Legend of Grimrock 2
By: Keoni Eckinger
Reviewed on PC
My party of four traversed darkened passages filled with eldritch horrors, distant chittering, and scratching foretold battles to come. My will to persevere began to unravel as a claustrophobic oppressiveness soaked the experience. The heat of combat, the satisfaction of solving numerous puzzles resulting in the sense of wonder when I emerged from the depths, greeted by the vast sky. I found myself stranded on the Isle of Nex, and its various mysteries kept me committed to seeing the adventure through. Treasures long-hidden revealed themselves as I studied every square inch of this first-person, grid-based dungeon-crawler.
Finnish indie game developer, Almost Human released Legend of Grimrock in April 2012 to nearly universal positivity. Grimrock 1 being their first release, fans and critics were surprised by the quality of work that the small team achieved. Billed as a successor by the developers to 1987’s Dungeon Master on the Atari ST, the gameplay in Grimrock would not only satisfy those nostalgic for the old-school dungeon-crawler genre but modernize it for current generations. Grimrock largely succeeded in these endeavors by asking players to explore a massive nine-story dungeon, a sense of foreboding with every floor explored, real-time combat that demanded focus from the player to succeed, and rock-solid difficulty. While the implementation of these gameplay-systems was an achievement in itself, many critics decried a lack of visual diversity in the levels; players spent the entirety of Grimrock in caves and grey dungeons. In October 2014, Legend of Grimrock 2 released and improved the franchise in every regard, namely the environments and enemy variety.
Grimrock 2 starts in much the same fashion as its predecessor, sparse on story details. Your party of prisoners is in transit to a clandestine location when your ship runs aground in a thunderstorm. Story details are cryptic and mostly delivered via letters written by the hooded Island Master, often sprinkling information about the Isle or where you should go next. Your understanding of the story is dependent on your attention to detail and willingness to engage with more peripheral systems. Some may feel that Grimrock 2 misses a few beats for the less pronounced story; I respect this about Grimrock. It let me play and decide if the world was fascinating enough to delve deeper into lore rather than inundating me with unnecessary cutscenes.
Clicking ‘New Game’ will prompt you to create your party of four or take the pre-built characters. I found the already made characters deficient in the late game on Normal difficulty; you’ll have a better time if you focus on a custom party. Fans of D&D and old-school RPGs should find something to love, with five races, seven classes, and an additional 16 skills to advance on your journey — there’s a wealth of options here. With multitudes of party builds, strategies could prove overwhelming for newcomers, and it becomes clear before the game even begins that Grimrock 2 will challenge you. I advise you to focus your skill points, don’t fall victim to the allure of spreading them across too many different skills, or you’re going to have a rough time. Your best bet is to create a well-rounded party suited to varied tasks and combat tactics. You move on a grid, one square at a time, and your prisoners are divided between frontline and backline positions in the space you occupy. The idea is to keep your meatheads upfront to deal and soak up damage while your backline focuses on other methods of damage. My party consists of a Minotaur barbarian named Lofi in the front-left position; his duties are simple, smash. In the front-right is my Insectoid battle-mage, Cadoc; he mostly focuses on using the rune-board to cast spells with the added option to use light melee weapons if things become dire. Reserving the back-left for my Ratling rogue, Aewern, an expert in the use of light weapons, she’s skilled enough to stab and poke from the backline. Last but not least, in the back-right spot is Unatar, a Lizardman with a penchant for tomahawks and throwing stars; he also dabbles in the fine art of potion brewing. Party creation isn’t unique to Grimrock 2, but I thoroughly enjoyed developing these characters; the difficulty is such that you’ll shout their names in glee when they destroy a formidable enemy or curse them when they fail to hit their targets.
Grimrock 2 encourages you to explore — unlike its predecessor, in which players would progress linearly — there are few places you can’t visit immediately. This kind of freedom fosters an incredible sense of discovery. Even when I wandered somewhere out of my depth, there was still a sense of excitement when I used Grimrock’s handy map editor to note the spot for later reconnoitering. Visual diversity is a real high point, as Grimrock 2 will send you to murky swamps, towering castles, and pyramids. The denizens of said locales always proved intimidating as the enemy roster encompasses a wide swath of typical fantasy fare and some genuinely creative enemy designs. Ranging from giant spiders to a particularly stout little fellow that can only be described as a Leprechaun; he’ll show up intermittently to ruin your day.
Grimrock is getting up there in age; it speaks volumes to its developers’ quality that it still looks as good as it does. Taking an extra minute to admire the environment, it became apparent that a tremendous amount of work went into making The Isle of Nex, at one moment a severely hostile place, and in another a serenely beautiful world that beckons exploration.
Prepare to fight, and prepare to reload your game; Grimrock 2 is unapologetic in its old-school nature. Stepping on a seemingly harmless pressure plate might open a locked gate, or it could release a dozen enemies into your vicinity. Even though movement occurs on a grid, combat occurs in real-time, so positioning is critical as enemies will try to flank and outmaneuver your team. Becoming boxed in at all angles is usually the kiss of death. Attacking by clicking weapon icons in the bottom right of the screen takes some adjustment; I was overwhelmed in early encounters as I came to grips with casting spells on the rune-board, which requires careful input to cast. There’s a kind of cautious rhythm in the heat of combat, almost like a dance when things go well. It took me hours mastering the balance and trepidation necessary to survive, and the frenetic decision making required to surmount the difficulty. Thankfully, Grimrock 2 lets you save whenever you like.
When you’re not busy plunging spider-infested pits or trudging through murky bogs, you’ll be solving puzzles. The solutions are seldom apparent and occasionally hidden in letters you may have picked up hours prior, so be careful what you decide to trash for more inventory space. Most puzzles resolved logically and felt rewarding to complete even when their completion took me longer than I’d care to admit. However, one or two of these challenges required a degree of trial and error, leading to more time spent reloading than playing.
Grimrock 2 maintains a focused adherence to its intentions as an old-school throwback with modern design. Combat is thrilling, requiring quick thinking and reflexes from its player. Its fantastic locations beg exploration and discovery, from dank caves to sunny beaches. Questions arise about the places you discover while never intruding on the gameplay experience. Frustratingly, some puzzles are downright maddening to solve and leave me wishing they were cut altogether. In summary, Grimrock 2 is lonely, claustrophobic, and demands a player’s determination; that’s an excellent thing.
After my last review, I went back and forth on what game I should review next. My proclivities are to gravitate to newer games, and I was hesitant to write about such an old game, but upon replaying it, I quickly realized what makes this game so unique and why it’s important to discuss. This article is the first part of a larger project I’m working on, where I’ll look at older games of varying levels of popularity. Stay tuned, and thanks for taking the time to read this piece. For better or worse, I poured my heart into its creation. Please feel free to comment or ask me questions. I’d enjoy hearing what you’re doing to battle the encroaching darkness; what are you listening to, playing, reading? If you’d like to donate to my Patreon so I can keep doing this, I’d greatly appreciate it.