It’s a terribly unique feeling, being trapped in a dungeon, uncertain of a way out, knowing your jailers absolutely don’t expect you to survive a day, the thought of your escape a laughing matter. It’s a guttural feeling of despair and stress, one that permeates your mind while tiptoeing through the dark, dank dungeon halls. It’s a feeling developer Almost Human’s dungeon-crawler Legend of Grimrock exceeds in instilling within the player. I felt a near constant strangling tension while playing Grimrock, followed by great elation upon surviving another floor and living to see another day. Legend of Grimrock is almost worth playing for this alone, but the classic design it emulates so well only serves to hold it back.
Legend of Grimrock puts you in control of four prisoners, crimes unknown, sent off to the dungeons of Grimrock, from which they are expected to never return. There’s little in the way of narrative here, but what’s there is unobtrusive, with a bit of mystery to kindle intrigue once in a while. The gameplay is in the style of a classic dungeon-crawler, reminiscent of Dungeon Master. You’ll first create your party of four, either manually or chosen from preset options. There are a few different classes and races to choose from, all of which are standard fare for a fantasy RPG.
The combat and movement in Grimrock are grid-based, allowing you to move one tile at a time and attack enemies directly in front of you. The interesting aspect comes in how the party is stationed, with two members in front and two in back, all occupying one tile. The party members in front bear the brunt of the damage and can attack enemies with melee, whereas the back are relegated to using ranged weapons or magic in order to take part in combat, which can make for some interesting combat strategies, although the enemy AI rarely presents a challenge. Grimrock is mostly enjoyable, but the age of its design sensibilities shows through often enough to keep it from being consistently fun.
There’s nothing much to speak of in terms of art direction or the soundtrack in Legend of Grimrock. The art is common fantasy fare, lacking unique style, and the enemies are largely unimaginative. The music isn’t anything to get excited about either. The soundtrack is forgettable, but the sound design of the monsters and the ambiance of the dungeon itself are alright. There’s a certain feeling that occurs when you can hear an enemy somewhere in the dungeon, but just don’t know where it is, that creates a palpable tension.
For all the enjoyment I got from Legend of Grimrock, I couldn’t shake the feeling there was a reason its forebears fell out of the public mindshare. There’s no denying Grimrock is lovingly and intelligently crafted, but even best design can’t overcome issues intrinsic to its basic nature. That Almost Human has modernised a classic dungeon-crawler to this extent is worth admiration, but the issues they had in their heyday were, unfortunately, not lost in translation.