Friday, May 18, 2012

Legend of Grimrock semi-Review

Legend of Grimrock (LoG) is a dungeon crawl adventure game that hearkens back to old school games such as Wizardry and Might and Magic. Unlike most modern games, most of which concentrate on either deep story or open world freedom (or perhaps some of both), this little gem concentrates on puzzles, exploration and RPGing. 

This is not a review. Well, mostly not a review. I wanted to touch upon some of the game design decisions they made, specifically:
  • Minimalism
  • The 80/20 Rule
  • No Hand-Holding
  • Hoplessness as a Theme
Oh yeah, no Elves. Yay!

Minimal is the Word of the Day

UI, combat, environment, plot - it is all minimal. Even movement is restricted to the four cardinal directions! It is as if the designers approached each from the viewpoint of adding just enough to meet the requirements and nothing more.

Reading the above one might believe the game is rather shallow. It is anything but. LoG has an abundance of depth in its dungeons. (I am sure there is a pun here with depth and dungeon but I can't find it.)

The story is light (lite?) The party is a group of prisoners who are generously pardoned for their unspeakable (and thus undefined) crimes. One small catch - upon receiving this pardon they are tossed into the dungeon at the top of Mount Grimrock. Now they (well, you) must fight their (your) way out.

That is about it for plot. 

The 80/20 Rule

Character and party creation is a snap. It is mostly familiar, with a bit of newness. As a matter of fact the bulk of the game design follows what I call the 80/20 rule - 80% known design with 20% new.

Looking at it the game through the 80/20 goggles:

  • 80 - Uses the tried and true fighter/mage/rogue triangle
  • 20 - Your characters have a hunger bar; the hungrier they are the slower health and energy will regenerate. On top of this, some races (Minotaur) require more food than others (Insectoid).
  • 80 - Characters have an assortment of traits and skills. Traits are passive and skills are based around combat (weapons, armor and spells).
  • 20 - Two traits are race-specific. OK this isn't 100% new, but the twist here is they resisted the standard "each race has one or more racial traits".  A racial trait also isn't free, it occupies one of the two trait slots a character may have. The removes the impetus to pick a particular race because of a strong racial trait (the Forsaken in WoW being a good example of this).
  • 80 - The mage class has access to various schools of magic such as ice, fire and earth.
  • 20 - A spell is case by tapping out a series of runes on a 3x3 grid. The idea is a good one but the execution is lacking. Combat is real time so the longer your attention is spent tapping out the correct rune combination the longer your other characters are not attacking. A better design would be to allow players to set up the rune combination ahead of time and simply select the combo from a list (the list could have a limited number of slots to force players to choose ahead of time which spells to have at the ready). This keeps the rune-theme while allowing mages to have access to single click combat. As is, I don't see the game being playable long term with more than a single mage in the party (perhaps this was part of the intent?)

No Guide No Problem (mostly)

The game doesn't hold your hand like modern games. It doesn't give you quests or an on-screen indicator of where to go next. It does have a map, but you can turn that off and break out the grid paper, for those seeking the true old school experience.

Information is stingy and perhaps a bit too much so. It was not immediately obvious how to add notes to the map and even combat had me stumped at first (click on the weapon - makes sense once you do it).

There is no safety net for the player; right from the start death is real and imminent. Players can easily find themselves in a nearly un-winnable scenario of their own doing. Somehow this makes for more drama than most scripted supposedly dramatic moments in modern games. It wasn't a plot that created the scenario, it was the player's actions and when the player drags half-dead (literally!), starving party back from the brink it was also because of the player's actions.

At the end of the day, the story is the one the player creates through playing, and isn't that what RPGs are supposed to be about?

Hopeless is Awesome

LoG takes hopeless to new heights. Indeed, one could say "hopeless" is the theme of the game. I guess I am saying that.

The party begins with no weapons, no spells to cast and only a few rags for "armor". Finding an actual weapon is a "Yes!" moment. "Weapon" here means an old, rusty sword, not a blue-quality magic sword to replace your green-quality magic sword. Weapons and armor are mostly CRAP, which reinforces the hopeless theme.

The dungeon is dark, dank and occasionally crumbling. The corridors are claustrophobic. Sounds of creepy crawlies ooze through the walls. Fights quickly become challenging and don't really get any easier. The difficulty curve is more of a steep slope, steadily challenging players.

Grimrock is well-named and is simply not a nice place.

Yet all this hopelessness makes each victory that much more satisfying. Clearing a room full of phobia-inducing spiders somehow is not the same chore it is in other games. Here it is a true challenge and thus a true victory. 

(BTW stockpile anti-venom potions)

Hold on There

The game isn't perfect of course:
  • The number of unique monster models is rather small and the tile set for the environment is very small. 
  • The quick save function is very convenient, so much so I find myself abusing it and saving before each significant encounter.
  • There is no means to reallocate spent skill points. I got around this by further abusing the friendly save game feature - I made a special save game upon each level-up.
  • The puzzles are legion and mostly are pretty good, though some will test even a saint's patience (if one should happen to play). Some players will appreciate the harder puzzles, some will simply look up the solution online and some will simply give up.
  • The game truly is hard at times, becoming something of an on-going attrition war.
  • The monster AI is vulnerable to kiting. Really vulnerable.

Wrapping It Up

The game design gives the players just enough to play. Just enough UI, just enough RPG elements and just enough of the new mixed with the mostly familiar. Players are not invited to peer into the under-the-hood systems and this helps keep the immersion level high. The various systems can be min/maxed of course, such is the nature of these type of systems, but this is expected - some players always will. But the point is, players don't NEED to min/max or even think about the numbers. It is enough just to play, just enough.

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