Legend of Grimrock: Where Did the Dungeon Crawler Go?

As we’re near deciding what the best games of 2012 were I’m starting to look back to the often overlooked stuff of earlier months and have found a game that almost no one has mentioned since its initial launch.

It actually kinda baffles me that basically one person on my Steam friends list played Legend of Grimrock in any real capacity (more people bought it on Good Old Games maybe?). I also saw almost no press on the game after reviews hit, at least not compared to other 2012 indie games like Mark of the Ninja or Hotline Miami. Maybe when the iOS and Mac versions come out people will give Grimrock some more attention but I went ahead and finally installed the PC version that I got during Steam’s summer sale a few weeks back.

Grimrock’s main selling point is that it’s a return to classic grid-based first person dungeon crawlers like Lands of Lore, Wizardry, or more recently Etrian Odyssey, just with 2012 graphics. Just like many of those games, compared to what we’re playing now it’s also pretty unforgiving, or perhaps just asks more of the player than today’s RPGs do, a little bit like Dark Souls in terms of its core mentality.

If I can say one thing about Grimrock, it’s that I feel less safe in this game’s world than I do in Dark Souls. Almost every new enemy introduction in Grimrock just about terrifies me, and I have to actually sit down and plan for each encounter if I want to stand a chance, and I’m spending just as much time figuring out the game’s puzzles. Actually, I had to re-play the first areas of the game just to get a full grasp on all the rules and avoid being torn apart all the time. After all this, I’ve still only cleared the first three levels out of 13. That said, Grimrock might be one of the most playable games I’ve bought all year.

Yes getting to know the rules and the combat does put a bit of a learning curve on Grimrock, especially if you haven’t palyed these kinds of games, but the core control system is extremely easy to understand. One thing I like about games that try to go old school is that they don’t steer you through hours of tutorials and scripted levels just to teach you which button does what. They understand the term “pick up n’ play,” which I think is something modern game designers have forgotten outside of the world of casual games. Within maybe 30 seconds of gaining control I was already freely moving about the dungeon and managing my characters in Grimrock.

Upon starting the game I could almost immediately see what the appeal of these dungeon crawlers was — exploration. I should’ve known that from all the times I’ve heard people who played PC games in the 80’s talk about all the time they spent drawing out maps on graph paper. Even today, Grimrock successfully tickles that desire to find every nook, cranny, and secret on each level. The fact that the puzzles are so hard makes it that much more satisfying when you solve one and can finally access more of the dungeon.

The one thing I don’t really get about Grimrock though is why it’s real time and not turn-based. Maybe a lot of the older dungeon crawlers were, and maybe I’m just used to the turn-based approach in Undercroft – a similar game for the iPhone. I just think turn-based makes more sense when you’re moving along a grid. Grimrock’s real time nature adds a whole dimension to combat that makes it feel quite awkward compared to even modern dungeon crawlers.

Because it’s real time, the game encourages you to maneuver around enemies during combat — attacking them during their movement animations. That grind-based movement during combat though kind of makes it feel like a stilted version of what you’d be doing in Skyrim or something. That probably made sense back in the 80’s but not so much today. Still, fighting enemies in Grimrock does present its own tactical depth and learning curve — requiring players to master each environment in order to dominate dangerous foes.

Grimrock’s trademark attachment to the past in areas like this though does bring me to the question of just what happened to this class of dungeon crawler. In my opinion it didn’t really go away, it just evolved.

Technically speaking, Skyrim is the modern day descendant of the games Grimrock calls back to. Even BioShock can be considered a distant relative. Beyond first-person RPGs you also have isometric dungeon crawlers like Diablo and Torchlight, or even Persona 4 if you compare it to earlier Shin Megami Tensei games. Coming back full-circle you have Borderlands — a first person take on the isometric dungeon crawler. Even in its more oldschool form the dungeon crawler has made a resurgence in Japan since Etrian Odyssey hit on the DS.

Observing this, the point in going back in time with Grimrock is probably just to simplify things – to tear out everything that’s complicated today’s games. The only other recent dungeon crawlers that really do this are Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Other than those, Grimrock might be the first “real” first person dungeon crawl experience since Arx Fatalis came out over 10 years ago. Compared to the genre’s descendants, Grimrock comes off as a game that is lean — easy to jump into, yet also truly demanding of the player’s abilities.

BULLETS:

  • As of this writing The Witcher 2 on Xbox is $10 at GameStop.com, likely for Cyber Monday. I’ve written previously about why you should buy it if you’ve been playing a lot o f RPGs on that system.
  • Crashmo also came out on Thanksgiving on the 3DS eShop. It is already one of the most challenging and fun games I’ve downloaded for less than $10 this year. In a lot of ways it encapsulates classic Nintendo.
  • Sonic 2 came out 20 years ago. Let that sink in…
  • Previously here I also tried to tell you about Arx Fatalis. It’s still $3 on the current Steam sale.
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