”Mount Grimrock: A towering spire looms above the clouds, a weathered rock that has stood tall for ages, longer than histories of men have been written down. It is a desolate place now, only remembered when things need to be discarded and forgotten.”
If anything proves that the formula perfected by classics like Ultima Underworld can still work in more modern times, Finnish indie developers Almost Human’s Legend of Grimrock is it – and I say this as someone who previously had little to no interest in the genre. Legend Of Grimrock is a first-person dungeon-crawling grid-based RPG (phew, what a mouthful) originally released back in 2012. And it’s glorious.
At the start of the game, you’re greeted with the sight of an airship carrying a group of prisoners to the top of the titular Mount Grimrock. The prisoners, sentenced simply by “the court”, are apparently there after committing crimes against the King, sentenced to be thrown inside a deep pit atop the mountain. Once the prisoners are inside Grimrock their crimes are paid for; the only problem is that no prisoner who has suffered this fate has bested the mountain and escaped to claim their freedom.
Once your party is sealed inside the mountain, it’s your task to lead them through the various levels of Grimrock’s dungeon, guided only by a strange voice heard in your sleep which promises a way out. Along the way, you’ll occasionally stumble upon strange notes left by a previous wanderer named Toorum. Toorum’s notes provide clues to help you solve certain puzzles, hints at the whereabouts of various secret equipment stashes, and relay his experiences in the dungeon and how it tremors occasionally. Odd? Perhaps, but all that matters now for your group of prisoners is escaping this wretched rock.
From the outset you are confronted with a few choices. There are multiple difficulty settings, and you’re given the option of either using a predetermined party, creating your own, or importing a group of prisoners from a previous saved game. There’s also the choice to play in “Old School Mode”, which does away with auto-mapping and demands you to arm yourself with a stack of grid-paper and pencils to map out the world. The game’s manual even includes a printable grid sheet, to encourage you to chart your own way through the game without assistance.
Decide to create your own party, and you’re met with a host of options. The members of your party can be Humans, Minatours, Lizardmen and Insectoids (rather than the usual Dwarf, Elf and Orc choices, which is nice), and you then need to assign them each a class (Fighter, Mage or Rogue – a bit more traditional). After assigning a handful of points into your various stats, you then get to choose 2 traits for each character. Traits confer certain bonuses such as increased resistance, toughness or combat skill.
Once you have your rag-tag group of prisoners, a grand combination of puzzle-solving, exploration and combat awaits you. The combat in Legend of Grimrock actually feels pretty good. After each attack (activated by a click of a button) a brief cooldown phase is initiated before you can attack again. Battles speed up slightly and get more complicated when you start juggling between your 4 party members’ attacks, and the fact that the battles occur in real-time adds a sense of urgency that keeps the blood flowing and the heart racing. Magic is also an option, and the game employs a pretty unique system to handle it. Spells are cast by selecting specific combinations of runes on a 3×3 grid that appears over your wizard prisoner’s portrait once told to cast. Depending on the combination of runes selected, your mage could be throwing fireballs, raising various elemental shields or even turning invisible. Potion crafting is also available to the mage and can be a very useful tool for your party. As a whole, it’s not easy however – you’ll need to track down the right ingredients, find various scrolls and combine them properly to achieve the desired effect.
Almost Human achieve a pretty good balance when it comes to the difficulty curve. Combat isn’t a major problem to start with, however after a few battles and enough time has passed for you to get comfortable you’ll soon find it more complicated, as you start taking on multiple enemies and strategic movement on the grid-like map as well as timing your attacks, and swiftly casting spells becomes a necessity.
Party members gain experience from slaying enemies, allowing them to increase their skills – ultimately enhancing combat with new abilities and spells. You’ll also come across different equipment during your time inside the dungeon, obtained through exploration and puzzle solving – Some of the puzzles found throughout Legend of Grimrock are not required to progress through the story and are completely optional, however completing them will grant you some pretty cool pieces of equipment as a reward. As with the combat, puzzles initially start off gentle – weigh down a pressure plate, find a hidden lever, etc – but gradually ramp up in difficulty. Towards the end of the game there are some wonderful chin-stroking moments that will cause you to exercise your gray muscles.
The setting and general visual feel in Legend of Grimrock is dark and eerie, and it’s pretty clear right off the bat that something sinister is afoot. The ancient stone walls, thick moss, overgrown roots, flickering torches and curious enemies (giant mushroom men?) are presented in crisp graphics that successfully transport you into the prisoner’s grim situation. The sound is very well done and the strange voice that visits you in your sleep, coupled with the odd earthquake and the menacing sounds of the dangerous creatures around you, builds an unbelievable amount of tension. Legend of Grimrock doesn’t feature in-game music – and it actually aids the feeling of isolation when playing – but the main menu and introduction theme is enjoyable and gets you in the mood for an epic adventure.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the game has extensive modding support, with an easy-to-use editor allowing you to create your own mini-dungeons or even entire campaigns. Dungeons are easy to map out and creatures can be dropped into place and have their AI parameters altered, while you also have the freedom to come up with your own devious puzzles and traps. Steam Workshop support also means it’s a breeze to upload your creations and download new campaigns, greatly aiding longevity.
Legend of Grimrock is a thoroughly enjoyable old-school experience. Although it can be ruthlessly difficult at times, it’s well worth a playthrough – if only to try out an advanced and modern way of how games used to be played, or to use the Dungeon Editor to build your own adventures and challenges for your friends to solve. A sequel to Legend of Grimrock is currently in development – more about that can be read about that here – and if the first game is anything to go by, it’s something to look forward to.