Tuesday 18 November 2014

Legend of Grimrock II

Props to the illustrator for nailing the visual style of a 1980s book cover by Larry Elmore

In 2012, Finnish indie developers: "Almost Human" released «Legend of Grimrock», a game based on design principles that haven't been popular since back when computers operated with only 16 bits. And it was awesome! Thus proving that old game mechanics can still be viable as long as they are implemented with confidence, care and good production value.

«Legend of Grimrock II» follows the same template, but is larger and more ambitious than its predecessor. As in the first game, you take control of a quartet of prisoners who are fighting for their lives in a labyrinth full of enemies, traps and puzzles. But whereas the first game unfolded entirely inside a mountain with a huge but fairly linear cave, the sequel takes place in a more open and diverse island setting.

Limited movement options

The game starts with waves swelling towards you, accompanied by catchy adventure-and-pirate-ships music, whilst the mysterious island - surrounded by fog - is reflected majestically in the water. Your party of four is washed ashore, and it quickly becomes apparent that this game, despite being made by a team who could easily make a modern first person shooter, uses an older paradigm.

Like in its predecessor and the games that influenced it, the map in «Legend of Grimrock II» is designed to conform to the uniform squares found on graph paper, and you can only move in the four cardinal directions.

Something which in principle sounds silly, and initially leads to some confusion. For whilst the movement limitation was intuitive in «Legend of Grimrock» - which played out almost exclusively inside narrow corridors - the expansive surroundings of the sequel makes you expect to be able to move freely. After all, the beach you land on makes the game look much more like «Far Cry» than «Dungeon Master».

You are however quickly acclimatised, and before you know it, moving and exploring one square at a time becomes second nature. The advantage of navigating this way is that it allows you to transport your multi member party as one, thus allowing more of your mental capacity to be allocated to managing their actions.


Puzzles and waltzing

Also, spare brain capacity comes in handy when you start encountering the game's puzzles, of which there are many. Puzzles are in many ways a bigger part of this game than more traditional RPG activities like killing enemies, collecting experience points and upgrading your gear. As such «Legend of Grimrock II» has more in common with «Myst» or «The Room» than it has with games like «Dragon Age» or «Diablo».

It does not however, mean that hunting for loot is entirely off the table. One of the most common rewards for solving puzzles - besides the fact that you advance in the game - is access to secret rooms containing chests with armor or weapons that you can use to bolster your arsenal. And it just feels more satisfying to don a new helmet or swing a new sword when it has been acquired by intellect, rather than just popping out from the corpse of something you just fought.

And there is no shortage of fighting, which in «Legend of Grimrock II» is a bit like waltzing. Because both you and your enemies are more vulnerable and less dangerous from the flank, a fight often starts with a step to the side and a rotation, but instead of interspersing steps with polite and courteous ​​conversation, you pepper your "dance partner" with lunges, projectiles and magic attacks.

Alternatively, you can choose the less complicated approach of just standing still, pounding away at each other until one of you falls down. But this is rarely a fruitful way to deal with encounters, since the game is challenging enough that you likely will die occasionally, which is something I appreciate in a world where game designers increasingly insist on holding the players hand throughout the entire experience.

«Legend of Grimrock II» also panders to the alternative hardcore who wants roles a bit out of the ordinary. In addition to having replaced the standard hobbits, dwarves and elves with rats, minotaurs and insect men, you also have the opportunity to play weird jobs like "Farmer", who instead of acquiring experience points in the traditional way by battling foes, does it through the consumption of foodstuffs.

Inventory Tetris

What perhaps could use a little more refinement, is the inventory management. It is quite tricky to use health potions when you really need them, unless you explicitly place them in the hands of the person who is going to get beaten up before the fight even starts. The game also doesn't pause whilst you fumble around in your backpack, so you can easily be both surprised and killed doing so.

Storage for treasure and gear is also quite limited, but can be expanded by picking up containers found along the way. But things you put into these, are nested one level below what is visible from your main inventory interface, which means that it gradually becomes harder and harder to remember where you've put what.

Not that this significantly damages the flow of the game, since you can work around it by planning a bit in advance. But sometimes it becomes an annoyance. Especially if it's been a long time since your last save and you suddenly bump into danger without having prepared the necessary emergency supplies.

And this playing of «Tetris» with your inventory - often whilst fighting monsters - combined with having to memorise magic runes and herbal combinations to use spells and alchemy, takes its toll on concentration. The game is therefore most enjoyable in smaller servings.

The game also doesn't have much to offer story-wise. It largely boils down to: Your heroic band is stranded on an island, where a mysterious stalker leaves you mildly insulting correspondence in the form of cryptic letters. Not exactly a profound exploration of the human condition, but that hardly matters. The dramaturgy primarily functions as a catalyst for the game's rock solid core mechanics of exploration, puzzle solving and challenges that must be overcome. And that is after all what is most important in a game like this.

The game also has excellent ambience, with the whisper of wind in the trees, the waves of the ocean and the sounds of monsters lurking behind hidden doors and around the game's many corners.

Those who find pleasure in mental gymnastics and is not put off by the movement mechanics, should find many hours of enjoyment in «Legend of Grimrock II». And if you are really old-school and want an extra challenge, you can also turn off the auto map feature and draw the map on graph paper.

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