The difference between clever and cunning.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Legend of Grimrock Review

Computer RPG’s have changed dramatically since they first emerged in the eighties. The first entries in signature series like Wizardry, and Dungeon Master were shaped as much by technical limitations as by design choices.  These games were classics in their own time and are fondly remembered today, but unfortunately they have not aged particularly well. For better or worse game design and player expectations have changed dramatically, and the hardware limits that shaped the industry at its birth have long been exceeded. The brutal difficulty and obtuse design decisions of early RPG’s make them inaccessible to most modern audiences.

Wayback Machine

Legend of Grimrock is the first game released by Finnish indie studio Almost Human. Grimrock successfully embraces both the style and spirit of those earliest RPG’s while being highly playable. The game is a triumph of accessibility, retaining what made old school dungeon crawlers fun while presenting an interface and difficulty curve in line with the best of modern gaming conventions. 

Grimrock takes place entirely within the confines of the cloud piercing titular Mt. Grimrock. Periodically small groups of prisoners are given a royal pardon, taken to the top by airship, and tossed down a pit into the monster infested, trap riddled labyrinth below. None are ever seen again, and your little band is next.

Dungeon Crawling Fools

Character creation is quick, painless, and more or less intuitive. You create a party of four from a handful of options like burly minotaurs, sneaky lizard men, and the classic triumvirate of fighter/mage/thief.  After a brief and beautifully illustrated intro sequence your party is dumped into the upper levels of the mountain with nothing to lose but their lives and nowhere to go but down. 

It's not an RPG without animated skeletons in it somewhere.

The mountain’s dungeons are built along a grid pattern a la Dungeon Master and other similar classics. You can even turn off the handy automap and chart the levels yourself with graph paper, if you’re so inclined.  Movement is by discrete squares, one square at a time. Your understandably anxious party sticks together in a two by two formation that occupies a single square, which you control from a slightly abstract first person perspective. The characters in front can attack with short range melee weapons while those in the rear are free to sling spells and arrows from relative safety.

The interface is intuitive and almost entirely mouse driven. Everything happens in real time, including combat. When some horrible beastie comes scuttling out of the dark you right click on your characters equipped weapons to attack while maneuvering the entire party around with the keyboard. You can toss and place any object you can pick up. Sadly there are no landmines, but any object can be flung at foes and heavier ones will do damage. 

Short Rations

Grimrock is pleasingly challenging but never unfair. It will never, for example, trap you in a room full of poison gas with no way out because you missed a hidden switch two levels ago. Food, light, and carrying capacity are all limited and must be carefully considered and constantly managed. Given that you’re trapped deep in the bowels of a hellish murder-mountain there are no shops, towns, or friendly NPC’s to be found so scavenging is a must. If you're willing search your environment and use your brain you can find what you need and more.

Voices in your dreams guide you ever downward.

Early on your band of prisoners must rely on rocks and fists just to defend themselves. The rusting swords and rotting leather armor you’d throw away in other games is desperately needed survival gear inside Grimrock. Most enemies only drop chunks of edible monster flesh if they leave behind anything useful at all. You’ll be glad when you can finally equip everyone with a pair of raggedy pants, much less magic swords and plate mail.

The game’s narrative is spare but effective. There are no info-dumps or exposition laden cutscenes. Notes left by previous explorers and a mysterious voice that visits you in dreams of grinding gears draw you deeper and deeper into the mountain. 

Sound design is likewise lean but well designed. Aside from the main menu there is very little music. The ambient background sounds of the dungeon are delightfully spooky, punctuated by what sound like distant howls, faint whispering, and the hum of hidden machinery. You can usually hear monsters moving around long before you run into them, and the click of panels or grinding sound of a wall sliding back heralds the discovery of a new secret or a dangerous ambush. 

Crab Battle Shuffle

Combat is a savage but oddly formal dance. Like your own party monsters are restricted to grid-based movement and cannot move or attack diagonally. Mobility is essential. Ranged attacks can and should be dodged simply by side-stepping out of the way. Armor and defensive skills and spells help, but Grimrock is built around the expectation that the player will be moving the party around to minimize the number of hits they take. Just standing toe to toe with the tougher monsters and bashing away will get everyone killed in a hurry. 

Ice spells freeze enemies like this Cave Crab solid.

Sometimes monsters are polite enough to file down a narrow corridor into the blades of your armored front rank warriors but you can’t depend on it. Bigger fights are frantic brawls that have you dodging, spinning, and hacking away, desperately trying to land hits and dodge attacks while not getting flanked or surrounded. It’s critical to avoid exposing your more vulnerable rear support characters to monster teeth and claws. 

All characters require a short rest after attacking, varying by weapon speed and skills. This creates a natural rhythm of darting in to make attacks and leaping away to avoid retaliation. If you need to swap weapons, chug a healing potion, or change ammo types you’ll do it while the monsters are still gnawing away at you. Anyone clamoring for hotkeys or a turn-based combat mode is missing the point. The challenge of Grimrock’s combat comes from juggling attacks, movement, spell casting, and inventory management all at once, all in real time. 

Spell casting requires punching in a specific combination of runes on a simple 3x3 grid. It’s a workable system and it’s fairly intuitive to figure out the combination of new spells as you unlock them. Some sort of spell book that recorded the combinations you’ve already discovered wouldn’t have gone amiss, but you can always note them down by hand and any one mage isn’t going to unlock more than a handful spells over the course of the game. 

Something's always scuttling out of the dark to turn you inside-out.
Few combat spells require more than two runes but casting still requires more mouse clicks and attention than just swinging a weapon. The correct combination must be punched in every time single time you want to cast a spell. The mechanics mean it’s difficult to play effectively with more than one mage in your party. Spells are potentially very powerful though, so this isn’t unreasonable from a balance standpoint.

Devices in the Dark

Puzzles are the finely crafted core of the game’s challenge. The developers continually come up with interesting ways to use and combine the basic elements at their disposal. Buttons, switches, pressure pads, and teleporters are all put to good use. The puzzles are less in the abstract vein of Myst and more along the lines of the tactile challenges of Portal. Disarming a trap or unlocking a door isn’t a matter of having a thief with the right skills. You, the human player, need to find that hidden button or throw those switches into the right combination. 

Grimrock does a good job of slowly teaching you the rules that it operates by and sticking to them over the course of the game. A combination of careful exploration, observation, and logic usually get you through, and it’s immensely rewarding when everything finally “clicks” and the way forward slides open.  I’d encourage you to resist the temptation to use a walk-through, although I’m forced to admit I got stuck once or twice and needed a hint. 

Even with it's limited tile set Grimrock manages a desolate and spooky atmosphere.

There are also dozens of optional secret areas hidden throughout the mountain, full of valuable food, weapons, and other supplies. Few of them are ever accessed the same way twice. You’ll need a sharp eye and a keen mind to find them all, plus the patience to check hundreds of wall segments for hidden buttons.
Last Torch

Grimrock’s gameplay elements are deliberate and mostly carefully considered, but there are a few missteps.  Most of these are oddities related to character development. For example in Grimrock ranged attacks, be they arrows, spells, or flung rocks, always hit whatever is in front of the party. You can’t miss with a bow unless the monster steps out of the way. Strength boosts both melee and ranged damage while Dexterity, the traditional ranged attacker attribute, affects only melee accuracy and defense. 

Each class only has a few skills, but points to improve them must be spent with care.

Why is it then that dumping points into the archery skill improves Dexterity, a stat that archers counter intuitively have almost no use for? It feels like someone missed a memo somewhere. Of course Grimrock isn’t the kind of game that requires perfectly optimized characters to survive. Victory in combat is at least as dependent on the player’s manual skill and what weapons and supplies they’ve wrested from the dungeon. 

I feel like a bit of a jerk for even raising this point, but Grimrock is also a strictly linear game without a lot of replay value. This is less a flaw and more the game’s own meticulously put together and never randomized nature. It’s important to understand that Grimrock is not a “Roguelike”, and will always be laid out the same each time. Once you’ve solved the dungeons cleverly constructed puzzles, survived its traps, and uncovered its secrets once they’re unlikely to be as absorbing a second time around. 

This accusation feels unfair, not the least because Grimrock offers at least a strong 10-15 hours of high quality gameplay at a more than reasonable indie game price. It’s unlikely that the average player will find all the secrets and goodies in a single play-through and there are plenty of valid party builds to try. There’s also a neat unlockable easter egg mode that can make for an interesting and challenging replay. 

Release the Kraken!

Finally the developers are hard at work on a very cool looking level editor which they plan to release for free. This is an excellent decision and will do wonders for the game’s longevity and community. The engine is rock solid and perfectly suited for its intended purpose of dungeon crawling. I’m already looking forward to seeing what sort of deathtraps the fan community is able to create. 

Reasons to play: Smoothly and enjoyably meshes old school design with modern hardware and sensibilities. Clever, satisfying puzzles. Challenging but absolutely fair. 

Reasons to pass: A few odd systemic choices for character attributes and skills. Very linear, with low replayability.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Loadout Interview

Mark Nau is the creative director at Edge of Reality, a venerable and largely console focused studio with a release history going back to the Nintendo 64. Mark himself has worked on everything from Spiderman games and the Call of Duty franchise to quirkier fair like the 1998 Hack-And-Slasher Die by the Sword. Mark has graciously agreed to talk with us for a bit about their upcoming fast-faced, highly customizable, free-to-play shooter Loadout
True machismo needs no body armor

Tell us a little bit about Loadout. From the description it sounds like the highly customizable weapons are the stars of game.

Absolutely. That’s the centerpiece right there. Players can assemble all these different crazy weapon pieces together to make any weapon they want.  And I’m not talking about just little number tweaks, either. I’m talking about “Hey I just made a sniper rifle that can shoot cluster-fire proximity mines!”

Many of Edge of Reality’s previous projects have been franchise based, with a single player emphasis. What made you guys decide to tackle a free-to-play shooter?

We’ve got an opportunity now to make a game we love. This game from start to finish was what we wanted to make. The team is making the game the way they want it to be made, because this is our baby. We’re making a kick-ass, high-action, multiplayer shooter with this outrageous weapon customization. And we’re doing it on our own.

Free-to-play is a great way an independent studio like us can fund an awesome game like Loadout and get it directly to the players.

You can only model so many AK-47s.
What has most surprised you about developing a game like Loadout? For example were there any gameplay or design issues that came as a complete surprise?

When we were floating the idea of allowing players to make their own weapons from parts, with like a ka-zillion possible crazy combinations. The designers were all “This is awesome and fantastic and totally horrifying, all at the same time.” We thought we might have to back off, or severely limit the scope of creativity. But no. It’s full-on weapon invention. I’m amazed the team pulled it off, but it’s in there.

As Creative Director, what sort input do you get on game development? Do you wrangle other developers, do design work yourself, or some combination thereof?

I’m the head of the design department at Edge. My style is to find out places that obstacles exist and try to kick them down so the team can do its work. All the stuff in Loadout, that’s 100% the people on the team deciding how to make a great game.

Fiery death is the best death.

Monetization of free-to-play games is a tricky and sometimes controversial issue. Can you share anything about how you plan to make Loadout fun and accessible when played for free while still tempting players to drop actual cash?

We’ve got a list of principles for monetization for Loadout. #1 is “The free player has an awesome time, feels like we’re treating him fairly, and tells all his friends that Loadout is the game to be playing.” Other games have shown that if you make a great game and people love it, they will be willing to pay money for cool extras, to show support, and to fine-tune their equipment. You don’t need a pay-to-win sledgehammer to get people to chip in.

Just from watching the videos many of the weapon types look exotic and quite creative. I saw electric beams, remote control missiles and scuttling explosive payloads, to name a few.  Just for fun, do you have a favorite weapon component or combination?

I sure do! We even make “What’s your Loadout” video clips and post them on our YouTube channel. I just got done making a gun I call “Blue Balls,” because it shoots a huge scatter of bouncing blue balls that careen all around the level. It’s terrible for precise shooting or wide-open spaces, but total magic for close-quarters spray-and-pray.

Thank you very much for your time. Best of luck with Loadout and your future projects!
You can check http://www.loadout.com/ for future update and potential Beta access.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.