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Legend of Grimrock Review

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?

Getting Steamy – Part 1

Steam Games library for PC

So I’ve now entered the hot and moist world of Steam and caught a lucky break: just before I upgraded my hardware (with the help of NHS user Hobbes), the Steam sale was on and I got to grab myself some bargains. I then went on holiday and had to wait another week to play them. Now I’ve managed some screen time with some of my new purchases, so here’s the lowdown on what I’ve played so far.

First is Binding of Isaac with all DLC. This is a fun action game in the proud tradition of Rogue-like games featuring permadeath, and a randomly generated series of dungeon levels to explore. Unlike most games in the genre, Binding isn’t a turn based tactical affair but a frantic shooter. It’s fun, addictive and has a quirky sense of humour, as you might expect given its premise of being the adventures of a small boy locked in the basement while on the run from his fundamentalist mother who wants to sacrifice him to God. On the flip side without a save function I think it’s a little long for single play throughs – I’m guessing it takes 60-90 minutes to finish a game although I’ve not managed that yet. It also – and I never thought I’d say this of a rouge-like – seems to have too many items. Discovering what they do is half the fun of course, but given the relatively simple game mechanics, the vast array of stuff on offer seems a bit repetitive in terms of effects. Overall, a thumbs up though.

Next is Mount & Blade: Warband. I’ve wanted to play this game ever since I first heard it mentioned here. As an open-world game of medieval fighting and feudalism with acclaimed melee combat, it sounded like a dream come true for me. Unfortunately the first thing I discovered when I tried to play it is that you can’t play it with a laptop trackpad. Since I plan you be going most of my Steam gaming with the PC on my knees, I needed an alternative. So I borrowed a trackball from work, which is serviceable but not great. A gyroscopic mouse that you can wave in the air would probably be ideal but they’re pretty expensive. If anyone has a cheap solution for mouse-alternatives when gaming on a laptop, I’d be glad to hear it. A lesser but more surprising issue is that the game is damn ugly. I know it isn’t recent but, unless my memory is failing me, I’m sure there were games on the original Xbox that looked better than Mount & Blade which is pretty poor showing from a 2010 game. Also, I seem to be a real klutz on a horse, getting my camera in the wrong place all the time and, for some reason, trying to hit the wrong keys when I want to turn. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s the trackball. Yes, definitely the trackball.

Mount & Blade: Warband - so ugly that I dare not show you a character's face

I always swore I’d never play Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion because of it’s stupid, stupid monster scaling system where creatures get tougher as your character advances. So eventually you end up being ambushed by groups of bandits with Daedric Armour and magical swords. It seems near-universally unpopular on game forums, so whoever at Bethesda thought that was a good idea was, I hope, not let anywhere near Skyrim. Anyway, the continuing adventures of Olaf that I mentioned in my last piece, had left me with a hankering for some Elder Scrolls style gaming and when I saw Oblivion with all DLC in the sale for £5 it struck me there might be a mod that removes the scaling. Turns out there are several, the best of which have been combined and balanced in the FCOM Mod. so I bought it. Unfortunately for me I didn’t stop to consider how difficult it might be to install: as a software guy I thought I’d find it a piece of cake. But I’d reckoned without broken download links, diverse and contradictory guides and sources of documentation and frequently unstable user-built mod platforms like Wrye Bash. So I’m stuck just on FCOM without any of the graphics updates or combat mods that also interested me. And there’s no way I’m playing it without FCOM at the very least. Ultimately I’ll probably have to scale back my ambition and go with a single anti-scaling mod like Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul and perhaps a texture pack. So it’s likely to be a while before I actually play, if ever.

Finally we come to Legend of Grimrock. I knew this was an old school dungeon crawler but I was expecting it to be based on a generic flavour of 90’s dungeon exploration games as, indeed, it advertises itself as being. I wasn’t expecting a straight rip-off of the classic Dungeon Master, right down to little alcoves to keep items in, walking mushrooms and a rune-combo based spell system. I am, however, very glad they did draw from it so directly because it’s the best of the genre in that era and has been crying out for a modernised update for years. And boy, does Grimrock deliver! Atmospheric, exciting and full of tough combat, nerve-wracking exploration and brain-bending puzzles from the off. It’s been the most played of the games I’ve tried so far, and has wormed its way into my brain to the point where I find that my meals taste of snail slices, my tea feels like healing potions and my dreams are haunted by communications from a mysterious mechanical entity. I’m staying up late to play, ending up tired at work the next day and drifting off into reveries about frantically searching dungeon walls for concealed buttons. One critique is that although the combat is pleasingly tough, even early on (I’m still trying to live down the embarrassment of having my party massacred by a giant snail), it seems over-reliant on backing off or circling to get out of the way of critters while your weapons recover. It gets a bit repetitive after a while, but it’s a minor issue. The skills system also forces you to make early specialisations in weapons and types of magic that you may conceivably live to regret later in the game when you find super-powerful toys you can’t use. But that’s probably my anal-retentiveness kicking in: so far it’s been an absolute blast. I do wonder why the pregenerated party is a bit sub-par though. They always seem to be in games like this. But I’ve started with them, and I’m not going back and doing the first few levels all again, so there. Definitely not if it means facing down more of those spiders than is strictly necessary.

So that’s my first bunch of Steaming. For part 2 of this article I’ve still got Witcher 1 Enhanced Edition, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Dear Esther, Rome: Total War and Crusader Kings II to even try. I’m regretting the last one a little as it wasn’t all that cheap in the sale (even if massively discounted) and I can’t imagine I’ll ever have the time to devote to it properly. In total, I suspect that’s more than enough material to keep me going until next years’ Steam Sale. But I’m using my shiny new laptop to write this document on, and to be honest, I’m starting to wonder why I’m not playing Grimrock instead. Be seeing you after I’ve sent a few more skeletons back to their graves.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #121

No High Scores Podcast Logo

The gang is all back (plus one Brian Rowe) for Jumping the Shark #121 or, as Bill refers to it, #129, #212, and #46. Yes, it’s his attention to detail that makes him such an exciting host; that and his killer segues. This week Brian talks about how he shrugs off stress by playing games that make him angry, games like Trials Evolution. Bill goes walking with the dead in TellTale’s latest series of episodic adventures. I descend into the legend that is Grimlock or Grinkjaw, or whatever it is we’re all calling it this week. As for Brandon, I’m pretty sure he sat there with a mirror in his hand so he could admire is fine mane of hair. Oh, and we return to the used games discussion as we ponder whether or not it’s coincidence that the heads of studios like Crytek have been coming out so regularly of late to decry the used games business. All this and more on a very special episode of Blossom Jumping the Shark!

iTunes Link
Past Episodes
Edit Type: Skype
(The embedded feed is after the break.)

Stumbling and Bumbling Through Legend of Grimrock

It’s been one of those times of late where I’ve not had much bandwidth for gaming, but those few hours I’ve been able to sit down in front of my trusty PC and whack something over the head have gone to Almost Human’s Legend of Grimrock. (Or as Transformers fans keep calling it, Grimlock.) You’ve probably read up some on this already, but for those living under a rock (a grim one, perhaps), this is a throwback game to the days of Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master, two games I hold in much affection, though I only got to play the latter for a few hours on a friend’s Amiga. (Oh the glory days.) Your user-created party of four is thrown into a dungeon and must hack apart beasties to survive. You move one “square” of distance at a time and can only turn in 90 degree increments. It’s about as old as old school gets from a design perspective. What’s surprising is just how well the formula works when given a notable graphical makeover.

The key aspect to understand about Grimrock isn’t that it’s a throwback design or that it uses fairly simplistic controls. What’s proving to make this game special is that it’s ultimately a shockingly well-executed blend of simple gameplay concepts and thoughtfully challenging world design. It is an easy game to pick up and play, and the surprisingly brief tutorial is more than enough to get you started, but from there it immerses you slowly, but deliberately, into a series of increasingly difficult obstacles to overcome as you navigate its morass of labyrinthine dungeons.

As your merry band of humans, lizards, minotaurs, or insectoids moves forward you graduate from a very simple “push this subtly hidden button to open the secret door” or “find that key to open the gate,” to ever more complex puzzles comprised of said buttons, pressure plates, teleporters and more. I’ve only delved as far as level four of Grimrock, but already, I’ve found myself on multiple occasions having to step back and look around a room to really digest every part of it in order to find a path forward. In an example from an encounter last night I entered a large room that featured a handful of individual cells. At the far end was a locked door. There was no key hole and the only buttons I could find served to control the gates for the cells. The cells themselves all had pressure plates on them, but unlike many plates in the game, simply resting an object on them didn’t activate them. As I traipsed about, it was soon noteworthy that the room continually would spawn a handful of skeleton enemies. Respawning was not something I’d seen the game do up to that point. The solution wasn’t to defeat the skeletons but to lure them into and then lock them in each holding cell. Once I figured that out, the locked door opened and I could proceed.

It’s all rather Portal-esque in this regard because the challenge becomes about seeing the “whole board” (as chess players like to say). You either feel brilliant for picking up on the clues the game offers you or like an idiot as you scurry to the web to find an answer. If you don’t like getting stuck, this is probably not your game.

The other big component to the game, of course, is the combat. Your group (not that you ever see them on the map) is arrayed in two rows of two. Only your front row of adventurers can attack with standard melee weapons. For your back row members you need missile weapons, magic, or reach weapons like spears. There’s a skill for the rogue class (the other classes are fighter and mage) that lets them attack regardless of party placement, but it will take a few hours of adventuring to acquire it. Really, this is a thinking person’s combat model as opposed to a twitch game. You click a weapon in your character’s hand to swing it and then there’s a cooldown timer before that character can attack again. There’s no need to be fast with the mouse. Instead you have to think about the layout of the room you’re in and how you can effectively attack and move in order to minimize the amount of damage you take. Make no mistake, if you try to stand toe to toe with a group of four skeletons featuring spears and extremely fast attacks, you’re not going to last long. And the spiders… good god, don’t get me started on the goddamn spiders. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s time to retire these nightmares from the beastiary. Come on guys. Do it for me. You need no other reason.

Another nice piece of design are the magic and health systems. You cast mage spells by clicking different combinations of runes to create spell effects. The game starts you off with zero spell knowledge. If you can accidentally stumble into a rune combo that creates a spell effect, the game will let you know, but you’re ultimately dependent on finding scrolls to teach you what spells to cast. What it doesn’t do, however, is give you permanent memory of the spells. You either have to memorize the rune combinations or hold onto the scroll so you can refresh your memory as needed. It’s another cool mind challenge, having to remember how to cast spells or dedicate precious inventory space to keeping a record. (You could always write it all down on paper, I suppose, but come on. Be a real gamer.) The only in-game restriction on spell casting is the number of spells your mage is allowed to know, which is based how many points you’ve put into various mage skills. Potion-making works in much the same way. You’ll find recipes as you progress that let you make healing potions, energy potions, etc., but you either have to hold on to the recipe or memorize the ingredients.

The question of what kind of legs the game has, I admit, is still up in the air at this point. I thoroughly enjoy the gameplay and love the way it forces you to think through your strategy with a very smart and fair learning curve. The dungeon layouts themselves are also a huge plus. This is not a progress from point A to point B kind of game. You’ll find dead ends. You’ll make wrong turns. In short, you’ll need your map. (You can either have the game produce an annotatable automap or you can go hardcore and do the mapping yourself.) I’ll admit, as much as I’m not progressing particularly quickly through the game, I’m not eager to ditch it to move on to the next bit ‘o shiny. For certain, there are times where having to stop and assess and stop and assess to figure out how to get through a room can get frustrating. It’s a very delicate line, providing players with an ever-increasing challenge without letting it get too frustrating. So far Almost Human hasn’t crossed that line, but they do flirt with it.

If I were a betting man, I’d say it’s unlikely I finish the game, but as long as it remains an enjoyable slog, I’ll continue to chip away at it. This is a must play for gamers who loved games like Eye of the Beholder and the other first-person dungeon-crawlers of yore. For those who missed all that, it’s worth checking out just to see if this sort of game appeals to you. At $15 through GOG, we’re not talking about a high-risk investment. Just remember, the giant spiders don’t mess around.

Note: The 1.1.4 patch did come out this week. You can see the details on it here.

Legend of Grimrock’s Successful Launch and Patch Notes

It’s been slow-going (a longer story that I may or may not write about later), but I’ve been dutifully plugging an hour here and an hour there into the new PC RPG, Legend of Grimrock (which I keep calling “Grimlock,” for reasons passing understanding). If you were a fan of games like Eye of the Beholder from back in the day, this one’s definitely worth a look, especially if you’re interested in a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl that isn’t just following a path from point A to point B.

Fans of the game will be glad to know that it’s been such a successful launch that it managed to show up as Steam’s top seller for awhile there. You can read the full details at the Grimrock Blog, but suffice it to say they’ve already covered their development costs “many time over,” and are hard at work on the game’s first patch (v1.1.4), which should arrive any day now and cover the following assorted fixes:

– vsync is enabled by default
– borderless windows are no longer topmost
– pressing ESC closes character sheet
– fixed unlimited frost arrow exploit
– bug fix: topmost menu item don’t work reliably in 2560×1440 resolution
– bug fix: wall text translations are not dismissed when right-clicking
– bug fix: inanimate objects can be backstabbed
– bug fix: projectiles go through doors in some very rare cases
– improved display resolution auto-detection at first launch
– fixed a couple of typos
– removed check that disables high texture resolution setting when running low on video memory (some graphics drivers seem to report available video memory incorrectly)

My fellow arachnophobes are hereby warned that the spiders are creepy as all get out. More to come!