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Grimrock

You’ll have seen from one of my earlier posts that I’m a fan of a particular set of gaming classics, namely Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back. Dungeon Master was the game that compelled me to buy an Atari ST, a machine that I’ve still got running today. Chaos Strikes Back, whilst a good game was more of the same, unfortunately meaning that there hasn’t been much since for those of us that like our dungeon-crawler games.

Fast forward twenty years and I’m still occasionally playing the two games on an emulator - there’s plenty about. One evening, however, I happened to be messing around on Twitter and stumbled upon a company who said they were producing a “Dungeon Crawler” style game. Their blog was an interesting read, giving details on the production process, screenshots and a short video-clip of work in progress. It certainly seemed to pay homage to both Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder and from that point on, I was hooked, waiting for the release like a child waiting for Christmas. The pre-order price was just £7.50.

On release it initially came out for Windows, not that that’s been an obstacle to getting it running on my Mac - Wineskin Winery is the tool to use here. You’ll need a halfway reasonable graphics card. My three-year old Macbook Pro runs the game at near maximum detail without too much of a problem, occasionally getting a bit toasty. Then again, it’s been worth it when you get screens such as this…

edge

…and this…

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…or this…

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Sound is via the slightly eerie, “ambient noise”, format. This worked well and didn’t grate with me, despite knowing it’s a looping audio file. Sound effects seem to observe stereo correctly and can be used to solve puzzles as appropriate.

So, if you’re not used to the format, here’s the “story” as such. You’re dropped in to the top of a dungeon. The exit is at the bottom and you’ll need to fight your way out. I’m being a bit hard on the game because there is a story of sorts, possibly more than the original game had. The narrative unfurls in the form of scrolls that you find, as well as messages that come to you in your sleep. It’s a simple touch that adds atmosphere and purpose to the game.

The dungeons develop with a variety of different backdrops, providing plenty of puzzles to prod and monsters to beat up. The characters you generated at the beginning of the game slowly progress, gaining their experience from combat as they work their way through the dungeon. It’s the standard level advancement thing, with a pre-defined amount of experience required to progress to the next level - which for the main part seems to work until later on in the game. My characters seemed to be on the same level forever, which got a bit annoying when you knew there was so much more to discover and the monsters were getting seriously tough.

As your characters go up the levels they get ability points which can be traded in for useful skills. Magicians get new spells, fighters can wear better armour and and thieves can throw new weapons. There’s plenty of different paths to take, depending on what specialist areas you want your characters to have. They can be bare-knuckle fighters if you want. The only thing I’m critical of in relation to character advancement is the magic system. In Dungeon Master, you could try and cast any spell. Sometimes you managed, sometimes you failed - but the chance of success increased as your level increased. You could also try a more powerful version of the same spell. Like a fireball? Well, you could conjure one either the size of a tennis ball or a Fiat Punto, depending on how brave you felt - and the energy used to do this changed appropriately. This worked really well. Unfortunately, Grimrock has a much more simplistic system - cast a spell once as defined by the amount of ability points you need to cast it and that’s it, you’ll never fail. That’s something of a shame - but I guess you can’t have everything, otherwise the game would be accused of being nothing but a complete rip off of the original.

When looking at this game, I took the decision that I’d play the game to completion before writing about it - and I’m glad I did this. There were so many half-assed reviews originally based upon playing just a few levels. Continue to play and you learn that the game has replay value. Having completed it after many hours of play, there’s still loads of stuff I didn’t find, with an entire level I didn’t uncover. I’ve now started a new second game, dedicated to uncovering as much as I can. I think the designers missed a trick, though. More hardcore players used to complete Dungeon Master with three, two or just one character. That option isn’t available in Grimrock - it’s a party of four or nothing, which is a big omission that I hope will be addressed in a future update.

Talking of updates, some have already been forthcoming with the developers giving regular progress updates on their map editor. This should inject a bit of longevity into the game as communities start to issue their own maps. Things sound encouraging - the editor is scriptable and there’s the suggestion that you’ll be able to create our own monsters.

Of course, we should get a dose of perspective here. When I bought Chaos Strikes Back back in 1990, I paid about twenty quid for it. Here we’re talking about a game that cost less than half of that, but will probably be infinitely more flexible. It’s funny how things change.

This game is undoubtedly the best Dungeon Crawler that I’ve played in a long time. Hell, from what I can remember, this is probably the only significant Dungeon Crawler that’s been released for a very long time - so you won’t have many real alternatives. I wasn’t disappointed, though. It’s well put together by a small team who obviously care about the product they’ve made. Whilst it has its shortcomings, the niggles are minor and the game still managed to make me jump when played in a darkened room. There’s also a healthy dose of homage to my favourite game genre - and I’d much rather pay $15 for a game such as this, instead of double that for a piece of franchised shite such as Call Of Duty. Oh no, I certainly won’t be doing that again.

Go on, you won’t regret it - it’s worth it just for the nostalgia trip.
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