Like most people who love the Dungeon Master/Eye of the Beholder mold of gameplay, I lapped up Legend of Grimrock like someone who has gone far too long without water in the desert. But just beyond bringing back a long since believed dead RPG subgenre, Almost Human managed to modernize it and give it the slick presentation to make it feel just as vital for gaming these days as those games did in the past, without compromising any of the gameplay.
Mind you, the game isn’t perfect. If you plan to enter the Grimrock, you’ll should expect countless plate and button puzzles to sate you for a lifetime. Really, if there was one thing I hated about Eye of the Beholder, it was the sometimes inane and cryptic puzzle design. And Grimrock goes far beyond the call of even those games and cranks the puzzling up to eleven. Sure, some people say this is actually a core element of those types of games, but I disagree. A few puzzles are nice, but if I wanted to play adventure games, I would do so.
That said, after a few tries you’ll probably be able to solve most of them, as you learn what type of puzzles the game throws at you. But honestly, after some time solving just another of those becomes a chore. I think at level 9 puzzle fatigue began to set in for me and I started looking up a FAQ, as I couldn’t be arsed to decipher the more inane ones or just lost my appetite for them. Also, there was one later puzzle that annoyed me to no end, as you had to put four pretty common items into the right slots. Apart from the annoyingly cryptic hints, that far into the game I’ve learned to unload useless stuff like skulls and stones somewhere on the ground whenever I felt like it. And since I freely moved between different levels, I now had to backtrack nearly three levels to find three of the four items.
So, no, the game isn’t perfect, especially if you prefer your RPGs with a little less puzzling. But then there’s good stuff too. I love fighting in Grimrock. In most RPGs, when you reach the endgame, there are few monsters that can seriously harm you. Not so in Grimrock, even weaker enemies can kill you rather fast when you let your concentration wander. The heavier ones though, can kill you in mere seconds. From the first moment you enter Grimrock, till the end, you’re endlessly on the lookout for monsters coming around a corner. Soon each new room looks like a deathtrap and often that fear is justified. I haven’t played a game in a long time that kept me at the edge of my seat for it’s entire playtime like Grimrock did.
Not that the battle system is perfect either. Magic is nearly useless. I initially started with a party with two mages, but after seeing how cumbersome the interface for spells is, decided to start anew with no mages. And never looked back. But yeah, fighting is a high tension affair that never got boring in the game. There’s just enough variety to the enemies to not get bored with seeing the same type of monster again and again, but not too much to make most of them forgettable.
The skill system is no revelation in terms of breadth, but since all you do is exploring, puzzling and fighting, there’s not much use for an extensive system anyway. So, it’s a barebones action RPG in terms of complexity, which fits right in with the games it’s trying to emulate.
But where Grimrock is unbeatable is atmosphere. Like some of the best CRPGs, Grimrock tells its story in pieces: here a few rotten parchments from a traveler who wandered these mazes long before you, there an inscription on the wall that inferences deeper mysteries hiding deeper down. Even the puzzles and the level structure itself reveals a rich backstory. Sure, not an especially original one (long forgotten evil sealed in a dungeon is pretty common in fantasy), but the delivery of the story is what counts and Grimrock manages it pitch perfect. I’m sure even after you’ve beaten the game the mere memory of exploring Grimrock, the sights of the levels and the intensity of the fights will stay with you.
Legend of Grimrock manages to transcendent all its shortcoming and provides a truly magnificent experience. Who would have thought that after Anvil of Dawn there would ever be another game of its kind, one that rivals even the classics.