Many RPGs released differentiate themselves by doing something different. Legend of Grimrock forgoes this trend by taking us back to the old days of CRPGs. However, how much does nostalgia trump modern design?
In a strange sense of irony, my first exposure to old school dungeon crawling came from the Etrian Odyssey series which was designed as an updated take on the genre. With Legend of Grimrock, the designers wanted to create a modern day, old school experience and they succeeded, for better and worse.
The story is that you and 3 other captives have been found guilty of crimes against the kingdom. Your punishment is being dropped into Mount Grimrock and forced to fend for yourselves. The goal is to reach the bottom of the mountain where there is hopefully an exit.
The gameplay of Grimrock is 100% old school. At the start you can either build your 4 man team from scratch or use pre-made prisoners. There are 3 classes: Thief, Mage, Warrior and 4 species: Human, Insectoid, Minotaur and Lizardmen. Each species has different starting attributes predisposed to a class with human as a jack of all trades.
The class determines what skills you can build over the course of the game; each skill comes with a list of bonuses you unlock by reaching certain levels in the specific skill. This is how your party will improve and unlock new attacks and spells. Spells are cast using a 3x3 set of runes during combat. Select the runes you want and your mage will try to cast that spell. The 2 factors of whether or not this works are if you select an incorrect combination, or the spell is too advanced for the mage.
The game is played entirely in first person and real time. Your party of four operates as a single entity in the game space, and attack commands are done by clicking on the weapon in the bottom right corner of the screen. With combat real time, this affects the combat in two important ways:
1. People with quick enough fingers can strafe around the enemy in a one-on one fight if they can get the enemy into a wide enough room, making the fight easy.
2. Fights against multiple enemies turns combat into a dance of death, as you'll have to move around carefully to avoid being boxed in, or lure them down a narrow corridor to try and fight one at a time.
Since the dungeon itself is linear it gave the designers the option to set up puzzles on each of the floors. The puzzles offer a good variety from the combat. Some puzzles are required to progress, while others will unlock areas where better loot can be found.
Overall Grimrock is a good package, and homage to classic dungeon crawling. However there are some wrinkles with the design that remained from the old days. First is that the class system is simplistic with only 3 options means that no matter what, you're going to have a duplicate member. The different species while interesting don't do enough to really make them stand out from each other, with the Minotaur’s attack bonus from skulls an exception. I would have liked to see more options in class design, especially coming from the variety seen in Etrian Odyssey.
The combat system is very basic and started to wear thin for me after a few hours in. As long as you're quick enough, it's hard for any enemy to cause trouble. Magic is the exception as having to quickly input runes during combat does provide challenge. However, without the ability to set up auto cast or pre-determined spells, I honestly can't see someone using a party of 2 or more mages without getting hand cramps.
Puzzles run the gambit of being genuinely clever to annoying. Puzzles further in deal with finding hidden switches in arbitrary places or solving annoying word puzzles. Two of which I had to turn to the internet to solve. There's one puzzle in particular that comes near the end, that I can't see anyone solving it without outside help.
My last problem has to do with the linearity of the design. On one hand the designer's could not have developed puzzles of the same scope if the game was randomized each time. However the linear nature does come back to hurt character development and difficulty.
Because all the items in the game are placed before the game begins, its makes certain character builds harder by nature of the item placement. Mages for instance can find scrolls that outline spell combos and level requirements. However, let's say someone chooses a magic class that scrolls don't show up for several floors, they won't know how to cast those spells and effectively render their party down a member.
This makes the first time going through the game harder then what it should be. As once you've seen everything, you should have found enough scrolls to either write their patterns down or just know how to cast them. The problem also appears with weapon proficiency skills. Each time you put a point in a weapon skill, the character does more damage with said weapon type. However, if you get unlucky and can't find any new weapons of that type, once again you run the risk of leaving yourself with a weaken member.
As an example, on my first play-through I wanted to make a character that uses bows, however I couldn't find any bow type weapons for several floors. Apparently there is one hidden on the first set of floors that I completely missed. The consequence is that I had to switch to another weapon and by the time I started finding bows, it was too late to switch back. Some weapon types were more frequent then others which is something that if I want to make another run, will have to keep in mind.
The problem for me with Grimrock is that I don't have any nostalgia for the old days of PC RPGs. What I really wanted was someone to modernize the design and not limit design decisions to keep things nostalgic. To put it another way, there are two takes on old school RPGs on the DS: Etrian Odyssey and The Dark Spire. Etrian Odyssey was a modernize take on the genre, while The Dark Spire was a modern take. EO took the design and updated it, while The Dark Spire was just a game in the same image and design as before. Because of that, Etrian Odyssey is one of my favorite series, while I've yet to come close to finishing The Dark Spire.
With that said Legend of Grimrock is still a good game and is a great foundation for hopefully more content. The developers are planning on releasing a level editor soon and I would love to see someone take this engine and run with it. If you know what you're getting yourself into, Grimrock will be a great time.