A dying breed, games like Etrian Odyssey desperately try to keep the waning dungeon crawler genre alive. Though masterfully executed, these titles appeal to a niche, nostalgic sort of taste most often found in 30- and 40-somethings. Legend of Grimrock (LoG) helps carry the load in Atlasian fashion with spectacular visuals, artful design in both combat and puzzles, and a je ne sais quoi that encourages perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenge.
The developers’ approach to LoG’s story is a unique one – the game itself offers little insight into the mystery of Mount Grimrock. Prisoners in a nearby kingdom have earned amnesty – granted they survive and somehow escape the dungeon that no other person has conquered. Of course, one cannot simply come out the way they came, since the prisoners are literally pushed down an abyssal maw at the top of the mountain (though apparently not deep enough to shatter any bones). Throughout the course of the game, our heroes find notes dropped hither and thither that occasionally function as clues to otherwise daft-inducing puzzles, but other times give insight into the journey of adventurers past. What makes the developers’ story-telling unusual is that more backstory and explanation can be found in the accompanying manual than in the game’s entirety.
Nevertheless, story is typically tertiary to gameplay and atmosphere in crawlers of the dungeon variety. The combat in LoG is simple, yet well-executed. In short, players and monsters traverse the stony tomb via squares, but time continues to flow. That is, enemies move regardless of your actions – no turn-taking here. When one encounters a foe, expect to dance in circles (squares) pounding away at the enemy before they have time to attack. Indeed, many will find one-on-one combat mindless and gimmicky – justifiably so. No matter what race, class, or traits you choose, combat functions much the same: right click an equipped weapon or input a spell, wait for cooldowns to reset, and repeat. However, throw a couple more creepy crawlies into the mix, and the challenge intensifies exponentially. I also often found myself somehow flanked by monsters who seemed to spawn for no reason whatsoever; don’t worry, this, too, is a puzzle.
Riddles and puzzles complement combat seamlessly in LoG. I oftentimes found myself neurotically looking over my shoulder in-game as I tried to decipher yet another obstacle presented. In some cases, rooms can be cleared, giving license to roam about in search of a loose brick or key to a puzzle. Alternatively, the game had a habit of barring me from a save point which doubles as a health and mana replenishing station. Thus, narrowly escaping death in search of a means of progression became task numero uno. However, LoG also offers ample opportunities for the more pensive among us to sit and ponder about what a certain note is trying to say, or how to get past one of the several barred doors coyly hinting at untold treasures – or a crossbow when you’re not even specing ranged weapons. Damn it.
Admittedly, for every five or six clever riddles or spatial reasoning tasks, there are just plain old perception tests; that is, find the one wall that looks a little different from the others and hit the button. Although appealing at first, the developers continuously use this tired device as a means of extending gameplay or stumping otherwise thoughtful players. I actually had to take a break for a couple of days just because I couldn’t progress. When I finally sat back down, I spent a half hour or so trying out all sorts of tactics with teleporters and pits, only to discover that a loose brick three steps away from a door allowed me to proceed. Fortunately, this rarely happens, and it’s one of few complaints I have about the game. While these bricks exist throughout the dungeon, they typically lead to some neat secret sporting a trinket or piece of armor that is not otherwise necessary.
In terms of atmosphere, LoG induces tunnel vision, and not just because of the nature of first-person movement through hallways. While the enemies suffer in terms of variety, the art style for each one has a disturbingly realistic look up close. Even when afar, however, the effects of lighting and shadows create a uniquely creepy vibe and panic – quickly turn to the right with the intent of flight, and yelp as a spider jumps at your face, poisoning your two tanks. Quickened heartbeats and gritted teeth. But what are visuals without expert aural execution? Whether a high-pitched screech from an arachnid or deafening bellow from a charging golem, the monsters are not only believable, they’re intimidating. Nary a game exists that not only tells us that enemies are bad because they’re supposed ta be, but also because they look and sound life-threatening and terrible. I honestly cannot think of a game with better creatures. If only the developers designed a few more.
Legend of Grimrock is more than just AI-infused drones, though. The crackle of a torch, stone grinding against stone, and distant movement of a platform – or monster? – these complete the package that LoG portends to convey. No more convincing dungeon exists, save Diablo. In terms of visuals, I quickly noticed that nearly every single wall was the same with the exception of our buttony friends. I’m sure this is in part to save the sanity of people frantically looking for objects to press, but I can’t help but wonder if the developers could have done something differently. Honestly, this is nitpicking, because even though the walls look mostly the same, why wouldn’t they? The architects would probably lose their minds if they were instructed to make every three feet of wall look different. Jesting aside, even with the lack of variety, the desolate hallways still create an immersive experience.
In terms of control, LoG experiences a few hiccups. For instance, movement seems to “buffer” in that pressing forward three times quickly will definitely result in three spaces of movement – which sounds completely reasonable. However, the characters move so slowly, even when not encumbered, that if one changes his mind mid-movement in an attempt to avoid falling down a pit, the game sports a big ol’ middle finger. This is especially troublesome when frantically running away from enemies. The inventory system presents even more troubles. I found the entire system unusually cumbersome and unintuitive. Maybe the developers were shooting for an old school sort of feeling, but managing equipment can become a complex series of trades in an attempt to avoid weighing down one’s party. Additionally, the exclusion of hotkeys for potions and food is baffling.
Rating Legend of Grimrock has been difficult. Personally, I feel as if this is one of the best titles I’ve played in a long time, despite some of its gratuitous flaws. Movies are sometimes judged on their ability to make people forget their problems for a couple of hours – the immersion. LoG definitely has that going for it, and even when stumped and dying repeatedly, I couldn’t pull myself away. This is a sleeper hit that everyone should at least try, and let’s hope its success encourages the developers to work on another game, improving on an already-polished title.