Much like those 8-bit bites of role-playing bliss, Grimrock leaves nearly everything to the imagination. Who are these four prisoners, what did they do to deserve this frequently fatal, square-by-square dungeon crawl, and why is one of them a minotaur? While there is a minimal overarching plot, I got to fill in those blanks moment-by-moment and really own my experience. With no overly chatty character nor long-winded cut-scene in sight, character motivations and interactions were mine to imagine.
In all things – plot, combat, and even the act of simply moving forward – Grimrock is refreshingly minimal, an extremely satisfying whole cobbled together from your every little "aha" puzzle-solving moment and "ahhh!" near-death experience.
There is, however, hidden depth lurking within its corridors – and plenty of it. Sure, at its most basic, Grimrock is an old-school trek that even goes so far as to restrict movement to the north, south, east, and west (no newfangled diagonal movement for you), but even that apparent step back is actually a hop sideways in terms of complexity. Early on, I found myself constantly boxed into corners by Grimrock's colorful, deadly cast of snail monsters, skeletons, and assorted phobia-inducing arachnids, but I quickly learned to incorporate positioning, situational awareness, and lots of "tactical fleeing" into my repertoire.
Similarly, the simple three-class, four-character party system proves to be anything but. Choosing to invest skill points in fire, ice, earth, or air magic for my mage initially seemed easy enough, but each central skill category quickly gave way to colossal buffets of delectable abilities and stat boosts. Level-ups brought with them all manner of obsessive questions. How will these abilities work against this area's monsters? Will they compliment the rest of my party well? Should I go jack-of-all-trades or specialize at the risk of being unable to find suitable weapons later on?
And believe me, Grimrock is all too happy to let you doom your party with poor choices. That, however, is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's truly refreshing to encounter real adversity in a game and not have my hand held the entire time. Grimrock goes for the throat from start to finish, and I can't help but respect that. On the other hand, it can be a bit too stingy with essential information, and its tutorial failed to tell me – among other things – how to revive dead party members, how to write notes on my map, or even what I needed to click in order to, you know, hit things. It's one thing to focus on player-driven exploration and discovery, but without those essential basics my first hour or so was far more frustrating than it needed to be.
Hell, I nearly rendered my first play-through unbeatable by failing to conserve my food supply (not essential for survival, but health won't regenerate without it) and subsequently venturing through entire floors that had nary a scrap of nutritious, probably-not-delicious giant snail meat. It was, at the time, extremely frustrating, and I nearly turned "kill, save, die, reload" into a rhythmic art form.
Ultimately, though, I persevered and experienced an adrenaline-tinged rush of pride and humility. I fell, and no safety net rose up to catch me, but I picked myself back up and dragged my bloodied, starving party to relative safety. It wasn't pretty, but that disastrous tightrope walk along the brink was mine – and mine alone. There was no contrived "plot" context for my party's most dramatic, tension-ridden moment – no pre-scripted Uncharted 2-esque "Nathan Drake gets shot, fails to regenerate for some reason, and leaves his blood on the snow" gimmick. My mistake created the suspense. The way I played, moreso than any overarching plot, was the story.
And yet, even during those moments of fist-shaking ire, it was difficult not to be enveloped by Grimrock's iron maiden of sights and sounds. With only three tile sets to its name, it's amazing how much atmosphere the game manages to squeeze out of its seemingly nondescript confines. Sound is especially key, with every enemy's slightest shuffle emitting a distinct (and, in many cases, disgusting) sound. I can't count the number of times I found myself huddled in a corner, sweat beading on my brow, as a monstrous foe clomped around with only a wall or two separating us, my only hope of salvation a frantically whispered chant of protection: "go away, go away, go away." It was absolutely nerve-wracking in the best possible way.
On top of that, the whole dungeon is a series of incredibly tight, occasionally branching corridors. The claustrophobic nature of it all can feel downright suffocating and, when paired with creepy, crawly oozing noises and kick-you-while-you're-down difficulty, it gives off a nearly peerless atmosphere of hostility. Grimrock is not a nice place and, in some respects, it evokes a deeper feeling of suspense than many survival-horror games.
Grimrock's hopeless atmosphere makes every little victory something to be savored. In other games, stumbling across a rusty sword might be worth, at best, a disinterested yawn and a few gold from a merchant. In Grimrock it's a rush akin to finding a $100 bill in the gutter or realizing that, wait, no, there is totally one more Oreo in the back of the box. New weapons and items tend to be marked improvements over old ones, which, combined with a sublime leveling pace, creates a constant sense of real progression.
Thanks to all manner of puzzles – many secret, some required to progress – there's gobs of loot to find as well. Puzzles start off simply enough, but slowly begin to leverage everything from riddles to portals. A couple especially devious conundrums forced me to beat my brain against a wall for upwards of an hour, though the "eureka!" moments mostly made up for it. A few timed puzzles, however, tested my patience more than my wits with time-consuming trial and error. Also, while seeking out secrets is generally a joy, I can only scan so many walls for tiny indentations before losing interest.
By and large Legend of Grimrock's penchant for walking the incredibly fine line between chin-stroking challenge and hair-pulling frustration is superbly impressive. It will absolutely pounce if you let your guard down, but that's a major part of the appeal. And honestly, what's a good adventure without a few uncomfortably close calls at Death's door? Admittedly, some of its missteps (a final area that's something of an attrition-based slog, unclear puzzles, a poor tutorial) have a way of grinding progress to a full-on halt, but there is – as ever – always a light at the end of the tunnel. And honestly, off the top of my head, I can think of few other games that make finally basking in that light feel so damned good.
I like modern games, and I'm glad I'm not just playing Dragon Warrior on a handheld these days, but sometimes it's nice to come across a game that makes me feel like a kid again.
This review is based on a download of Legend of Grimrock, provided by Almost Human.
Nathan Grayson is a Dallas-born, San Francisco-based freelancer whose work appears on Rock Paper Shotgun, GameSpy, Eurogamer, VG247, and IGN, among others. His real dream, however, is to join the esteemed staff of Cat Fancy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Vahn16.
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