Legend of Grimrock
Sometimes, it’s the sound that does it. A snatch of half-recalled chorus can suddenly whisk you back to a lazy summer afternoon lounging in the park, the murmur of conversations overheard and the shouts of foot-to-ball enthusiasts wafting through the air.
Legend of Grimrock, the new PC dungeon crawler from Finnish indie developers Almost Human, achieved something very similar for me. That special blend of feet slapping on flagstone floors, the clank of chainmail and the rumble of nameless horrors echoing through labyrinthine corridors transported me away from my living room in gray, dripping London.
In my head, it’s 1995. I’m twelve years old, and being subjected to one of those interminable holidays to visit family friends that seem to be handed out with the first child’s birth certificate. Not young enough to remain oblivious to everything around me, but hardly old enough to be interested in anyone over the age of about fourteen, I’m saved from tedium by a fortuitous discovery: an Amiga 1200, with a massive stack of games on disk.
Ultima Underworld isn’t the first one I tried; it is, however, the one that leads to the most arguments about failing to play outside sufficiently. I’ve never played anything quite like it — the massive, sprawling dungeon, the relative autonomy to play the way you want, and the sense of entering unprepared a complex world, full of things that would be more than willing to snack on your eyeballs. By today’s standards, it may have been a crude attempt at exploring the first person mechanic, but what it did have, dripping from every pore, was a finely crafted sense of atmosphere.
That’s something that Legend of Grimrock shares with its spiritual forebear, along with many other aspects that will be familiar to a generation reared on classics like Dungeon Master or the Wizardry series. Indeed, the developers aren’t shy about the association, claiming to have created an “old-school dungeon crawling game inspired by Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder and Ultima Underworld”.
The setup is fairly perfunctory. You control a group of adventurers, convicted of an unnamed crime, who are dropped into monster-infested pit in a questionably efficient mode of execution. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to venture through the increasingly dangerous levels of the dungeon to find your way back to the outside world, and a pardon for your transgressions.
You won’t see your four explorers on screen — this is strictly a first-person affair. The characters move as a four by four square in rigid formation, taking up a single square tile of the grid-based dungeon floor, just like all the enemies you’ll meet. That arrangement is more interesting than it sounds, given that your front row will dealing out the melee punishment and soaking up the damage, while the back row won’t be able to reach enemies with short weapons. Be wary though, since attacks from the side or rear will hit your soft, exposed characters as well.
Movement is restricted to one of four directions, and turns are precisely executed 90 degree spins on the spot. Combat is equally ritualised, with long cooldowns lending a more contemplative, tactical edge to proceedings. Sadly, true turn-based play is not an option, something I’d have been all over had it been offered. Magic is given a particularly interesting twist; instead of picking from a spell book, spells are cast by choosing runes from a 3×3 grid in the correct combination, with the risk of a miscast always present.
These are your tools then, to navigate the forbidding environs of Grimrock Mountain. You’ll face a veritable menagerie of enemies, all of whom show the odd perspective and attention to detail that are lavished elsewhere in the game. The hardest obstacles to overcome though are the many, many traps, both obvious and surprising, that will bar your passage and often send you plunging onto a sharpened spike. This is not a game in which to be sparing with the Save key, or to be afraid of pausing for thought regularly.
There is a certain logic to the trap design, where it’s clear that Almost Human have attempted to start players off easy and teach them the steps to solve the next tier of problems, but there were a few occasions when I felt that a somewhat cheap example was tossed in to make up the numbers. Even saying that feels like nit-picking though, given the clear priority that the devs have given to inventive and smart level design. The number of times that I silently thanked the genius who plotted that particular stretch of corridor that let me drop that hulking ogre into a bottomless pit more than makes up for the occasional wobbly sequence.
Should the difficulty level prove too weedy for your particular tastes, there is the option of turning on ‘Old School mode’, which gets rid of the auto-mapping function — tailor-made for paper map fetishists and landscape savants.
While hardly a graphical feast, the art assets do the trick of building a convincing underworld, ably assisted by the cracking sound design I alluded to earlier. Honestly, I could listen to the creak of bones and the clank of chains echoing in the distance for hours, were I not aware that they denote a horde of undead fiends clamouring for fresh blood.
There are drawbacks to the tried and tested dungeon crawl formula, however. The difficulty level ramps fairly quickly, and aiming to beat the game in a single easy playthrough is more optimistic than reasonable. That’s not to say that the challenge is unfair — new players will simply have to learn the systems that are defeating them, and build that into their strategy next time around. That said, it can sometimes be difficult to gauge your chances of overcoming a particular enemy, or to simply wipe when stumbling into an unexpectedly large group of monsters.
Legend of Grimrock does exactly what it set out to do: recreate the feeling of playing of playing an old-school RPG in a darkened bedroom, mucking around with reams of graph paper and half-eaten cheese and pickle sandwiches. Don’t make the mistake of believing this is just for the initiated either; it boasts a special blend of orienteering, puzzle-solving and battering monsters to death in the depths of the earth that promises to enthrall an entirely new generation.