While nostalgia has been the driving force in the return of a number of series and game genres, the popular dungeon crawlers of the late 80s and early 90s have seen little resurgence over the years. Most of the well-known brands like Wizardry and Might and Magic have either stopped producing titles or have spun off into other genres, and the modern RPG market is primarily dominated by games either favoring deep story or open freedom. Developer Almost Human has decided to turn away from that trend with Legend of Grimrock, a modern take on the first person dungeon crawlers of old. Even if you're unfamiliar with this style of game, the blending of puzzles and RPG in Legend of Grimrock appeals to both new and old fans.
The story in Legend of Grimrock has a simple setup: a group of prisoners are actually pardoned of their treasonous crimes. There is a catch, however. (There's always a catch.) The prisoners are taken to the top of Mount Grimrock and tossed into the dungeon within the mountain. If they can reach the bottom, they can go free, but no one ever makes it through Grimrock. The game harkens back to earlier games where the extent of the story setup might have been a wizard teleporting you to the dungeon. There are a few hints of more going on: you'll discover notes, receive messages when you rest and someone has to be writing the hints on the walls. (Somehow, I doubt it was the skeletons.) The lack or underplay of the story really works, letting you focus your energy on the dungeon itself.
Character and party generation in Legend of Grimrock mixes just the right amount of familiar with the unique. The game sports your standard fantasy class trifecta of fighter, mage and rogue, but the races are vastly different then you might typically expect. They consist of human, minotaur, lizardmen and an insectoid race. Your health and energy regeneration is tied to whether or not the character is starving, and for example, larger folks like minotaur eat more. The inclusion of the food system and deeper interaction with the races is a great way of combing some of the old with the new. You'll want to find a good balance between the classes and races for your party, but there's room to experiment.
Legend of Grimrock combines the simplicity of modern tablet or touch screen gaming with complex old school systems. For the most part it works well, like balancing regenerating health with hunger, though there times where it feels like the game is stretched in two opposite directions. You play in real time, which brings about some interesting interactions during combat. With clever timing and planning you can actually dodge most attacks by simply moving the party away from the square the monster is attacking. The strategic element of remembering a route as you back pedal can be rewarding, though I always felt a twinge of guilt that I was exploiting the AI rather than defeating it, and at least one of the enemy types can be bugged out by moving into positions diagonal to them. As you progress through into deeper and more difficult levels this abusing of the movement becomes all but a requirement as well. With the party's limited resources, you really can't afford to risk being struck with a status effect like poisoning.
One interesting and potentially frustrating mechanic is how the game handles spell casting. When casting, you'll bring up a small 3x3 grid of runes that you'll need to highlight in a proper pattern for the spell to work; simpler spells will only require a single correct rune whereas higher level spells require specific larger combinations. This means a small fire spell is naturally easier to repeatedly cast in the chaos of combat then, say, a big ice spell that attacks the whole corridor. I like it, especially the perhaps unintended nod to the magic systems of Jack Vance and early D&D in which you prepare a spell and close the casting window, readying it for the next encounter.
Once you've put down the monsters, you need to tackle a puzzle or two to progress to the next floor. You'll encounter a familiar standard assortment of puzzles based on hidden switches, finding keys and pressure plates, but perhaps the most rewarding are the logic based puzzles where you're given a simple obscure clue and need to figure out the answer. You're rewarded for being thorough as the game is peppered with secrets, and there are even special iron doors on each level that block valuable treasure against those that can't figure out the solutions to opening them. Exploration for its own sake, and maybe a little loot to sweeten the deal, is often an aspect overlooked in the modern era of tightly crafted linear corridors.
Bottom line: A few minor issues don't dull much of what is otherwise an excellent modern take on a classic game type.
Recommendation: Even if you're utterly new to this specific type of RPG, there's a lot of dungeon delving to enjoy in Legend of Grimrock.
Game: Legend of Grimrock
Developer: Almost Human
Publisher: Almost Human