Grimrock. A word I keep rolling around my tongue like an abjuration. Grimrock. Grim-rock. Rocks, of grimness. Say it enough and the solution of a puzzle may fall out of the repetition, might give me a few hours respite from agonising over the intricacies of the game.
I’m not normally one for puzzle games. They seem drab, lifeless things, a poor use of all the mighty power of modern microprocessors. But the puzzles in Grimrock are different. Some are logical, some time-based, some situational, others are riddles but all of them encourage experimentation and exploration as part of the solution, rewarding creative thinking as much if not more than logic. Built in an astonishing variety from a limited palette of switches, pressure plates and teleports, they’ll frustrate and delight in equal measure.
Grimrock, you see, was made in the image of 1987 classic Dungeon Master, even down to the walking mushrooms and a spell system that requires you to memorise and click on sequences of runes. It’s a montage of role-playing, real-time combat and puzzles as cold and hard and uncaring as the stone from which the dungeon is hewn. Fail to solve an essential problem and there’s nothing left for you but the ignominy of seeking a solution online, or your game is over. It cares nothing for such niceties of modern design as difficulty curves, or player involvement.
The closest it gets is making the crucial puzzles you need to progress easier than the inessential ones for items and experience. But this is a cruel illusion. To win, you must defeat the multitude of monsters dwelling in the darkness, and to do that you’ll want at least some of the items and experience offered by the tougher puzzles. Otherwise a torment of re-loading and clicking awaits.
And it’s a particular torment, because combat in Grimrock is the weakest area of the game. Most creatures are slow, and the four directional, grid-based layout requires them to move and turn to face you before they can attack. In open spaces you can circle them, maneuvering to avoid their blows and landing yours as they lumber across the granite. To thwart that ambition, enemies are deployed in labyrinthine passageways or thrown at you in hordes. But the drill remains the same: back off, find a room, start circling.
Alone, it’d be a dull way to spend the 20 hours it’ll take to complete Grimrock. But it’s not alone. Combat is married with those fiendish puzzles, creating a striking counterpoint between thinking and acting. These central elements are powered along by the Skinner Box of role-playing acquisition, pushing you to one more skill point, one more magic item, one last puzzle before you switch off. Forget the plot, which is contrived and uninteresting. But that’s fine, because those other elements, woven together with considerable skill, are easily enough to keep the game together.
Indeed it’s in that montage that the game truly shines. Solving puzzles is often the key to opening doors, and newly-open doors are a great excuse to let monsters into the room. You’ll be stolidly clicking and dragging away, trying different combinations and ideas to solve a puzzle and suddenly you’re knee-deep in ice lizards and other assorted vermin. And then, after what feels like an eternity of desperate button mashing, you’re dead. It’s frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure, and you’ll come to love the agony of reloading because of the rush of excitement that precedes it and sometimes allows you to escape it. If ever there’s a game for masochists, this is it.
There are few games capable of hurting both your trigger finger and your brain. Legend of Grimrock is one that does. Close your eyes after a session and you’ll see darkness, rent by flickering torchlight, smell the cold, stale air of deep beneath the earth, have your ears persecuted by the whisper of undead shuffling somewhere in the gloom. It’s a big, atmospheric, demanding game that works its tendrils into your head and refuses to let go. Perhaps now that I’ve written about it, that sweet weight will finally pass from me. You ready to take the load?