As with many classic genres, there has been a real call for traditional first person dungeon crawlers lately. Might and Magic X: Legacy earlier this year served as a decent AAA grab for glory and the niche has never really gone out of style in JRPG circles but the genre as a whole hasn’t really had a proper hit in years, with one exception: Legend of Grimrock. Almost Human Games showed us a couple of years back that dungeon crawlers still have legs as long as they’re designed well and their sequel to that seminal hit is bigger, better, and still sticks to that unforgiving old school philosophy that made us all fall in love with the grid again. Legend of Grimrock 2 is a true sequel through and through and if you’re a fan of RPGs, classic or not, you need to check it out.
The basic plot here is not dissimilar to that of the first game, once again you are a set of four prisoners, but instead of being dropped into the massive mountain prison of Grimrock, the boat that was (presumably) taking you there has sunk and left you shipwrecked on the shores of the island of Nex. The island’s master is a sadistic sort though and as such Nex may be just be worse than the last game’s damnable pit. As with before you must summon your wits and skills so as to escape the island and earn your freedom, hopefully defeating the mysterious island master along the way. Unsurprisingly there isn’t much set-up, with plot points delivered almost purely though letters found in the environment. I wasn’t expecting some rich vast narrative though and what little hints the game provides were enough to draw me into its world. And what a world it is, the atmosphere of Grimrock 2 is executed perfectly, perfectly translating the desperate loneliness of the series to this new island setting. Everything just meshes together so well and while the game provides a number of new and exciting environments to explore-such as poisonous swamps and dusty pyramids-it still manages to have this great sense of cohesion; everything on the island feels like it belongs there and shares the same underlining design sense. There is one thing that feels out-of-place though: the player, and that’s not just because everything is trying to kill you. There is a distinct sense of disconnect between yourself and the world, with the screen of your monitor acting as both a literal and figurative barrier between yourself and the events on-screen. Your attacks and actions just don’t feel visceral enough in places and the step by step movement makes everything feel as though it’s done by remote. That lack of immersion though is something that is inherent to the genre and frankly it doesn’t really hurt the experience all that much. However it is certainly pronounced enough that you’ll notice it and the threadbare story only separates you from things further while the fantastic atmosphere creates a sort dissonance between what happening on screen and your own actions.
But of course you’re not coming to this game for story or world building, it’s only there to provide a thin veneer of context, you’re coming for some hardcore RPG action and this game has that in spades. While the base mechanics remain more or less unchanged from that of the first game, the things surrounding them have improved immensely, especially when it comes to character creation. Not only is there a new race and a handful of new classes to play around with but the distinctions between the different races and classes have been made more meaningful. Previously what separated a minotaur from a human or a lizard man from an insectoid was primarily simple stat boosts, and those differences are still here, but with the new trait system there are some additional quirks you can choose based on your race. Things such as chitinous armor for insectoids, elemental endurance for lizard men, and random mutations for the new ratling race make each species feel a bit more unique and provides ample room for creative character builds. Similarly the classes now go beyond the old-fashioned warrior/rogue/mage dynamic, offering up more strategic meat for you to sink your teeth into. You now have Alchemists, which can act as a cross between potion slinging clerics and gun-toting rogues; Battlemages, which allow you sacrifice some mental skill in exchange for martial defense; and the oddball Farmer class, which has very low stats but gains experience from eating food rather than defeating monsters. There’s just so much more to play with this time around and with all that wiggle room in each class, you could start the game fifty times over and still manage to come out with a new and interesting set of party members to experiment with every time.
Probably the biggest change in this game though is one of structure; no longer are you confined to a linear progression of levels, instead Grimrock 2 gives you a very well-built open world to explore. While your overall story progression will still most likely end up being much the same as everyone else’s, the game does not force you in any given direction and only opens up more as it goes on. You’re expected to slowly feel things out, dying multiple times in the process, figuring out where you should go next and deciding whether you can surmount the challenges ahead or whether you need to backtrack and beef yourself up a bit. It’s a much more natural feeling and interesting progression than that of the first game’s and it falls right in line with the sense of experimentation that the character creations breeds. That said, opening things up in such a way and having the option to go explore in any direction you want can lead to you getting stuck and going on wild goose chases because you’ll end up accidentally putting aside a crucial puzzle, deciding it was currently unsolvable when actually the answer was something simple that you’ve just missed. This can then lead to wasted items, misspent skill points, and getting stuck in bad situations you weren’t prepared for, forcing you to start the whole game over again or at the very least lose several hours of progress. It’s another one of those problems that is inherent to the genre but at the same time it’s something that can be mitigated with smart puzzle design. While the puzzles in Grimrock 2 definitely feel quite clever and are generally a joy to solve, there are a few puzzles that are less than intuitive. With the game being as open as it is, these troublesome puzzles can end up becoming real stumbling blocks and almost always aren’t solved by some new insight but rather by finding a button you’ve missed or discovering some new function of an old item that perhaps wasn’t described adequately. It’s definitely a community kind of game, in a past age these less obvious solutions would have been sussed out by inquisitive minds discussing the game in high school art rooms and ancient BBSs, but these days we have the Steam forums which for better or worse will end up being your constant companion as you play through the game.
That sense of challenge though does fit into the game’s overall atmosphere of grim hostile intent, everything feels like it’s out to get you, which is brought to the fore by the Grimrock 2’s fantastic presentation. Foreboding antiquated dungeons filled with gnarled monsters of every shape and size are realized with gorgeous and well detailed HD graphics. Every crack in the claustrophobic stone walls that encircle your progress is visible and all the enemy designs feel rough and gothic in that classic Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual kind of way. In terms of the audio design, you get lots of good ambient noise that properly sets the stage, some great active sound effects like crackling fire or sizzling electricity launched from your mage’s hand, and the music overall gives a good but still subtle sense of adventure. The presentation is very much to the same high level of quality that the original established, but like the rest of the game feels deeper than that of its predecessor.
Legend of Grimrock 2 is definitely a worthwhile purchase for any RPG fan, whether you’re into the dungeon crawler sub-genre or not. While it still certainly suffers for some of the bugbears of the genre, its interesting open world and deep character creation and progression makes those niggling issues easy to overlook. It’ll kick your ass repeatedly in your attempts to unravel all of its secrets but it makes receiving those beatings an enjoyable experience. As such I’m giving Legend of Grimrock 2 a 4.5 out of 5 stars; whether you’re a graph paper veteran or a fresh-faced recruit to the world of grids and gryphons, Grimrock 2 is worth checking out.