ARPGs are enjoying something of a resurgence in recent times, with a number of excellent titles in the genre released over the last several years. Torchlight 2 was excellent, Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls was superb, and there have been plenty of other noteworthy additions to the genre too; the free-to-play Path of Exile took more of an MMO approach, and The Adventures of Van Helsing brought an aspect of Tower Defense to the genre – an innovation looking to be continued by Mighty Quest for Epic Loot.
While all of this has been going on, Crate Entertainment has been quietly working away on developing Grim Dawn, another new entry to the genre, but one with plenty to like about it and to make it stand out in a crowded arena. After a successful Kickstarter, the game has been available to play via Steam Early Access for some time now, and it’s shaping up rather well.
Made up of former Iron Lore team members – the studio which created Titan Quest, another excellent game – Crate Entertainment’s debut game Grim Dawn promises dozens of hours of clicking on monsters and hoovering up loot – except here, loot isn’t the primary focus. The team’s foremost goal is not to create a game that acts as little more than a grind for better gear, but one which offers choice and consequence in its quests and your interactions with the characters that populate its world. It’s a lofty ambition, but if they manage to pull it off in the final product, then the genre could have another shining star.
Any ARPG lives or dies based on how satisfying its combat is. Thankfully, Grim Dawn performs well in this department – monsters recoil under the weight of each blow, sound effects are suitably weighty, while fresh kills either ragdoll across the screen or explode upon death in a shower of blood. All of this is driven by an enhanced version of the tech that powered Titan Quest. Despite its venerable age – Titan Quest was released nearly eight years ago now – the folks at Crate Entertainment have worked hard to ensure it has kept up with the times. The result is that Grim Dawn is a game which is undeniably pretty – even despite its bleakness.
Whereas Titan Quest was largely bright and colorful, Grim Dawn definitely takes the first half of its moniker to heart – we’re very much in the realm of dark fantasy here, albeit one flecked through with a strong feeling of Victoriana. Everything in the game has a worn, dirty look: junk is strewn across the landscape in giant piles, buildings are almost always in a poor state of repair, and even your equipment looks rusted and old. The unrelenting darkness of tone can sometimes threaten to become a bit too much – similarly to how it does in Path of Exile – and you might occasionally wish that that Crate would let up the foreboding just for a few minutes and engage in a bit of levity. Still, the game has a way to go yet before it’s finished, so it’s entirely possible that the developer has some tricks up its sleeve that it isn’t playing yet.
An important facet of any ARPG is its leveling system. With Grim Dawn, Crate has taken its cue from its previous work on Titan Quest. There are four different classes to choose from – Soldiers are your standard brute-force melee class; Demolitionists prefer a more ranged approach, attacking with pistols, blunderbusses and other firearms; Nightblades are assassins who cast illusions and prefer to strike with stealth; while the Occultist or a fairly standard ranged caster. There is also one more class under development, but it’s not playable in the game’s current build.
Where things get interesting is that upon reaching level 10, your character can choose a second class. You can then invest points in the skill trees of either, allowing you explore the best combinations of abilities – something which should be heaven for theory-crafters. Each class has a number of different skill trees too, so you have plenty of choice of where to invest your skill points. Where the game should come into its own, as with any game of this kind, is in multiplayer. Sadly the feature isn’t implemented yet, but there’s certainly plenty of opportunity for the versatile class system to provide some interesting match-ups, so it’s something to look forward to in a future update.
So far the game consists of the first two acts, making up around 15 hours of gameplay, depending on your skill level. While it’s commendable that Crate has sought to make the environments expansive and open, the problem caused by this approach is that it’s often easy to get lost, or find yourself wandering aimlessly in a large area with no idea of where you should be going. More often than not, you’ll simply happen upon your objective by accident; while a small marker does appear on the minimap when you’re close to your objective, it’s only really a help if you’ve managed to stumble into the right area to begin with.
It’s also a game that’s often punishingly difficult, even on the lower settings. At the moment it feels rather stingy in how it gives out decent loot; at level 12, my character hadn’t even found a piece of shoulder armor to wear, and
much of my gear was still basic armor with no additional attributes. While the developers’ intention to move away from a genre that is so typically dominated by loot grinds is admirable, it feels that at present, they’ve gone too far the other way. Repeatedly dying simply because the game hasn’t decided to drop enough loot to make it a fair fight can get rather annoying.
Another complaint is that you’ll find yourself under attack from enemies that you can’t actually see. Grim Dawn has a lot of creatures with projectile attacks, and it often likes to throw them at you in groups. The only problem is that they’ll see you before you even know they’re there, and the range of their attacks is such that they can quickly whittle down your health in seconds if you’re not careful.
Still, these are easily-addressable issues; with some tweaking of loot drop-rates and some adjustments to enemy behavior or attack range, the kinks should be easily smoothed-out. And as the game is still in Alpha, there’s certainly plenty of time for Crate to do so.
Put those few issues to one side, and Grim Dawn is already plenty of fun to play. Combat feels satisfying, there’s plenty of versatility in its leveling system, and it’s attractive to look at. While it may be aesthetically as far from Titan Quest as you could imagine, it’s very much a spiritual successor when it comes to gameplay. It’s going to be interesting to see how the final game turns out.