Sunday, March 28, 2021

Legend of Grimrock is Amazing (also critque)

I feel weird writing a post like this because, besides very small indie games like World of Horror or Hylics, any game I play is probably something my readers already have played, or know about and just don't care about. If it's something both popular, well known, and high quality, then you've probably already heard about it.

Legend of Grimrock is exactly that kind of game. I'd imagine anyone who likes oldschool dungeon crawlers, cRPGs, and tabletop roleplaying games already knows about Grimrock. However there is a non zero chance that at least one of you haven't seen this game. And let me tell you, if you like D&D, you like dungeons, you like fantasy, and you like fun fucking games, then this game IS your game.

Legend of Grimrock
Legend of Grimrock is amazing. I love everything about it. The story of the game is very simple; four prisoners of various fantasy races and classes are dropped in a pit as sentence for their unknown crimes. This pit is a massive dungeon- if you manage to escape it, you may go free. There are no towns or NPCs, you have to make your way through the dungeon using only what you can find or make yourself. It has a character creation system, fun loot and combat, and tons of secrets.

Strangely, even though this game is almost exclusive dungeon crawling at its finest, I can't really call it an “OSR” game. That may sound strange, but hear me out. OSR is mostly about dungeon crawling to get treasure for XP. There is wilderness crawling and domain management at higher levels. Grimrock is certainly a dungeon crawler, but there's no gold- almost all your advancement is done in the dungeon. Resources management is important, but you don't restock them at town and worry as much about carry weight. It's more of a survival horror game if you think about it that way- getting put in a bad situation and making the most of what you're given.

Legend of Grimrock has a unique magic system, one of the best I've seen for this kind of game. You have to arrange runes on a “rune board” available only to magic using characters. These runes make spells that have magical effects when cast, usually either damage dealing spells of the various elements, protect yourself from the elements, or spells that create light or darkness, among others. What I love about these spells is its a bit of a challenge to arrange them just right every time- you feel very D&D Wizardish for preparing your runes before you go into a fight or drop down into a pit, just in case there are enemies down there. It doesn't have quite the same thrill or impact as vancian magic, but it's a pretty good approximation in a game both with a mana bar and no daily limits. The Wizard also feels more risk/reward in that sense, as in combat it takes a lot longer to set up and cast a spell then to swing a sword or shoot a bow.

The other thing I love about it is the map and world design. You can never “lose” items in this game, because every single location in the game world is a place you can reach. So if you accidentally shoot an arrow (they have unlimited uses by the way, you just get limited arrows throughout the game, so you need to retrieve them) over a pit, you can fall down the pit and find it later. If there's a pressure plate across a chasm, you can find a secret wall or door to go grab it. Many secrets are visible to the player and you just have to find a way across. There are secrets within secrets. Because of this design, the world feels very much like a real space. If you drop down into a pit, it isn't an instant death pit or just a warp-back-up and take a little damage pit like in most games, no, the pit is an actual place that can have items, monsters, or secrets of its own. Everything in the world feels incredibly self contained and realized for that reason.

Then they made a second one. Oh boy. It takes place on an island, and while it isn't quite as “whole” as the first game feels in that sense, it has all the same gameplay and more. Spells have been expanded, the world is non-linear, there's tons of new content, new classes, and new stuff. This game has secrets out the ass and made me feel wonder multiple times from uncovering secret puzzles. One of the few games I've played where using a walkthrough isn't as fun as figuring things out for yourself (for the most part). It's just damn good. The Trickster character is amazing. I loved the alchemy. It's better then the first.

Oh and the treasure! Grimrock is inspiring me so hard to make a dungeon where you can't restock at a town, you just need to find and make everything you use. Grimrock nails that so good, both games. I also love the high fantasy gear you actually find. Full plate is not the end of the road- you can find crystal plates that grant a semi-magical boost in the form of more maximum health. You can find meteor armor which is the best protective gear in the game, and so on. It feels very fantastical in a good way. The same goes for the weapons.

I can't really say anything else without spoilers, so just play it for yourself first. Everything below this part will be a spoiler.

Random Nitpicks
However, everything isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Nothing major, these are just tiny, tiny changes or little nitpicks that I had with the second game compared to the first.

First off, there are now five races. I actually like the ratlings a lot in this game, but I find their inclusion a little strange. The first game had four races and three classes. You could have a totally balanced party with one of race- minotaurs fit best for warriors, lizardmen were best at being rogues, and Insects were the best for magic. Then humans, who were very neutral and average, were a bit of the everyman race. With the inclusion of ratlings however, this isn't quite the same anymore. Now both rats and lizard people are sort of the dexterity/rogue type race. Now of course, this is a nitpick because it isn't entirely true- not only are the classes way different and having a race that is both dexterous and gets extra carrying capacity (the rats) mean they are uniquely suited to be an alchemist, the number of classes in the game has grown and you can have a much more weird or interesting party. I don't think it's bad at all, but I did feel bad that I had to leave one of the races out of my playthrough's party. Maybe that's dumb, I mean obviously you could go through the whole game playing as four humans, but ever since I played Grimrock one I went through the game with one member of the party as each member of the four races, it made the party feel like a group of random fantasy creatures thrown into a dangerous situation just trying to make it, which is exactly what the game was! With the inclusion of ratlings, you now have to leave one out. Like I said, very small nitpick, but it feels important enough to mention.

Second; Grimrock 2 (specifically) doesn't use its tilesets enough. It could be partially because my specific path through the game were such that I did areas with similar tilesets back to back, and the new tilesets were great- but it feels like every dungeon is the same mossy cobbestone type, with the castle tileset getting used only very sparringly. With that being said I feel they did an excellent job making each dungeon feel at least partially unique both in their layouts and how the architecture was used, and the new tilesets (namely ALL of the outdoor areas, which weren't in the first game at all) and the temple tileset where very nice.

Also just for writing up this blogpost- I loaded up the Grimrock 1 dungeon editor and looked at the tilesets. I can't believe they didn't repurpose the prison tileset in Grimrock 2! What a waste! That was a great tileset and would have broken up the montomey of having the crypts, the sewers beneath the hamlet, the Runes of Desarune and a few other random places using that same generic cobblestone tileset. I feel like making the Ruins of Desarune that prison tileset (or a new tileset) would have been superior, as it would have made that large dungeon you spend a lot of time in more memorable, and those random transitory areas could use the cobblestone dungeon tileset.

The above here is probably my biggest minor nitpick- Grimrock 1 all took place in a single dungeon. Everything was underground. In Grimrock 2, the grid-based movement and outdoor area detracted just a bit from that purity. It's not necessarily bad, like I said it's a nitpick for a reason, but it is something I think about from time to time. Grimrock 1 had a lot more mystery in that regard; every single item and thing you read in the game references a mysterious outside world with tons of lore that you don't get to see anything of except their artifacts. In Grimrock two, you get a much better look at these- visiting the temple for example, and it doesn't feel quite as mystifying.

Oh and yet another minor nitpick here- in Grimrock 2, you fight a lot of rat people. In Grimrock 1, you don't fight any members of any of the playable races. Turning them into monsters robs them of their sentience in that sense. You could just assume that all members of intelligent races would be intelligent, reasonable people that wouldn't just randomly attack you in the dungeon. Of course this is a bit hypocritical, because I always used to think the cave ogre from Grimrock one was actually a minotaur, but then again the sizes don't quite work right in that regard, even a minotaur couldn't exist on the same square as your party! It's way too big!

Differences between Grimrock 1 and 2
The classes of Grimrock 2 are both more and less fleshed out then the first game. In Grimrock 1, you pick a single class for each character which has their own large skill tree. Whenever you level up, you put a point in a skill. In Grimrock 2 that system has been changed, now everyone has a shared skill tree, with classes acting as a set of starting health/energy points, equipment usages, and a few random bonuses put here or there.

No, I did not play with the farmer class. I still don't know if I would.

Here's the thing about this new system; Grimrock 1 had classes that felt really distinct but the skills were also distinct. I think changing the system from having Axe/Hammer/Sword specializations from Grimrock 1 to just Light and Heavy weapons in Grimrock 2 was a really good change, BUT there are minor things lost from it. For example, in Grimrock 1 I was planning out my characters builds, and once I had finished a skill tree I would look at other skills. See, Grimrock 1 had skills that granted minor stat bonuses and random boosts- you would get to Axe level 3 or whatever and that character would get +1 Strength. So even if you didn't use Axes, it was interesting that you could put some points into that to gain a stat bonus. Grimrock 2 did away with this and skills don't feel quite as interesting. Less skills in total and less “perks” you get for leveling up skills. It is nice you can do things like level up a Mage in armor so they can wear heavier equipment, which in Legend of Grimrock 1 they had to put points into Staff Defense skill which capped their armor at light, they could never get to heavy. The Battlemage, whilst being very cool, feels like a straight upgrade to the regular Wizard. The fact that you need to have some elemental magic to use the (special abilities at least) of certain weapons despite them being more fitting to fighters feels a bit off, but not bad.

Also- last nitpick about classes. In Grimrock 2 it feels like alchemist is almost mandatory.

As for weapons; Guns feel better then bows (even though I never used them in my playthrough- I wanted a bow user like in the first game) which is fine since they use limited ammo and arrows never break or get lost permanently unless if you make a mistake. I also want to mention even though I just complained about the skill requirements for certain weapons in Grimrock 2, I do think the end game weapons are just super cool- I love the Meteor Hammer and how it can charge up to unleash a meteor storm- the best offensive spell in the game.

I am a bit disappointed the Dismantler doesn't make a return in Grimrock 2. I loved Grimrock for putting it in the game the way they did; if you haven't played Grimrock one by now; there is an entire optional level of the dungeon, the Vault, which only exists to house the Dismantler. It's really cool. Grimrock 2 has a lot of optional content but nothing quite so extensive. If there was an entire dungeon or section of the map dedicated to hiding one uber-powerful item, I think that would be worth it 100% and elevate the game to new heights, though I know development time isn't unlimited.

Speaking of spells; I feel like Grimrock 2 made the magic system both worse and better. It's worse because it felt like experimenting with spells in the first game was more fun and consistent. You'd combine runes together and, with the right combinations, make a spell. The game would even give you certain scrolls like “Fire Shield” but would never teach you Shock Shield, but you could figure out Shock Shield yourself by just using the same runes with Air instead of Fire with the runes. That bit was extremely cool. Grimrock 2 adds a few very cool new spells, by no means are they bad, but I liked the first game's method of clicking runes to prepare spells with casting over the second game's dragging a path along the runes, mostly for the same reason.

The problem with magic in Grimrock, especially Grimrock 2, is an almost complete lack of utility spells. Besides Light which you are using constantly, the only other really good ones are the shielding spells and invisibility. Invisibility is really good by the way, not complaining, but I cannot BELIEVE this game has so much underwater stuff, but there is no water magic spell that grants water breathing? Or water walking? What the fuck?!

So here comes the biggest negative complaint- I think Grimrock 2 was a bit rushed. I don't have any evidence to support it, but I honestly feel like it was just judging from the stat of the game. Why do I think that? Two reasons. Firstly, the pyramid area is missing a boss. Now don't get me wrong, the “reveal” at the end of the pyramid that just dumps you into that desert with hundreds of mummies was great, in fact it felt like a cutscene and I actually dropped my guard for a bit until realizing it was time to play, but in general the fact we didn't fight what pharaoh you stick two keys into at the end of the pyramid was a bit of a letdown. The same also applies to the magma golems. You fight two magma golems against the “final showdown” on top of Castle Nex, and then you're forced to fight two in the desert (for the true ending) and it feels a bit like treading the same ground again. I think having an actual boss here at least- maybe a sandworm or one fire golem creature, would have worked well. Though the enemy gauntlet with the mummies was too good to pass up.

Another reason why I think it was a bit rushed is the lack of enemy variety in some areas of the game. Castle Nex, for example, is kind of short and only really has one unique enemy type- the Dark Acolytes. These guys remind me of the Goromogs from the first game, but they aren't quite as imposing. The Goromogs could open doors, which was a unique thing they could do, and cast spells. The Dark Acolytes are kind of cool just by how silently they appear, I am not ashamed to admit they made me jump pretty hard when they appeared while I was trying to solve the library puzzle.

The Final Bosses
This is going to be the biggest nitpick of all; and also even more spoilery. If you still haven't played the games and are just reading this far anyway, then by all means this is your last warning.

Grimrock one and two both had amazing final bosses. I can't stress enough how good they are. They are also so good for different reasons.

You see, bosses in Grimrock 2 are a full spectacle. They have a health bar and a name, often having unique attacks or (more commonly) spawning in with a bunch of minions to make the fight tougher. The true final boss in Grimrock 2 begins after you've already gotten all five elemental essences, unlocked the secrets of the island, and it's a pretty tough fight. At first, you battle the trickster, a recurring enemy you fight throughout the game. I love the Trickster. He's annoying and his AI is perfect at manipulating and keeping up with the player in the grid and semi-turn based nature of combat. After reducing the Trickster's HP down to zero, he suddenly swaps in place with the Island Master, who is revealed to have been the trickster the entire time. This is somewhat spoiled if you get the first ending, since you see the Island Master is still alive after you defeat him on top of Castle Nex.

I hate to admit, I had NO idea the Trickster was the Island Master. It was a great surprise, I loved it. Fighting both back to back was fine, though I kind of wished the Trickster had more attacks then just throwing bombs or had a little less health- though locking you in various rooms with traps and extra monsters was great. Finally defeating the Island Master is satisfying, it's quite a hard fight, and afterwards you are rewarded with a unique magic staff and the master key. I think it was a spark of genius for them to put that gold key that contains that one wand right outside the hub, so if you never opened it you could test out the master key and realize it opens every lock in the game. Just perfect.

The reason why I liked this fight is because it felt like a return to basics in a good way. You're in your element, within the Trickster's lair that uses the default, basic tileset, with traps, pits, and doors everywhere. It's not the same as the epic fight on the rooftop of Castle Nex in it's clean, sterile arena. That's why I think it makes such a good final boss. It's the final boss of a dungeon crawler, not the final boss of your standard epic fantasy adventure.

But here's the thing- the first game did that better.

Legend of Grimrock 1 doesn't really have bosses. At least, not traditional bosses. The bosses aren't theatrical, the first time you fight an ogre or a giant crab feel like bosses, but there is no health bar or epic music that plays. They're just weird enemies in your dungeon. The final boss of Grimrock is amazing in that regard. It's a fucking cube. The “Undying One”, which is also what has been showing up in your character's dreams as you rest, with gears spinning in the background as the symbol of the dungeon itself. The dungeon was built to house it, not to house you. You're just an intruder.

Then, you activate the cube. You have no idea that it is going to attack you. And then what does it do? It starts turning and slamming into the floor, moving the way you do, grid based. You have to be on your toes to avoid it. You can't hurt it without stunning it first- either with a "special weapon" you find in its arena and with the Dismantler, the game's epic sword for beating the totally optional vault level (I'm very glad they gave you a fitting reward like that from beating that level). It's a great final boss because it isn't like anything else you've fought, it's an encounter but a good one. One that feels important and meaningful, without a health bar or anything special like that. It's as much of a puzzle as it is a boss and it perfectly encapsulates the idea of a “dungeon” boss. I think the best part about it is, since it instantly crushes and kills your whole party if it rolls over you, you can't really fight it head on, so no amount of leveling up or grinding will make it too easy. In the same way, finding every secret in the game doesn't make you so powerful that you can breeze through the final boss. Those elements are really positive to me in crafting a meaningful final encounter.

Why am I talking so much about a six year old game? Why is this post called “Legend of Grimrock is Amazing” but the vast majority of it is complaints and critique? No idea lol.

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