The Legend of Grimrock is a cautionary tale about crime, punishment, and the power of teamwork. Like some kind of crazy mashup of The Hobbit and Prison Break, four alleged criminals get thrown into a mountain that’s meant to serve as their place of exile, only to find that the mountain is hollow, filled with cunning traps, teeming with horrific monsters, and arranged in a neat floor and grid system for easy cartography.
These four intrepid criminals decide to cast off their past life of crime or completely inappropriate incarceration (never really clear which) to work together to reach the bottom of Grimrock and find Smaug’s treasure and peace for Sara Tancredi. I mean freedom. I’m pretty sure it’s actually freedom. I don’t know; I didn’t finish the game in three hours!
I had played Legend of Grimrock before, for probably about a half hour, and dubbed it too hard. My old save had been lost to the Giant Grimrock Snails, so I started anew with conviction and hope and constant reminders to myself to save more. And it worked!
I’m sure I still didn’t get too far. A Grimrock scholar could probably tell you that the real game doesn’t start until the fifth floor, and I only got most of the way through the second floor. Still, I was enjoying myself much more than I had when I first tried the game. I had learned how to avoid dying – don’t stand in one place like a lump – and had learned the movement and attack patterns of enemies such that I even survived an encounter that made me shout an expletive (quietly) when I first saw them appear on screen.
Now, I don’t want to discount my initial impression, all those years ago (sidebar: I just looked to make sure, and as this was released in 2012, years may indeed be accurate) of the game being overly difficult and punishing. Maybe I was in a better mood this time or determined to push through or being more cautious when running around the dungeons. I’m not sure exactly what changed in my play style (as I’m fairly certain the game did not change much), but something clicked for me this time.
Grimrock is a game about controls. Sure, there’s inventory management and gear to find and XP and leveling up and some weird story that shows up in vague dialogue lines on a weird gear screen when the party sleeps. But the essence of the game – its core truth – is all of that facade crammed into the truly retro control scheme. That’s the game – learning the control scheme, committing it to a kind of muscle memory, and executing when it matters, when a group of enemies is converging on the party.
The controls are thus: WASD moves the party one tile forward, left, backwards, or right. Q rotates left 90 degrees. E rotates right 90 degrees. The four party members are set in a 2×2 grid, with those in the back not being able to use close-range melee weapons. Mouse clicks on the items held in either hand of a character uses that item. The mage has a more complex casting system which entails clicking a free hand of his, selecting some runes that make up a spell, and then clicking a “cast” button. I’m certain that this mirrors the control scheme of some old game that’s really good that everyone played as a kid, and if this were Buzzfeed’s Name That Control Scheme quiz, I would know the name of that game, but it’s not and I don’t.
That’s it. That’s what you do for hours and hours, working these four distinct characters that all have different items and stats (though all contained in the single tile your party is currently standing on) through dungeons, past locked doors, and overcoming a multitude of enemies. It’s about finding the dance that enables your party to be facing the monster so you can continue to hit it, while turning and backing away just enough to be out of its range. It’s about understanding which monsters have ranged attacks, or how quickly certain monsters move and turn.
Some people would find that enjoyable. Those people could probably engross themselves for days and weeks in Grimrock. Those people would probably happily open the dungeon editor and create their own dungeons or play the variety of downloadable user-created content that could make this game last for quite a while. While I wouldn’t necessarily count myself in that group, Grimrock does hold appeal. The second time around, it made me feel smarter, made me feel like I had actually acquired some kind of secret sauce at playing and winning this game.
Of course, there are people who won’t like Grimrock, and they have every reason not to. The movement is single-tile-based yet the combat is real-time, which is kind of like being in a D&D campaign where the dungeon master is constantly moving the monsters even though you could swear you have initiative. The controls intentionally go against the modern way of controlling multiple characters, where each attack must be individually clicked and each spell manually cast.
It’s easy to make mistakes, but that’s the challenge of Grimrock. The enemies I encountered weren’t particularly intelligent and it took quite a few hits to down my party members. My beloved criminals perish because I turned instead of strafing or because I tried to cast a poison cloud but instead used a wrong rune and the spell fizzled. It’s my fault, my fat-fingering of the keys, my forgetfulness of the layout of the dungeon.
When it doesn’t work, it feels frustrating and unfair and makes me want to write a strongly worded letter to the developers about just designing a better control scheme for their game. But when it does – and it does so much more often – it feels decisive and important and a bit like I’m playing a game from back when computer games came on 6 floppy disks and being up at 10 PM was considered a real treat.