systems instead, keeping foes at a diagonal angle (and hence, unable to attack you) or 'kiting' them around pillars and obstacles, wearing them down in a totally unrealistic, exploitative manner over the course of several minutes. Most floors feature healing crystals in certain locations, and it's all too tempting to fall into an unnatural repetitive pattern of drawing out one enemy, abusing weaknesses in their AI, falling back to the crystal and sallying forth again. And saving the game like a man possessed. Enemies stop being menacing monsters, becoming a collection of AI attack patterns and weaknesses. The dungeon turns into a selection of squares rather than an atmospheric realm of discovery. You'll be constantly aware that you're playing a game, with any sense of real immersion continually scuppered.
I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that this behaviour comes with the territory, and studying the AI for weaknesses and exploits (and critically, not allowing yourself to be cornered) is technically a cerebral puzzle in and of itself. Some players will respond well to it - and many more will get into the spirit of things - but plenty of gamers will be rightfully deterred by the inability to consistently immerse themselves in the experience.
Almost Human's singleminded pursuit of nostalgia and authenticity makes Legend Of Grimrock's worth incredibly difficult to quantify, which means that you'll have to endure the longest 'Short Version' we've ever written.
- Uncompromising, satisfying and deep gameplay
- Sensational puzzles, pleasing difficulty level and lack of handholding
- Atmospheric visuals and sound design
- Reliance on kiting, AI abuse and exploits can ruin immersion
- Clunky, awkward, poorly-explained and infuriating in parts
- Over-use of switch-finding puzzles
The Short Version: Legend Of Grimrock is a difficult game to score, and in many ways, the number is almost meaningless. Almost Human Games have succeeded perfectly in their remit: to create an authentic old-school dungeon crawler that brings the genre back to life without compromising the difficult, frequently infuriating gameplay in any way. Exceptionally-crafted puzzles and atmospheric visuals make for a compelling experience for those who enjoyed the likes of Dungeon Master back in the day, and players who crave a satisfying challenge in an increasingly patronising era. If you fall into either category, it deserves an immediate purchase.
But for many gamers, Legend Of Grimrock's rampant nostalgia, clunkiness and AI exploits will be a stark reminder of how far RPGs evolved over the late eighties and nineties. Indeed, you'll wonder exactly why we put up with these games in the first place.
Tempted as I am, though, we never mark a game down for explicitly catering to a niche audience. Just be sure to make an informed buying decision rather than basing your purchase on a fraction.