When I say “Think back to what you were doing in 1992″ I fully expect most readers to say, “Uhm, wasn’t born yet.” This reminds me of how old I am, but nevermind. In 1992, I remember exactly what myself and Saik were doing. We were just starting secondary school. I also know what the 5 members of Raven Software were doing: they were busy creating the game that would introduce me to computer RPGs — Black Crypt.
Now I don’t think we actually got to play Black Crypt at release. I think it was a couple of years later we found a copy and sat down in Saik’s front room in front of his Amiga 500 and played our way through three floppy disks of pure gaming genius, charting our paths through the Tomb of the Four Heroes to prevent Esteroth Paingiver from breaking free and destroying the world. Black Crypt was a real gem at the time, controlling a Fighter, Mage, Druid and Cleric as they fought through twenty eight levels of the dungeon before the final confrontation, countering traps, defeating monsters and bosses, uncovering secrets, and even braving the underwater level which I remember fondly to this day.
It also gave me the Ring of Demajen, a magical ring that you could place in an alcove to disarm a particularly deadly trap, from which I took my online monicker.
In 1998, after I’d gotten my first PC, I heard rumours on the internet that Black Crypt was being remade for the PC. A two-level version was created, but it was never finished.
I played a variety of similar games over the years: Eye of the Beholder and Eye of the Beholder II: Legend of Darkmoon being the most notable. Eventually, though, games started becoming more open, bigger, more involving, more graphically exciting. I remember playing The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall to death in the last year of high school, and despite really enjoying it, never actually getting very far.
Plenty of RPGs have followed. Some good, some bad. Some memorable, many not. I’ve always remembered those early RPGs, though, so when I saw a trailer for Legend of Grimrock, it didn’t take me long to pull out my wallet and preorder the game.
Legend of Grimrock
In LoG, you control a party of four prisoners whose sins and crimes are forgiven the second they are thrown into the pit at the top of Mount Grimrock, a massive prison structure full of traps and riddles. I’ve not got very far into the game — I’ve just reached the fourth level of the dungeon, called The Archives — but already there are mysteries and a story to untangle. I can’t say it is going to win any prizes for storytelling, but that isn’t what matters here.
LoG is a dungeon crawler in the style of those early games mentioned above. Movement works on a tileset, using WASD to move forwards/back/strafe one tile per press, with Q and E turning you 90 degrees left or right respectively. In the bottom right corner of the screen you have your four character portraits, showing health and energy bars, as well as your characters’ two hands, in which weapons, shields, and other things can be equipped. To use a weapon, right click it. To cast a spell, right click your mage’s portrait and select a rune pattern from a grid of nine for the spell you want, then click the cast icon.
The game’s reliance on old school mechanics gives combat a very frantic feel and, if I’m honest, it’s a bit awkward for someone who suffers from RSI. Combat happens in real time, which means a lot of strafing, backpedalling, and trying to judge distances and whether a mob is in attack range or not.
Unlike Black Crypt and EotB, there is no healer class in LoG. Healing is done via a rest button, which leaves you open to attack should you rest somewhere foolish. There is also an alchemy system in game allowing you to mix up potions for your characters. While this is great in theory, this isn’t Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning where plants are everywhere. In LoG, I’ve frequently run into spiders who can quite easily poison you, but finding the ingredients to make the antivenom potions is pretty tricky. Poison and other conditions does wear off over time, but it also lasts a fair chunk of time: easily enough to kill one or more of your characters.
Death isn’t the end for your characters, however, as long as one remains. If that one prisoner can get back to one of the huge shiny blue chunks of crystal scattered infrequently around the dungeon, the game will save and resurrect everyone, as well as healing everyone up. It’s a relatively “new school” mechanic for what is quintessentially an old school game, but without any kind of healer class, it’s pretty much essential. There is no other form of resurrection that I’ve found so far, and if all characters die, it’s game over and time to reload a save.
Speaking of saving, the old school mantra of “save often!” is in maximum effect here. Even on normal difficulty, LoG is a challenging game. Spiders are utter bastards to defeat: they’re quick, and tend to come in packs. If you accidentally back yourself into a corner while backpedalling, expect to have to reload a save shortly.
But LoG has a lot going for it. It’s gorgeous, for a start, with crisp textures and wonderful lighting effects — going as far as actual gameplay mechanics where the torches you can carry around will actually burn out and plunge you first into half darkness, then extinguishing entirely and letting you wander round in pitch black. At least until you can find another wall sconce with a lit torch to steal.
The game has atmosphere in spades, and the sound effects are equally as effective as the graphics. The music on the title screen and the opening cutscene is nicely done, but there doesn’t seem to be any ambient music in the actual game itself — at least none I have yet discovered. Instead the dungeon levels are filled with the noise of flickering flames, your booted footsteps, the hum of nearby teleporters or scritching of nearby monsters. Directional sounds are actually a godsend here, as spatial awareness is absolutely vital. Hearing enemies behind a door before you open it has made a life or death difference.
As you can probably tell, I’m thoroughly enjoying Legend of Grimrock so far. It has nostalgia on its side. I can’t say it is the type of game that is going to appeal to a more modern audience, but you never know. It isn’t a game that holds your hand — although it does have an automapping feature which many of the older dungeon crawlers didn’t have. Mind you, you can turn that off in the options menu for a truly old school vibe.
Legend of Grimrock, from Almost Human software, is available now on Steam and GoG.com, or you can buy directly from the Legend of Grimrock website, which gets you both a standalone installer and a Steam key. It’s cheap as chips too: 10% off until the 18th of April takes it down to a mere £10.79. I recommend it.
For a closer look at LoG, be sure to check out TotalBiscuit’s “WTF IS…” of the game at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzIiXx-8BHc.