For those who can remember that far back, games like Might and Magic (1986), Dungeon Master (1987), and Eye of the Beholder (1991) were the first foray into 3D graphics for the Dungeons & Dragons role playing genre. Innovative for their time, players effectively moved across a gridded environment, one square at a time, fighting and exploring as the dungeon unfolded before them.
The genre moved on from these humble beginnings, of course, with the likes of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Dragon's Dogma being the latest incarnation of this style of game. Now, turn-based combat has been replaced with real-time sword swinging, and grid-based exploration has been usurped by free-roaming in massive open worlds.
Given the advances in technology, what could possibly attract a modern gamer back to this earlier style of play? Well, the niche that Legend of Grimrock tries to fill is players hankering for a singleplayer game that evokes the original D&D tabletop game play style. And Grimrock does this very well.
The basic story is that "you" are a group of four prisoners that have been condemned to a trial of survival, where you are dropped on top of a mountain and challenged to make your way to the bottom - through a huge and treacherous dungeon, with only the hope of regaining your freedom to keep you going. The kicker is, of course, that you start with nothing. Not even clothes. You have to survive on what you can pick up on the way.
The first order of business is the character selection. Don't expect to spend happy hours choosing your eye colour and the size of your nose, however. The basic decisions you have are to choose one of the four races (human, minotaur, lizard man, and insectoid), pick from a few preset faces for each one, and then select one of the three available professions (Warrior, Rogue, and Mage).
From there you allocate a bunch of attribute points, such as strength, wisdom, vitality, and agility. Then you put points into skills such as different schools of magic, and weapons. If that's all too hard, then the game has an automated party generator.
The game is played in first person, with movement being forward, back, right, or left. Combat is as simple as right clicking on the weapon or spell held by the respective character. The more things you kill the more experience points you get. When you have enough, your character gains a level and you then get more skill points to allocate. These in turn will unlock more spells and weapon effects.
There is a good variety of weapons to pick up, however at the beginning of the game what you do find is only largely stones, and lumps of wood. The combat isn't too onerous and, if you are deft hand at hitting a button and scooting out of the way, you can often complete an encounter without taking a hit yourself.
Now I know what you are thinking; “this is pretty mundane and unexciting”. True, if this was the only aspect of the game, you would be right. However the real heart of the game is the dungeon itself, and the puzzles you need to complete in order to advance further.
These puzzles start off pretty easy. They can be as simple as finding a hidden button on a wall near the door you want to open, finding a rock to put on a pressure plate, or triggering doors in a specific order to open another area. A lot of the early puzzles have hints to get you into the swing of the game, however later on it starts to get tough.
Soon, you will find multiple pressure plates, teleports, trapdoors, and traps. These can be linked over different levels, with multiple puzzles needing to be solved to open a single door. Maddeningly, there are secret areas to find or unlock, keys to find, and monster generators to close down.
There are other, challenges too. You have to keep your party fed. If they are hungry, they can't fight, so what you kill, you eat - depending on what bits they leave behind. Light is also an issue. Every torch you come across is precious as, as soon as they are picked up, they have a limited life span. With no torch, the dungeon goes very dim, and it becomes almost impossible to find switches and hidden areas.
There are also certain herbs you can pick up that can be mixed to make potions. The recipes can be found on scrolls, or hinted at here and there, so there is a bit of mixing and discovery to do. The same sort of system applies to the magic spells you can use.
The graphics are good and certainly a step up on the original games in the genre. They won't tax your graphics card, though, as there is a lot of repeated tile sets in the levels. There are some good lighting and fire effects, but the monster combat effects can become repetitive.
The monsters vary from the bizarre - like giant snails and walking tree stumps - to the more mundane like skeletons and bats etc. They have various attack methods but, like you, their movement is restricted to the grid layout as well.
There are a couple of things we would have like to have seen in the game. The map is great, and is very reminiscent of the old D&D dungeon maps (you can go true retro and turn the function off entirely, using your own grid paper to map out each level), but you cannot move while in map mode. For the more complex layouts, it would have been good to be able to rush around on the map without having to switch between the two.
The tutorial aspects of the game are also a bit thin, with the smallest of introductions to the base concepts, while the more intricate aspects need to be figured out as you play through.
Overall the game is a good trip down memory lane. There is the hint of more downloadable content in the future, and its reasonable price on Steam (US$15) makes it a good little game to add to your collection for when you feel like something different.