Legend of Grimrock is everything fans of old school dungeon crawls have been waiting for
The “dungeon crawl” is a videogame sub-genre that was particularly big back in the mid-80s and early 90s, an era when computer games were designed not to entertain so much as to punish those who dared play them. Vicious, unforgiving difficulty was the order of the day and sudden death was always close at hand. For gamers of a certain vintage, titles like The Bard’s Tale, Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima Underworld and Stonekeep evoke memories of a simpler, better and absolutely magical time of sprawling catacombs, grid-based movement, DIY map-making and intractable frustration punctuated by moments of incredible satisfaction when puzzles were solved or tough battles won.
Legend of Grimrock comes straight out of that mold. It’s a game out of time; an anachronism with a fresh coat of paint, and yet somehow it works. Mechanics that at first feel out of date, or perhaps flat-out bizarre, suddenly begin to click, and frustration morphs into intensity as you adjust to its old-fashioned ways. It’s more than just a well-produced throwback curiosity; it’s a nearly picture-perfect recreation of the classic dungeon crawlers of yesteryear, skillfully blending old-school gameplay with contemporary visuals to deliver an experience that’s simultaneously nostalgic and every bit as compelling as it was 25 years ago.
Legend of Grimrock puts players in charge of a customizable, four-character party controlled from the first-person perspective. Characters can be human, minotaur, lizardman or insectoid, each with their own particular advantages and disadvantages, and one of three archetypal classes: fighter, mage or rogue. In the admittedly flimsy setup, the foursome has been convicted of vaguely awful crimes and cast into a pit at the top of the great Mount Grimrock, with an offer of redemption and freedom
if they can navigate its horrors and escape. [Hint: Nobody ever escapes.] Following a brief opening cinematic that sets up the towering spire as not the sort of place you’d want to go for a holiday, the action begins!
Despite its hack-and-slash swagger, Legend of Grimrock is a puzzle game at heart. Pit traps, wall switches, pressure plates, teleporters and more conspire to impede your progress, and while the first level is essentially a tutorial, it doesn’t take long before the game is making concerted efforts to stop you in your tracks. Some sections require a certain amount of mouse-and-keyboard dexterity to get past while others are more cerebral, demanding patience, perseverance, an open mind and, occasionally, a good eye. Once such area ate up literally hours before I finally emailed the developers for help [one of the benefits of being a reviewer], only to be told that the solution was on the next level down.
But combat in Legend of Grimrock is plentiful and tough too, and made all the more challenging by the game’s odd but effective combination of real-time action and grid-based movement. The inevitable result is frantic battles in which you hit the enemy once or twice, then quickly step backwards or to the side to dodge counterattacks until you’re ready to strike again. It sounds ridiculous, but what can feel at first like a cheap exploit quickly becomes a very tactical and exciting part of the game. Going toe-to-toe with most enemies is a quick trip to the “game over” screen, making mobility a necessary part of battle, and having to keep moving and fighting without ending up backed into a corner is actually pretty intense stuff.
Magic in the game is rune-based, with spells revealed via scrolls that are scattered throughout the dungeon, but the nature of the system means that if your mage has enough expertise in the required areas, new spells can be discovered simply by messing around with the runes. That’s also true of potions: Basic recipes like “healing” and “antidote” are provided, but experimenting with various combinations of ingredients can reveal more exotic brews. Those ingredients are relatively rare, however, and while the game does you the favor of not burning them up on failed experiments, you probably aren’t going to want to be two-fisting potions unnecessarily. The same goes for food, which is present in the game both as a necessary component of survival and yet another nod to its old-school sensibility.
Legend of Grimrock looks pretty good, and it’s fantastic to see a genre so deeply rooted in the past getting some love by way of a modern game engine, but it does suffer somewhat from cookie-cutter environments. It’s impossible not to notice that just about every wall in each level looks identical, as though no expense was spared creating a single detailed texture which was then used to paint every wall in the joint. The monotony is broken up a bit by the presence of chains, benches and alcoves, but the gloomy halls are still noticeably and unfortunately repetitive.
It’s also tough, and while that’s a purely subjective judgment, players who aren’t expecting it could end up wondering why the game is trying so hard to make them miserable. The truth is that Legend of Grimrock is almost certainly easier, at least on normal difficulty, than “original” dungeon crawlers and boasts luxuries undreamed of back then, like an auto-map function and relatively plentiful resurrection stones. But it’s not a walk in the park by any stretch. Players expecting to breeze through it like a Skyrim-style hero are going to be in for a shock.
And there’s no quicksave function! For all the effort and polish that was put into this game, how a quicksave was overlooked is absolutely beyond me.
But most of its shortcomings are endemic to the genre, which means that how you feel about the game will depend entirely upon how you feel about hardcore dungeon slogs in general. If you’re looking for a few minutes of light, relaxing play to take your mind off a tough day at the office, you should probably stay as far away from this thing as humanly possible. But if you’ve spent the last 20 years wishing that somebody would pick up that torch and then hit you over the head with it, the news is good, because your prayers have been answered. Legend of Grimrock is the real deal. It is excellent – and it’s about time!