The first dungeon crawler I ever played was, bizarrely, Encarta Mindmaze, which was accessible in early editions of Encarta by pressing Ctrl+Z. Sadly, Grimlock merely requires payment and code entering; its accessibility is a little less cryptic.

Developed by the Finnish indie developer Almost Human, Legend of Grimlock both plays, and looks, like a passionate homage to dungeon crawlers gone by. An indie development, Legend of Grimlock (arguably) isn’t as big of a risk as titles with larger budget, allowing Almost Human ample breathing room to please their–apparently decisively–niche pocket of the market.

To some, Legend of Grimlock will be a short lived history lesson in the nature and development of the early RPG; to others, a dusting off of old mechanics and dynamics they’ve missed for so long. Whilst some of you will be happy to pay the 11.99 (GBP) RRP for a history lesson just to see what’s what, others might tire of the linearity and dated dynamic.

Dated it may be – but Legend of Grimlock makes no apologies – and nor should it. Grimlock doesn’t really offer much in the way of an easing in for new players to this old and venerable style – making its authority and attitude patently clear. This is Legend of Grimlock – and it’s for those of you who’ve missed this. 

Bricks, bricks, mushrooms, bricks and… more bricks.

At the start of the game, you can either chose, or have a preset party of four characters. With an option to play it old-school (no counters or maps) you can either crack out the pen and paper, or allow a more moderate approach to what’s to come. The usual, as you’d expect, is all here: picking your race, out of a choice of four, with three classes: mage, rogue, and fighter. Racial traits, additional traits and stats galore – it’s all here for avid fans of the RPG genre. Note, however, that this isn’t an RPG in the modern sense – something that you’ll be constantly reminded of, especially if you were expecting a Skyrim dungeon experience which you shouldn’t have been.

Once you chose and name your merry party of fellow players – you’re given a cut-scene explaining how you’ve all been a bunch of naughty people, and you’re hastily kicked, Spartan style, down into the depths of Grimrock – a dungeon inside a mountain.

From thereon in you gather your party together – in spirit, at least – where you direct your crew through a first person perspective. Your party is displayed in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, with two at the front and two in the rear. The two party members in the rear – ostensibly your mage and rogue (useful with a bow) can damage only with ranged weapons, since the halls of Grimrock are narrow. Your toughest fighters at the front, you make your way through corridors and doors lighting your way with a torch. It’s a while before you come across any weapons or clothes – with puzzles the first obstacle in your way.

Using the wasd keys to move forwards and backwards along a grid like channel of tunnels, and q and e to turn 90 degrees, movement is restricted – as is the enemy’s. An element I think they could have done without–or at the very least made able to turn off–this ensures, in some way, the feel of a classic dungeon crawler. It’s fine at first, but after a white I found that it began to grate on me that I had to stop moving forward in order to turn. When I’m frantically finding my way through a narrow and windy corridor, it was a little annoying to have to stop, turn, continue – stop, turn again, continue on. I get it – the defense being a stylistic one – but am I really not allowed to swing left or right whilst moving forward? This, with far too much emphasis on the old ‘broken brick in the wall’ trick to find secret passages, got old after a couple of hours play.

Riddle me this, riddle me bricks.

Speaking of bricks – you’re introduced to the ‘this brick is a button’ trick early on in the game. This trick is recycled maybe 30 or so times in the first three levels alone, and that’s a conservative estimate. They’re always in the same place, always the same shape. This being one of the most devious tricks in the game held back my enjoyment quite a bit. These ‘puzzles’, such as shoving two gems in the face on the wall, or shifting a few boxes around, are so recycled that, to some degree, it is more about learning what to expect more than being intellectually tested. It got to a point where I was intuitively thinking “right, there will be a broken brick there – why else would that empty space be there?” etc.

On a similar note, the puzzles seem–I suppose… quite obviously?–to merely want to stop you from getting to the end. None of the puzzles are fun per-se, so much as you are satisfied when moving forward. They are, at worst, an annoyance – at best, something to get your eyes moving.

I remember one part when a key was hidden under an item of clothing which was seemingly behind a door. I figured “well, the door is shut – so I guess I can’t grab that gear.” so I let it be. After walking around for quite some time, eventually getting annoyed, I tried to grab it. To my surprise, I picked up the item of clothing and they key was underneath. In my opinion, as someone who enjoys puzzles, that isn’t a puzzle – that is merely puzzling. With a game so hell-bent on coming across as an old-school dungeon crawler, it felt like a bit of a lame move to integrate something like that. Locked door means locked door – unlock it, and you can get the items. In this case, no – just poke your hand through and grab it. My point is that particular puzzle, if you can call it that, was counter-intuitive which, in many puzzle games, is the sign of a bad puzzle. If at any time a game leaves you wondering “is this a bug?” for whatever reason, which is common now’days, you’re not giving the player enough to work with. Before I digress too much, I should say perhaps I’m being a little unfair – really, my point is that a lot of the time you’ll be stuck simply because they give you nothing to work with other than your own paranoid mind and a whole lot of time. For some of you, that’ll be bliss – but for me, when I’ve no real attachment to the characters or incentive, I just end up annoyed and cheated. It’s a subjective feature that you’ll either love, or hate.

Mushroom’s and Gargoyle’s and snails… Oh, knights!

The enemies are modeled beautifully, and whilst the combat is restrictive and dated – it is genuinely fun. Although your caster will be useless for around an hour–getting a fire spell a while into the game–and your rogue will be throwing stones for quite some time, combat grows fairly quickly and it’s a lot of fun hitting the enemies on the invisible grid, dodging and maneuvering to fit the situation. Although it seems like it isn’t all that special, it’s really entertaining, and one of the returning mechanics that I welcome quite openly.

Although uninspired–or too inspired?–the enemies are classic, well modeled albeit repetitive features. Accounting for about 50% of the game (the other merely navigating) it is a real treat to fight using this mechanic. Health invariably depletes as you’d expect, with sleep or food – or a casting spell – your primary means of regenerating. There’s a stone that replenishes and heals party members, including the dead, whilst saving the game – but you can save and heal manually anyway so it feels like a feature they left it after thinking about a potential check point only system. Regardless, it’s a nice feature to milestone your journey.

Am I being too Nietzsche about niche?

Whilst praised for the quality of the puzzles by other critics, I was left feeling cheated and underwhelmed. Most of the puzzles in the game are incidental, in that they are simply a part of navigation. A lot of the time you don’t even know you’re supposed to be enduring a puzzle – and that annoyed me the most. Although I can’t down-rate the game for this, since it is subjective, I much prefer to stumble across a puzzle – have it in front of me, and crack on with it a-la Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper. Instead I was met with a frustrating and sometimes tiresome series of repetitive mechanical exploits, marred by the mere fact that I was unaware I was even doing a puzzle. Again, you won’t all feel as I did – and whilst I’m not wearing rose tinted nostalgia-specs, I did genuinely enjoy the experience, most of the time.

A richly detailed, albeit fairly featureless schlep through the dungeons of Grimrock, this game deserves a look from anyone passionate about the origins of the RPG. Although a fair few gamers, perhaps, are loving it as an essential game for “real gamers”, I would be skeptical of any real passion thrown it’s way. A lovingly made homage to our roots, Legend of Grimrock has around 7 hours of gameplay, with more to come, for anyone willing to endure a slow, sometimes frustrating experience albeit with good combat functionality.

Subjectivity aside – this is a polished, good looking game for the price of retail and production. There is enough variation here to keep fans of the genre happy, and whilst some of you will be coming from other, modern RPG’s – from love of gaming – in order to say ‘I’ve tried Grimrock’, I am left wondering how many of you will actually finish the experience. Those who do, however, will probably cherish the experience.