Written as a love letter to the dungeon crawlers of the 80s, Legend Of Grimrock will not appeal to everybody... People expecting this to be like Dragon Age: Origins (2 wasn't as much of an RPG as 1 was) or even Diablo 1 will find themselves very, very disappointed because this is very much like an 80s dungeon crawler, just with graphics and sound quality that feel 2012-y. As much as I feel like making a reference towards a certain group of talentless hacks who rip off every 80s thrash metal band and claims that it's new music (hint: it's Evile), this feels more like it was done by a band who knew about the limitations of old school thrash metal and still tries their hardest to make it work in this day and age and actually do a damn good job of it (ie. Havok).
If you play games for the story, you'll be disappointed to learn that setup aside, there isn't much to experience here. Basically, you and three others are trapped in a dungeon or in the pit of Mount Grimrock. Reason being, you've all committed crimes against the king. From there, you're all guided by a voice through the dungeon, slaying monsters and solving puzzles along the way. Also along the way are notes from a previous explorer who talks about the dungeon, like how it's meant to be explored or leaving some clues to puzzles and/or hidden loot. It's always pretty cool to get some info on the place you're in during the game, but beyond that, this isn't an epic quest to slay the evil dragon while growing to care about your characters; it's just about escaping from a dungeon. Nothing more; nothing less.
But if you think the story isn't all that complicated, then you'll hate the tutorial, which is very tight lipped. Essentially, it'll teach you the very basics and then leave you to your devices. Now, that's fair enough if it teaches you about stuff you'll need to know, but it's not fair enough when it leaves out a few important details, like - oh, I don't know - where you need to click in order to attack! Come on, even Dark Souls threw me a bone and that game was designed to be
Anyway, as you'd expect, you start by creating your characters. You have four races to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Each race has three classes to choose from and while you don't necessarily have to be too fussy if you're having humans in your party, the other races specialize in certain classes, like how minotaurs are quite the bruisers if a bit slow, while lizardmen are more about speedy hits and hoping they don't get hit. Then you have insectoids, who are more into magic but they can't carry a whole heap of loot. Mind you, you could select other classes for these races, and if you're looking for a challenge, you should mix and match, but... well, that's if you're not looking for a challenge by playing this game in the first place. This isn't an easy game, kids, and even though you can level up as you kill enemies and put some skill points into different sorts of skills, the further through the dungeon you go, the harder enemies will hit and the harder you'll need to hit.
The combat in this game is a matter of clicking on the weapon or spell icon on your characters' status screen while facing an enemy. After an attack, that character will enter a period of cooling down, meaning that he/she/it won't be able to attack for a little while. In addition, party members who are at the back can't use physical attacks - only frontline infantry. At first, it feels like a minor inconvenience, but eventually when you start fighting heaps of enemies, you'll need to use plenty of strategy and time your hits wisely, all the while using the area around you to move around and not get hit in order to survive and progress. What makes things trickier is that your movement is locked onto a grid, meaning that you move forwards, backwards or sideways by a square - no diagonal movement and no quick turning. All turning around is done by holding the right mouse button and moving it around.
Well, you came here for a retro experience, did you not? I mean, holding the right mouse button instead of simply moving the mouse to look around does sound silly in this day and age, and moving on a grid sounds very stiff, but the way this game does it makes it less tedious and limiting than you think. The game is designed in a way to take advantage of the grid-like movement and make it feel like second nature after a little while, and on that same token, looking around also becomes second nature after a while. I usually hate it when people say "oh you'll get used to it", but here I am, saying... that you'll get used to it, except while most people use it to justify a game being shit, I'm using it as a means of saying that underneath the surface really does lie a great game. It's a good thing too, because the combat itself is passable at best. Oh, you'll learn new moves every now and again, and the possibility of dying at any wrong turn is what keeps things exciting, but without that feeling, clicking on weapon icons and waiting four or so seconds to use it again isn't all that interesting.
But it's not all about nuanced designs, because there are also some puzzles to solve. You'll figure that that's the case either by the writings on the wall, or by finding tiles that look a little weird. Now, usually when puzzles get praised by professional reviewers, I'm quick to assume that they're either really tedious block pushing puzzles (ie. Ocarina Of Time), really easy puzzles (ie. Wind Waker) or they were just paid a handsome bribe to suck its dick (ie. Uncharted), so to find some legitimately tricky puzzles is surprising. Sure, it starts off easy enough with you needing to find some levers to pull and things to put on pressure tiles, but eventually, you'll be dealing with riddles, portals and all sorts of shit that will be hard as fuck to figure out. A lot of puzzles are optional, but the prize is alluring enough to make you want to do it anyway - what, lots of rare and powerful stuff can't hurt, especially if it gets you out of a jam later on!
While it's easy to criticize the lack of variety in the visuals, you'd seriously look stupid because while the floors generally look the same, it's a samey look that really fits and grows onto you. It's dark, it's dank, and when you add the fact that enemies can kick your ass if you make one false move, it makes for a tense trekking through the dungeon. What helps is that the halls tend to be tight, meaning that escape is not always possible and that fighting is the only way out, should you get stuck between some enemies. The lighting really adds to the experience as, like I said, it's dark, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and while torches aren't ever stationed at the end of this tunnel (if they were, then you'd probably be without one for a good 15-20 hours), there are torches which can help you see through the dark depths. It's from there that the lighting really starts to look impressive, as the darkness shrouds everything ahead, forcing you to take baby steps (or step forward one space) to make sure you don't get raped. It's no picnic with the Care Bears - you're in a fucking dungeon!
But what's a creepy dungeon without some creepy sounds? Well, it'd just look creepy and you'll see right through its façade. So what happens here is that you'll hear some noises that'll keep you on your toes. Big steps from bigger enemies or small steps from scurrying little enemies are one thing; a disembodied voice speaking at certain points is another, and the lack of music amplifies the ambiance. So really, the atmosphere for this game is spot on. It all brings this deep, dark dungeon to life, like you're in it! The fact that it's in first person view is the icing on the cake.
I originally went into this game, thinking that it'd be yet another throwaway "retro" experience. What I got out of it was a fantastic game that knew exactly what it was doing with the old school formula and still constructed it in a way that makes it possible for newcomers to hop aboard and enjoy it. In saying that, the tutorial sucks and its stiff design does take a while to get used to, but stick with it, and you'll find that you'll fall in love with it. Whether it's the atmosphere, the dungeon's design or the puzzles, Legend Of Grimrock is just a hell of an experience really only hampered by a design that'll take a while to get into.