The Legend of Grimrock
Publisher: Almost Human
Platform: PC exclusive
UK Price (as reviewed): £10.99 Incl. VAT
US Price (as reviewed): $14.99 Excl. Tax
As much as we're partial to fancy, new graphics and stunningly original ideas, there's also a lot to be said for games which focus on refining what already exists or reviving ideas which others let peter out. The Legend of Grimrock fits firmly into this latter category, resurrecting the tile-based dungeon crawlers of old and channelling their spirit into a shiny new host - and it's utterly brilliant.
It's also incredibly easy to explain; if you've ever played the likes of Dungeon Master or Bloodwych then you need no more explanation at all. If not, then know that Grimrock sets you down in a massive, maze-like dungeon and tasks you with having to escape past legions of monsters and fields of trapdoors. Movement is regular and gridlike, with only 90 degree turns possible for both you and your enemies. All you have to do on each level is find the way forwards to the next one.
The story is similarly simple, with you cast as four convicted criminals who are chained together and cast into Grimrock Dungeon as punishment for crimes unsaid. Find your way out and be pardoned, else die inside at the hands of the mushroom men, ogres, skeletons and wyverns which infest the place. There's little interaction with your characters to complicate things beyond that and, though the plot does develop a little as you venture forth, you're pretty much a silent protagonist solely focused on staying alive.
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As a framework for adventure, this admittedly doesn't sound riveting - silent characters and a restrictive, regularised interface - but Grimrock is also made elegant and streamlined by its simplicity. It's inherently accessible and quick to pick up and play, oozing in atmosphere and desperation. Exploring the dim dungeon halls, totally clueless as to what lies around the next corner or how far is left to go before the end, it's impossible not to feel some of the same dread that your heroes would.
The finer details of Grimrock's design accentuate this fear brilliantly too, driving further uncertainty and vulnerability into the game over time. You need to maintain your heroes' energy and hunger levels as well as their general health, for example, and while food is generally abundant on the standard difficulty levels there's still the looming threat of starvation.
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Most pressingly, you also need to look after lighting supplies, grabbing torches out of wall brackets and carrying them with you to light your way. Over time the lights will sputter and die, leaving you blanketed in total darkness unless you have a backup to pull instead. Again, the genius of this is that it still ups the tension even though there's a plethora of torches to had - we found ourselves continuing to worry even with all four characters weighed down by spares.
What's more is that, if you're resolutely unshaken by the prospect of starving lazily in the dark, Legend of Grimrock also offers an Old-School Mode which caters just to brave souls like you. Applied as a toggle over the top of the difficulty setting of your choice, Old-School Mode removes Grimrock's normal auto-mapping functions so that you'll either have to fumble through corridors blindly or break out the squared paper.
That alone is why Legend of Grimrock is awesome, we reckon - as it's a mode and style of scalability that all too few games would dare offer these days. Grimrock may be accessible and easy to understand, but it's achieved that without having to compromise or surrender any of its premise to the push of accessibility.