After about 20 years, I have started playing a “dungeon crawler” game again. I really loved these in my teens, with titles like “Eye of the Beholder” (EOTB), “Wizardry VII” and of course “Might and Magic”. I played MM3 (Isles of Terra) so long that the game used to crash when my party of super-heroes entered the Arena, a training ground where they could train on actual monsters and gain experience.
Dungeon Crawler games are a subtype of Roleplaying game where you… well, crawl through dungeons. They probably spawned from the labyrinthian dungeon maps of the old “Advance Dungeons & Dragons” pen and paper RPG, and were spearheaded in the 80s and early 90s by SSI (Strategic Simulations, Inc.) who had at that time bought a full AD&D license to develop into computer games.
The SSI games were bulky. There were lots of stats and strategy involved, from character creation to the unwieldy combat system. I never liked the SSI games a lot, until EOTB came. “Eye of the Beholder” was a game of a new breed – more accessible to casual gamers (I guess one hour per day after school is casual), and graphically more interesting than the old generation. I played that game for hours on end.
Game mechanics in Dungeon Crawler games are straightforward. You walk through the dungeon with your party (the party composition is still – 20 years later in the MMORPG era – similar: Two tanks, a rogue, a dwarf warrior, a mage and a priest) and encounter monsters. They drop experience and items when killed. Some doors are open, some locked, some must be opened by solving puzzles. The deeper the party goes into the dungeon, the harder the monsters are to kill – until the boss encounter, which is usually the single most challenging fight in the game.
In the old days, we made maps with squared paper because automaps did not yet exist – every game with an automapping feature was regarded as a luxury. There were pages and pages of neatly-drawn maps in the tips and cheats section of computer games magazines. Oh, those times…
Fast forward 20 years.
Yesterday, I downloaded a new game called “Legend of Grimrock” from the Steam store; it set me back a mere 13.99€. Compared to fullprice games like EOTB, that’s a joke. Grimrock is true to the idea of a Dungeon Crawler, but it has vastly improved graphics and sound. After reading a couple of favorable reviews, I decided to try out for myself – after spending almost 150 hours of playtime on Skyrim (which is quite the opposite of a dungeon crawling game), the confined space and limited-choice gameplay mechanics of Grimrock were a welcome change.
Like its predecessors, Grimrock first lets you create your party. There is usually two members of the fighting caste, a ranger/rogue type and a caster involved. Stats are configurable as well as race and name, but if you want to jump right into the game, you can have a randomly generated, but balanced party.
After a short old-school drawn intro, the four prisoners are cast into the tunnel system in Mount Grimrock, a prison mountain fortress. And now the action starts.
You can walk and turn with the keyboard (WASD for the win). Turning is only possible in 90-degree angles and if you walk, you always take one step forward at a time (about 3 feet). Each character can equip one item in their left and right hand, respectively (such as a bow and arrows, or sword and shield as seen in the picture above).
Monsters come in all kinds of shapes and forms. So far, I have seen giant fungi, skeleton warriors and archers, spiders and other dungeon-dwellers. They are nicely animated, all in the old school of Eye of the Beholder (repeating animation cycles and not-lifelike behavior).
A big difference to its ancestors: Grimrock has a well-working automapping feature which really helps in the maze-like dungeons.
After the first levels, there are a lot of tricky fights that challenge your abilities of “crowd control” (a phrase from MMORPG lingo which roughly means (“line up monsters so you can finish them up one after another), “kiting” (run away from monsters so you can kill them with ranged weapons while they follow you) and character management.
Other features include a lot of interesting puzzles, including teleportation, clever use of monster traps and line-of-sight puzzles. Level 4 (which I currently play) is completely made up of those puzzles and gives a very challenging environment. Lots of fun!
The magic system involves spells being created with 9 different magic symbols and scrolls that tell you these spells. There are “magic bombs” for one-time use as well as wands, staffs and other accessoires. Of course, there are lots of items scattered in the dungeons that improve your heroes’ armor, fighting skills or simply provide food. Health, antivenom and other potions can be mixed with a simple interface and some ingredients also found in the dungeons.
All in all, I can wholeheartedly recommend “Legend of Grimrock” to everyone who wants to relive the old days of Eye of the Beholder and other dungeon crawling games. Go buy it, it is currently (July 10; availability may vary) on sale at gog.com for a mere $7.50 (Disclaimer: I have never bought there; buy on Steam if unsure).