You gotta get low: Legend of Grimrock is a classical dungeon crawl for modern audiences
Legend of Grimrock
Most games want you to feel like a hero. In games like Skyrim characters come to you with their problems, there is a world you must save, and you make life or death decisions on an hourly basis. Legend of Grimrock is a game that forces you to do something much more simple: You are fighting to stay alive.
Your party consists of four characters, and you can use the characters the game gives you or create your own using all the expected fantasy tropes and archetypes. You walk two by two, and you can drag the character icons in the lower-right corner to create the perfect layout for your party. Those with ranged attacks should be in the back, while your fighters stay in front to deal as much damage as possible while also absorbing the brunt of incoming damage. You find items and weapons and must pass them out to your party to build their skills and attacks. I spent an uncomfortable amount of time sipping a cup of coffee while deciding which member of my party should wear a particular helmet.
You rarely feel comfortable during play, and it’s in your best interest to save as often as possible. Movement is tile-based, so you explore the dungeon square by square, just like in table-top role-playing games. There are no easy battles, and you must manually click on each character to use their weapon or attack. There is a simple rune-clicking mechanic to using spells. Attacks have a cool down period, and this can lead to situations where you throw everything you have at an enemy before backing up and waiting for the attack icons to be available again. If you don’t keep the layout of the room in your head, you could end up with your back to a wall, facing to a series of very pissed-off skeletons. That is not a good place to be. This is a game of pacing, tactics, and strategy when it comes to battle.
There are ways to heal your characters in the heat of battle, but you will want to save them for the most dire circumstances. The most common way to regain health is sleep, but you must make sure the room you inhabit is empty. You will also need to stockpile food in order to feed your characters as they become hungry. None of these things require micromanagement, but they will always be in the back of your mind: How safe would it be to rest here? How much food am I carrying? Is this torch about to go out? Legend of Grimrock is a success in that it gives you a sense of creeping dread and almost calm desperation. You are likely to die. Every encounter you survive and puzzle you solve is a victory. The odds are never in your favor.
There are modern bells and whistles in some aspects of the game’s design, but the feel of the combat and the design of the dungeon are delightfully retro. A printable piece of graph paper is included in case you want to play on hardcore mode, which forces you to create your own map of the dungeon as you play. If you like the more modern option of an automap you can add notes manually when you find traps or secrets. There are hidden triggers in some walls that reveal surprises to the observant player. The puzzles range from the obvious to the devious, and I won’t talk about a single one. The characters in the game are sent into the dungeon with very little idea of what to expect, and you should play the game the same way.
Legend of Grimrock is focused and classical in its design, but it never feels like dry or anachronistic. There is also another layer of the story to unravel as you play, and monsters grow in numbers, size, and strength. Learning to quickly move from tile to tile and attack using the strengths of all four characters isn’t as easy as it first seems, and the combat is very different than what we’re used to from modern fantasy or adventure games. I often felt like I was using strategies from my monthly table-top RPG battles, which is a very good thing in a single-player PC game. There is only one dungeon included in the game, but it’s going to take you over 10 hours to see everything the game has to offer. The team is also working on tools to allow fans to create their own dungeons, so more content is coming.
The game is available now for $15. If you grew up dreaming of dungeons and the creepy and/or crawly things that exist in the darkness, this is a very special treat.