The Good: Almost Human studios strives to recreate the dungeon crawling RPGs of yore The Bad: And succeeds The Ugly: Perhaps too well.
I am likely very close to the demographic that Finnish studio Almost Human had in mind when they created Legend of Grimrock. I can recall Bard’s Tale and Wizardry and the whole plethora of early dungeon crawling videogames quite clearly, the spiral notebooks filled with maps on graph paper, going through every inch of those dungeons and marking every square on those pages. I literally carried those notebooks with me to college, figuring that somewhere the Eye of the Beholder would come up in a casual conversation and I would whip out my notebooks and impress everyone with my maps. Surprisingly, this never happened. My dormmates found my Spock ears equally unimpressive, and I spent a great deal of my college career single and alone. I know, big shocker. Anyway, LoG is probably supposed to speak to gamers like me, providing precisely, and I mean precisely, that old-style dungeon crawling RPG experience. And while I came into LoG suffused with warm, nostalgic memories of Members Only jackets and Rubik’s Cubes and those little tippy drinking bird thingys, I very quickly found that, as gamers, we have evolved far beyond that kind of play. Like a few years back when I reviewed Command & Conquer: The First Decade, I found there were so many things that I had come to take for granted, that it was almost jarring to play the very first C&C and come to realize Cripes, I found this entertaining at one time? It’s almost more of a pain the ass than it is worth playing it. LoG, I must confess, I found to be like that. For those of you still trying to get Wizardry 1 running on Dosbox, let me take you inside Grimrock and tell you all about it.
Like classic D&D, your characters (a group of four) are built up of the typical stats: strength, wisdom, constitution, etc. You can have the computer do die rolls for you, or you can start with base characters and allocate points manually as you wish. You choose their careers – fighter, rogue, or mage (for some reason, cleric isn’t a career that made the cut, which is unfortunate, because there are a lot of undead around). You pick their races – different races have bonuses and minuses for various careers – and select their base skills. Then your party is ready to go. In the grand tradition of minimalist storytelling, the whole story is that your adventuring party is actually comprised of convicts and is being released within Grimrock, a dungeon riddled spire, to fight your way to the bottom and your freedom. Side note: according to the story, no one has ever survived this trial by Grimrock. You go in empty handed, and must find all the equipment you need, including food, to survive.
What follows is bare bones dungeon crawling. Your party marches along in two by two formation; the front line being able to do melee strikes and soaking up the damage, and the two in the back row only capable of ranged attacks. I expect everyone will, as I did, put two bricks in front, and a mage and thief in the back. Good armor gets handed forward, ancillary equipment like torches and food get handed back. It’s a pretty pat gameplay structure. The game has an automapping function which keeps your exploration progress on a minimap, but if you wish, you can turn it off. The game provides a pdf of an old-style sheet of graph paper with artwork and such on it, and you can create your own maps. Not my cup of tea, but if it’s yours, have at it.
Combat is in real time. There are little icons of each character’s hands in the corner of the screen, and clicking on a hand causes a swing attack with whatever weapon or item that hand is holding (early on, torches make pretty good weapons). For the guys in the back row, clicking on a hand and then clicking on the enemy causes the item to be thrown. For the mages, clicking on a hand brings up a spell casting menu. The spell casting is rune-based, and the interface looks like the pad on a touchtone phone. You click the runes that make up the spell you want to cast, and then click the cast button. This is a phenomenally cumbersome system, far worse than anything I remember from my old Ultima Underworld days, and there is, as near as I can tell, no way to hot key these things. It is really hard to get the right spell out quickly in combat. Remember, I said combat is in real time, so while I’m fiddling with the spell casting menu, other characters in my party are standing around with their thumbs up their buttocks and getting swacked by the enemy. Whenever a character attacks, there is a recovery time during which they cannot attack. The best way to handle combat is to swoop in on the enemy, make your attacks, and then back off while everyone recovers initiative. I realize a lot of other RPG games play like that too – I sometimes do things that way in Skyrim – but somehow in the framework of this game it feels very artificial and awkward.
The classic styling of this game results in some pretty strange things by today’s standards. The game has very little in the way of sound effects and more or less nothing in the way of music. The dungeons themselves look tile-based, every section of floor and wall looking more or less like every other one. The dungeons are so bereft of items that they are practically sterile. There are some torches on the walls, and a couple of non-interactive items like benches or hanging chains, and that’s about it. Your movement, and those of your enemies, is in a strictly square grid. In a large, open room, no one moves diagonally, but instead follows the lines on the floor. That looks just plain silly. Healing is primarily accomplished by waiting and camping, and often after combat you take a nap to heal up, even though you just woke up after taking a nap from your previous combat. Like you’re at the helm of a merry band of adventuring narcoleptics. Oh, and save after every single combat. The only way to reincarnate characters are at these crystals exactly one of which is located on each dungeon level. Your party just can’t take the loss of a member, especially one of your front line bricks, and you’re better off loading the save game than you are trying to muscle forward to the next crystal.
The game is chock full of environmental puzzles. They start with pulling levers and chains to open doors, triggering pressure plates in the floors, and putting gems into eye sockets of statues, but very quickly advance to some real brain benders. This is a significant departure from the original dungeon crawl RPG, and I think provides some of the game’s best gameplay and most interesting challenges.
I found the first hour of LoG nostalgic, and the next hour tolerable, and the hours after that aggravating. The dungeon is bland and the enemies are flat and the combat interface is cumbersome – in others words, just like every RPG dungeon crawl in the 80’s. If you find the gameplay of modern RPGs like Skyrim too intimidating or overwhelming or whatever, and you can’t find copies of the older games or can’t seem to get them to run in Dosbox, then by all means, jump into LoG and have a good time. If people say I’m being unduly harsh, that while lounging in their beanbag chairs wearing Sassoon jeans and drinking Tab they’ve been craving just such a game, then I will gladly turn in my retro gamer card. Speaking for myself, and I suppose Eddie Money, you can’t go back.
This review is based on a digital copy of Legend of Grimrock for the PC provided by Almost Human.