"The original Grimrock had a child with Myst and it was kidnapped by Dark Souls II in its infancy and raised to adulthood in the graveyard of forgotten CRPGs."
Try to beat the game without any hints or help.
The experience of unraveling The Legend of Grimrock II made me feel like a champion. To ensure this review would be written in time for the game's release, I received only a slight hint from the developers, and the hinted-at solution was one I thought I had already tried. I fought my way through monsters, riddles, traps, and puzzles with my wits, patience, and dexterity. I swam to the shores of the island of Nex without knowing what I was getting into, and I suggest you do the same. There's no better way to experience the brilliance of this perfect sequel.
Grimrock II is a puzzle box within which are a hundred more such boxes within which are yet more. Hints are riddles; puzzles lead to puzzles. This is only possible because Grimrock II is an open world dungeon crawler. There might be an emphasis on the subterranean, but there are forests, a river, a bog, beaches, and other, more secret environments to explore. For those who take their dungeon crawling literally, this might be disappointing. I estimate that over half of the game takes place underground, but purists may mourn the loss of the gargantuan dungeon that was the first Grimrock. Although the island of Nex is essentially one big dungeon, I understand that it's a matter of atmosphere rather than design. But I fully embrace the change. Watching the multitudinous and overlapping puzzles and riddles unfold as you progress through the game is a singular experience made possible by the game's wide, beautifully nonlinear world.
Like the wizard's tower or the dungeon, the island is one of those perfect settings for a video game. It's a self-contained world that allows for design and narrative freedom. Grimrock II sees a party of four anonymous adventurers marooned on the island of Nex, about which they and the player know nothing. The narrative is simple, but never the focus, although I would have enjoyed more compelling lore. Early on, there is the suggestion of a sentient presence on the island, but there are no directives or quests. No "investigate the island" or "discover the identity of the cloaked figure." All is left up to you and while it might make you pull your hair out, scream, chuck mice and keyboards, and otherwise throw little tantrums, it's all for the best. In the end, you feel exalted.
Grimrock II plays like its predecessor. Your party and its foes move on an invisible grid, and you attack by clicking on character weapons in the interface. It's a simple, but challenging system that achieves a perfect balance between player skill and character statistics. Menus and interface function well, but movement can be tricky. As in the original Grimrock, holding down a directional button usually makes you move one square too many. Get in the habit of separating keystrokes or you might end up falling down one of the game's many pits. And you might be in a rush or confused in the frenzy of battle because Grimrock plays out in realtime, not in a turn-based fashion as you might expect from the genre. If you walk away from the keyboard without pausing, you might return to find four skulls and a Game Over. And that's just one of the many good design decisions that contribute to Grimrock's excellence.
I spent twenty-five hours with Grimrock II and I never felt I had seen everything there was to see. That's a rare achievement. Grimrock II is a constant delight — or horror. It evokes both wonder and fright, although the latter seems to dominate the experience, even with the sun shining on half the adventure. But it's not as claustrophobic a game as the original, and the developers do all sorts of delightful and creative things with the open world. I want to give examples, to point out all they did right, but any knowledge is a spoiler when it comes to this game. I can say that you will be surprised not only by what the island is capable of, but also what your characters can do. And what the enemies can do. Improved AI and more varied enemy behavior is just one of the small improvements that makes Grimrock II such a great sequel.
If there's one thing that grows a bit stagnant after twenty hours, it's the puzzles. That's not to say the puzzles are shoddy or poorly designed. Indeed, they are among the most insidious and brilliant I've encountered in a game. But there are, I daresay, simply too many. The experience feels almost diluted. I spent more time pondering and solving puzzles than I did exploring, equipping my characters, or fighting monsters. In certain areas, there was literally another puzzle around every bend of the dungeon walls. I didn't fear the monsters so much as I feared the puzzles. It's a matter of momentum. And sanity.
Certain puzzles are unsolvable when you first encounter them. You need an item or the information printed on a scroll found elsewhere. Hence the nonlinearity. Early or mid-game, this works excellently, as the open world allows you to take another path or follow another whim. Take a break, clear your head. By the time you return to the puzzle you couldn't solve, you might see a solution you didn't before. Or have gained knowledge that allows you to solve it. You might also find an item that reminds you of something halfway across the island, and — click! — you know how to open a door. This is how the game unfolds. The level of balance achieved in the open world is astounding, particularly given the game's small development team. That only a handful of people made a game this complex so functional is exceptional.
Unfortunately, at the end of the game, you may have a decision to make: beat your head against a puzzle you may not be able to solve or scour the island for an item you missed that helps you solve the puzzle. When there's only one foreseeable path to take at the end of the game, coming up against a seemingly impossible puzzle is incredibly defeating. There's also at least one barrier that requires a specific, unique item. Lose it and you may never beat the game short of checking every square to find where you dropped it. These are the things that test your patience, your perseverance, and the stability of your mind.
But in the end, I found myself forgiving of the puzzle-bloated levels and all the times I swore at the screen in desperation. Maybe it's the fact that the game saves some of its best trickery for the last hour. Or maybe it's because the unfolding of the island's mysteries is an almost mystical experience. Grimrock II generates epiphanies. It mirrors the spiritual journey, the crawling through the madness to reach enlightenment. When everything clicks into place, it was worth the mental torture. After solving those last few conundrums — perhaps traversing the entire island again in your search — the hours you felt were lost to a stupid video game gain new meaning. Grimrock II requires so much of you, but it gives so much back.
Grimrock II is the kind of game you think about when you're not playing. The primitive, evocative graphics haunt you. Even the sound effects stay with you. This is the kind of game that encourages a community to build up around it. Playing it solo was incredible, but this is the type of game that lends itself to conversation and collaboration. People will still be talking about Grimrock II next year: did you find the meteor hammer? Did you find all the secrets? Was your alchemist your savior?
The original Grimrock had a child with Myst and it was kidnapped by Dark Souls II in its infancy and raised to adulthood in the graveyard of forgotten CRPGs. That's Grimrock II. And yet it has its own puzzling, riddling dungeon crawling magic. It's an intricate puzzle box hiding needles beneath its surface. It's a frightening force of nature, a storm of darkness and the things that crawl in it. It's a sphinx with starry eyes. The Legend of Grimrock II is a work of genius.