Wizardry. The Bard’s Tale. Ultima. Dungeons & Dragons (back when SSI had the license, at any rate). These classic RPGs were all about the dungeon delve: crawling through claustrophobic tunnels that all look the same as one another, battling legions of powerful enemies and grinding deeper and deeper into the depths, tackling that final boss, and breathing a welcome sigh of relief.
Simple and to the point, these dungeon hack RPGs have largely being relegated to history, or the occasional attempt to play on nostalgia with a new release from a small, indie outfit with slavish devotion to their fond memories. The problem for the genre is that RPG gamers started to expect stuff like “stories” and “large worlds” in their games, and that didn’t gel so well with the dungeon delve. Pity, because like most who grew up with Wizardry and Dungeons & Dragons, I have fond memories of the relatively simple style of those games.
Thank goodness for Legend of Grimrock, then, because that scratches every dungeon delve itch I’ve been wanting to scratch for a long time.
There’s no real pretence for a story, and environments largely consist of tight corridors. There’s very little music – the soundscape is mostly ambient dungeon-style noises. And the gameplay likes to be hard. Monsters take some fighting to take down, and resources are limited. There’s even a nice little nod to the really nostalgic with the option to turn off the automap, so you’ll need to use some grid paper and a pencil to map out the dungeon as you go.
Rather than being a strictly turn-based affair like, say, Wizardry, Legend of Grimrock models itself on the less-popular Dungeons & Dragons Strahd’s Prophet/ Mezoberranzan style of combat. It’s essentially a very, very slow paced real time game. Moving around the dungeon feels like a turn based experience, as the dungeon levels are laid out in tiles, and a press of the forward key will move the party a “square” forward. The combat, however, is closer to the Final Fantasy mould where after each attack there’s a cool down time before the combatant can attack again in real time. There’s no transition away from the dungeon with random encounters and the like – the monsters are all there in front of the party.
Because it is so slow-paced it’s a largely strategic combat system, and mashing random keys and mouse buttons will get you nowhere. Because the enemies act in real time, though, and there are four party members to manage, you’ll still need to think on your toes, as none of the heroes will do anything by themselves. Characters do conform to the archetypes though, with wizards, rogues and warriors all doing their usual thing, so anyone who has played an RPG before (and let’s face it, if you’re interested in Legend of Grimrock, you’ve played RPGs before) will be comfortably away with very little effort.
Outside of combat there’s not all that much to the game. Dungeon delve games aren’t big on the NPC interactions and sidequests, after all. The game manages to retain interest through the puzzles built into the level design itself, and the many secrets there are to unlock. The game doesn’t hold the player’s hands, either. The tests of logic and tracking down the big treasures is entirely up to the player to figure out. It’s not enough to prevent an inevitable sense of grind in the game, but that’s what this genre is all about and the fans would be disappointed if it wasn’t there.
There are some concessions to modernity that the developers have worked into the game, and it works quite well. The visual style of the monsters and environments, while simple, looks good. The monsters are nicely detailed and animated, and there’s a consistency to the game that is impressive.
There’s also a modern levelling structure with skill points and the like to allow players reasonable control over the development of their characters. I’m not a huge fan of it in this instance, as the range of customisation options is a bit generic and bland, and the rewards seems a little paltry at times. The dungeon delve was never really about the character development, so Legend of Grimrock developers have done themselves a disservice by putting focus on it.
Overall, though Legend of Grimrock is a great way to revisit the good old days of the dungeon delve. Some interesting level design and nice production values might just nab the genre one or two new fans, too.