Today, I played Legend of Grimrock by Almost Human, and I can’t wait to talk about it — in short, it’s great! Before I get into the details, though, let me get the full disclosure out of the way: I definitely can’t pretend to be entirely unbiased about this. Two of the guys at Almost Human, Antti and Petri, are my former co-workers (whom I was sad to see go — but it’s hard to begrudge someone their desire to do their own thing). They’re both cool guys, and I know they’re very good at what they do, so obviously, I’m predisposed to liking their stuff.
This also explains how I ended up playing the game; last week, I asked Antti when I could see it, and he said “next week.” Sometimes it really is that simple.
The guys said I could talk about pretty much everything I saw. (We also discussed some of their future plans and stuff like that, but I will not share those here.) That kind of openness is cool and refreshing — not so much that they were willing to talk, because that’s just talking shop, but letting me talk about it public. I can’t help but think that on some level, that, perhaps more than anything else, is the difference between an indie developer and a developer like Remedy: while we certainly invite people to play our games when they’re in development, we swear them to secrecy for all sorts of reasons that can include things like maintaining our competitive advantage, marketing plans, publisher preferences, internal policies, all that stuff and more.
And I’m not complaining; I agree with those things. Making sure that nothing leaks is very, very important to us. But if your company consists of four guys running their own business, with development cycles that are months rather than years, beholden to nobody but themselves, they can do what they like. I don’t know if it’s better, necessarily; like everything else in life, it’s a trade-off… but there’s a lot to like about that.
Anyway, you don’t care, you want to hear about the game.
I played Grimrock for maybe an hour, an hour and a half, something like that, until I panicked when I encountered a big horde of spiders, got myself boxed in, and died: I was somewhere in the middle of the third dungeon level, and the guys said that they plan to have 15 of them. The levels tended to get bigger and more complex, the further I went (predictably, the first one was pretty simple); I wouldn’t be willing to draw any conclusions about the overall game time based on this. (Also, I’m a Dungeon Master veteran, so I got through a lot of puzzles pretty quickly, but I have no doubt that a novice would spend a lot more time figuring them out.)
And speaking of Dungeon Master… If you liked it way back in the day, chances are you’ll like Legend of Grimrock. It takes everything that was great about that game and makes it better, smoother, more modern — and when I say modern, I don’t mean “they’ve changed key elements but still like to throw out that name in the hopes that fans will buy it out of nostalgia.” But it looks much nicer, and more importantly, they’ve tried to make things more fun to play — let’s face it, 1987 wasn’t exactly the golden age of user interface design.
The backstory isn’t too complex: your party of four adventurers are thrown in prison, and they try to escape. Unfortunately, the prison itself is on top of Mt. Grimrock, and the only way out of there is to brave the dungeons and caverns that the mountain is riddled with in the hopes of finding a way out. There are four people in your party (I played with a default set of characters; you will be able to choose your favorites, or create your own, but that hadn’t been implemented yet). You start with literally nothing, and I don’t exaggerate much when I say that your first big triumph is finding some rocks you can throw.
Progressing in the game requires equipping the heroes with whatever items you can find, fighting monsters, and solving puzzles, some of which are obvious, others less so. Many of them require you to pay a lot of very close attention to your surroundings, spotting things that are out of place. Their first gameplay video will give you a pretty good idea of what’s in store:
This is definitely a game with an old school heart: movement happens on a grid, and you make 90 degree turns. Technically, this could be called an FPS game; in practice, this is game design that had its origin five years before Wolfenstein 3D. It worked then, and it works now. The great thing is, it doesn’t feel outdated; the basics may be old, but the execution is modern. There are things like mouselook, making it easier to examine your environment. It doesn’t hurt that everything is presented in beautiful 3D, complete with dynamic lighting.
And it plays well. It feels great. A part of it is that I love this type of game; it scratches that nostalgic itch for me. But it’s not just that; they’ve got a great balance between the combat and the puzzles, a lot of surprising moments. It feels a little faster than Dungeon Master did, which makes things feel tense and fun, especially when you’re fighting multiple opponents — you have to keep moving, otherwise they can hit you, but because you’re on a grid, it’s easy to get boxed in. Maneuvering so you can keep hitting the enemies but avoiding their attacks is a challenge. There’s something merciless about it — you have to stay on your toes, keep moving and striking. And just when you think you’re doing okay, that torch you’ve been carrying for a long while finally goes out, and you’re plunged into darkness. (It’s not quite as dark as it is in Dungeon Master; you can still get by, but good luck maintaining situational awareness in combat when that happens…)
The item selection is still very basic (the snails, for example, drop pieces of meat that don’t actually do anything yet), but the spellcasting works very well and is fun: there’s a set of runes that you can access if your mage has a staff, and by selecting a proper combination of runes, you can cast various spells. This happens in real time, so firing off a complex spell in the middle of a fight is quite a challenge. Luckily, you can input the runes ahead of time (they’ll stay selected even if you close the casting menu for a moment), which is a big help.
The monsters look great, and while it’s fair to say that the range of animations they have isn’t vast, what they do have looks great. Most importantly, they are informative enough to tell you what you need to know about what the enemy is up to next, if you just pay attention to their behavior. Some of them are surprisingly scary: the skittering giant spiders are one thing, but I found it unexpectedly unnerving when 4-man team of skeleton guards suddenly attacked me, with four spears being thrust at my face. (Also, I jumped and yelped like a baby on two separate occasions when I came face to face with a lone skeleton guard, probably because I’m very brave, thanks for asking.) The lighting effects are not only pretty, but also useful: if you see a turn up ahead, with light spilling out from behind the corner, you might see the shadow of a huge spider on the wall. Creepy, sure, but also very important; it gives you a bit of advance warning. And it’s very, very cool.
This is not a story-driven game, of course, but there are plans to include some content in that vein, mostly as back story and lore. There’s also a nice bunch of optional content, areas that you can explore if you like, but which aren’t required for making it through a level. Typically, these will net you extra rewards — if you can make it through the extra challenges.
Looking at it from a developer angle, something that I thought particularly impressive was the fact that they’re actually capable of making changes in the levels in real time. Petri demonstrated it for me — he was standing in a corridor, switched to another window, and with a few quick keystrokes he could alter the way the corridors twist around, or add features to the dungeon walls. Interestingly, the interface was not graphical as such; rather, it was a file he had open in a text editor. It included an element like this, reminiscent of NetHack:
### ### ##
### ### ##
The # characters indicate walls, the empty spaces indicate corridors, showing the basic configuration of the maze. Below that were additional lines of script, with which he could then add features to specific points in the map simply by inputting the coordinates that were visible on the bottom of the screen in his game window. To be clear: he was playing the game (albeit with developer tools enabled), and the changes he made in the other window were immediately reflected in the game without any need to reload the level!
Of course, one big reason why this is possible is the fact that the game world is tile-based. Things get so, so much easier when the character is standing on a grid you can manipulate. Even so, the speed and ease he demonstrated was very impressive; making levels for the game is obviously very, very fast. Creating, testing and iterating puzzles is something that can literally be done on a cycle that only lasts seconds.
That’s not to say that designing levels for a game like Grimrock is necessarily fast; I think it’s fair to say that the level design in general and the puzzles in particular are what a game like this will live or die by. Creating good levels will take time, but having great tools at your disposal will definitely cut down on frustration and wasted effort.
This is, of course, a game that’s still very much a work in progress. There were various bugs and things that needed fixing — picking items off the ground felt a little clumsy, the mouselook allowed you to look a little too far to the sides, which sometimes made you forget that you had to turn to face that direction before you could interact with it, things like that — stuff that you would expect an unfinished game like this to have, and absolutely nothing that I wouldn’t expect to get fixed. The great thing was that it felt like an actual game, not something that’s still in very early stages, where games typically look and feel very rough. I had a great time playing it, and this is just three months of development by just four guys.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised — I only know 50% of the staff at Almost Human, but I know that Antti and Petri are both extremely skilled guys who know how to get things done, and I would expect that the same applies to the rest of the gang as well. Even knowing that, I was impressed. They still have a lot to do, but they’ve already put together a great game in a ridiculously short time.
Legend of Grimrock’s coming out this year, for the PC, Mac and iOS devices. I played it on the PC, but I think it’ll probably work very well on the iOS, too — there’s no need for virtual thumbsticks, after all. My gut feeling is that the iPhone version might be a little challenging because of the limited screen size, but I’d love to try this on the iPad.
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