Before all the cutesy, fluffy shit that inhabits most RPGs these days, before Final Fantasy and JRPGs had infested every corner of the genre, there were dungeon RPGs. And they weren’t the Diablo-style one-button RPGs that breed tactical laziness; that’s right tactical fucking laziness. Diable RPGs are allow for a wider range of motion and strategy, so you can hem enemies in with firewalls and nuke them with fire or something. Tactics requires the careful execution of a concerted attack effort. A small group of doomed warriors in a massive dungeon have a solid understanding of tactics. They know if they break ranks and get isolated, they are doomed.
The first and last of these types of games I ever played was Eye of the Beholder, a game we played on SNES. In the game, you play a group adventurers exploring the sewers of a place called “Waterdeep” to cleanse some ancient evil. We did not understand the alignment system although we often chose whatever we wanted and joked about it like kids. When we were in the game, we never got the gist of how to play. We would throw our gear at enemies since it was the only way we knew to deal damage. Eventually it got to where we were disrobing and throwing our clothes, desperately trying to kill the foes. That never ended well… But we were idiotic 8 and 9 year-olds.
Grimrock makes a lot more sense to me. Controls are easy and you barely need a tutorial. Just click around, left click picks up an item and releasing it mid-screen will throw that item. Right-click to attack or to throw a weapon. Everything is a pretty straight-forward RPG style and this makes combat more exciting, too.
When you start the game, your characters are assumed to have performed some transgression against King and country. The vague nature of the opening titles leave you to think you could have raped the Princess all the way down to eating the last piece of strawberry cheesecake. Doesn’t matter. You’re fucked and they push you down a hole. Best part is, at the top of the mountain Grimrock your crimes are all forgiven and you are free. But the only way down is to descend into the bowels of Grimrock. Oh, by the way, no one has ever fucking survived. That’s ok, I don’t usually come for the accommodations anyway.
Down in the dungeons, you have to navigate labyrinthine corridors filled with unspeakable monsters, like giant snails, gargoyles, mushroom herders, little magic-casting mushroom guys, undead soldiers etc. Each creature adds its own challenges to combat, and one should consider combat a feat akin to dancing. If you just take two warriors and attempt to plow through, axes and swords swinging, you will end up a dusty pile of bones. Many enemies are able to out-number you, out-damage you or can take a hell of a lot more punishment than you can. Did I mention you are all prisoners? Yea, this means they pushed your ass down in the pits with aught but your chapped asses to defend yourselves. As you progress you’ll find the sparse weaponry left behind by other bands of hapless adventurers, so you’re not exactly a keen-eyed fighting force armed for rigorous combat. The most common early ranged weapon is a rock while the most common melee weapon early on is a fucking torch.
When enemies come at you, the best thing to do is to lure them off one at a time where possible. As they round corners you can stab them before back-pedaling toward an open area. As you back pedal, you can throw rocks at them and ready up a spell. Spells are a devastating way to deal damage, but you can’t unlock spells with the spellbook until you find the appropriate scroll, which can be frustrating. Once you get them, though, they are profoundly useful. Be careful, too. If someone in your party dies, you’re all fucked. Sure, you can keep going, but you’ll be needing the full group throughout the game.
Character customization is excellent, and you can choose between human, minotaur, lizardfolk and insectoid. I usually pick two humans, a minotaur and a lizardfolk. I like having two rogues, as this allows me to have a ranged rogue and a dps rogue. You know, for extra damage for the rogue since rogues prefer it from behind. Then there is my mage, human female full of glorious spellcasting magery, and likely the smartest of the entire group. Finally, I like to take a tank, too. That is my minotaur. He has a trait called headhunter where he gets extra damage for collecting skulls. Finally a use for those useless collectible items! I also use the minotaur for a pack animal, since they also get major strength bonuses.
The ambiance is terrific, and you get the sense of an ever-present evil throughout the game. All the time some dark whispers can be heard in your ear, muttering in a chthonic language some horrid curse, luring you deeper into the dungeon. The music in the title screen also brought a tear to my eye the first time I heard it and filled me with the glee of a glorious adventure. Throughout the game there is little more than ominous noises. Sometimes you can heard the groan or squeal of some distant creature lurking about, waiting for its next meal to come trundling down the corridors. There is also the fantastic element of eating whatever food you find lying all over the ground, like some kind of mad baker was damned to imprisonment here and he found some magical means to leave bread everywhere.
One of the things this game does really really well are secrets. Notice how the walls are all constructed of a similarly-colored, moss-grown mortarless masonry? Well, every once in a while you will see a chink in the stone or a brick out of place. Click that shit! Somewhere nearby a door will open and permit you access to a secret room and you’ll get some badass loot, much needed food or a magic scroll! It takes me back to the old days of Wolfenstein 3D and Thief: The Dark Project where you had to just run along the walls at a certain angle to open secret doors or cut down every wall-hanging you could to unlock secret doors. I find the best way to search for secrets is to stand in the corner of a room and look from afar. Secret switches are pretty obvious if you know what you are looking for, but they can often be just as easily over-looked, so stay sharp!
Probably the only thing that bothered me about this game was the straight-forward manner of the enemies. This game could be very well served by some wall-lurking enemies that you don’t see until you are right up on them. Granted, the current combat system would make that a tad difficult, but putting in enemies that climbed out of grates as you walked by or changed from statues into flesh and blood foes when you walk past them would make this spooky game into a fantasy-horror adventure. Don’t mind my little intrigues, though. This game is worth every cent you can throw at its creators. It is a load of fun in a genre that I have not seen since I was disrobing for battle. On Steam this game is an overly-reasonable 14.99$, but wait there’s more! This game has a community of dungeon-dwellers who create new content and new levels and games with the map editor of Grimrock! It’s fucking fantastic. And THEN you have Legends of Grimrock 2 to look forward to! Just in time for Halloween! You can pre-order it now! Screw trick-or-treaters! Crawl the dungeons and unlock the treasures within!