Legend of Grimrock 2 Review
Four prisoners, careened on one mysterious island. Left with nothing but their collective wits, the party faces puzzles and challenges laid out in a similarly mysterious manner. One question remains: seriously, who is constantly relighting all the torches in these old, monster-infested dungeons?!
Legends of Grimrock 2, the sequel to Finnish indie studio Almost Human’s 2008 debut title, is an old, old, old-school RPG that retains a laser focus on the four-man team’s dedication to bringing that “classic” feel into the modern era. Without a doubt, they get the job done. The love is there, they have the execution, everything is indeed quite classic. But, as is often with case with this kind of nostalgia, there’s a reason some of those “classic” design elements are lost to time.
When does classic become outdated?
Some people only have an interest in black and white movies. A “talkie” might not be their kind of thing, but their kind of thing has a very narrow appeal when compared to modern cinema. Not just in terms of better technology, or bigger box office sales; that’s not what makes something “good.” The scope of appeal doesn’t really matter when it comes to artistic labors of love.
LoG2 is clearly that, a passionately romantic letter from the four fans at Almost Human to the earliest RPGs in video game history. Peel back the rather beautiful 3D environments, and this could have come straight out of a time machine from the 1980s. Unfortunately, that alone is not intrinsically enough to provide a top quality gaming experience (unless the only other RPG titles on offer are also from the 1980s, which is certainly not the case). In fact, it’s one of LoG2’s biggest drawbacks.
Who is constantly relighting all the torches in these old, monster-infested dungeons?!
Almost Human has a huge advantage in this endeavor: nostalgia is immensely powerful. It’s enough to turn this otherwise average RPG into an experience that will be an incredibly worthy throwback for some, but still just above average for others. Isolated from all other games, the mechanics do provide an enjoyable experience. The overall success of niche games (which is relative, and unimportant to the final product anyway) like LoG2 is very dependent on the audience.
Many players out there are looking for exactly this experience, and will spend hours in the puzzles, the endless content available through Steam Workshop, and the “classic” mechanics.
When video games get video game-y...
One of the biggest disappointments in the first installment was the player’s combat advantage due to slow and predictable A.I. Just swing, retreat, repeat. Or, since diagonal attacks aren’t possible in the grid-based combat system, just attack from the front, and move to a diagonal square. Your opponent couldn’t attack and would move to reposition while your attacks recharged. You could keep doing this until you win. This was simply not fun.
That core mechanical issue still exists in LoG2, it has become slightly less ruinous. The combat feels faster now; the monsters are agile and capable, oftentimes more capable than I am. More than just basic fudging the timing and the numbers, the team managed to address a major flaw in the gameplay while not drastically altering the classic combat feel they wanted to achieve.
Being a “classic” system, there are still some inherent flaws due to the lack of any modern combat elements - but Grimrock 2 shows that it's okay.
At this point, it’s not my ideal combat system, but at least it’s functional. Early on, combat is a breeze (but that’s the case across most games). Later on into your island adventure, it becomes quite the challenge to attack, cast spells, use items, and reposition, even with the unfair advantage the player has over the A.I. This feels like the appropriate challenge Almost Human wanted to present, but it still doesn’t deliver the experience it could. Sticking so closely to the rules we used to play with "back in my day" can result in some promising but eventually disappointing experiences.
Another example of these questionable mechanics is the presence of scrolls used for spell casting. Pick one up, and it will tell you which of the nine runes your spellcaster needs to activate (assuming you have the requisite levels in one of the four elemental magics). Awesome. Except that you don’t actually need the scrolls. Drop it, destroy it, don’t even pick it up in the first place. So long as you know which rune is the fireball spell, and you have the levels in Fire Magic, you can cast it from the moment the game begins. This gives an experienced player advantage that isn’t unfair; it’s just an unnecessary bother.
What a World? What World?
I’ve thought long and hard on what it is that makes the world of Grimrock unique in any regard. Design, lore, aesthetics, mechanics, character, point of view; anything. The one outstanding feature is that there really isn’t one. It’s all just good; which is great for people with this exact taste in video games. LoG2 does a fantastic job of catering to this audience, to their audience. I applaud them without hesitation or doubt for sticking to their guns, doing what they love, and being true to themselves and their craft. However, for the rest of us…
Character development is nonexistent. This makes sense in the context of the overall approach Almost Human has taken to LoG2, but it would have made such an impact on the depth of the world. Any kind of attachment to the world is a great thing, good or bad. Nothing about the environments stand out as unique to Grimrock, which is terribly unfortunate for such a beautifully rendered world. The reminiscence I feel in many of these environments is profound, but not because they’re a part of Grimrock. It’s part of the overall mythos all us nerds hold in our heads when it comes to fantasy. They expertly play off this power, and deliver a world that is unspecifically awesome.
However, I have a feeling that neither the developers nor the fans were bothered by the loss - by the Grimrock that could have been. I have to note that I do earnestly want to see more of what sets the world of Grimrock apart. I feel like there's something there.
But there’s not much of a focus on anything else in the world beyond your island mystery (the same went for last game’s dungeon mystery). It feels like it was never Almost Human’s intent to create such a thing. LoG2 was meant for this crowd, and not many others, with the most admirable spirit an indie dev team could hope to muster.
The fantasy elements are of the same quality as the rest of the game. That is to say, superbly crafted, well intentioned, and just shy of something truly special. Everything about the game as a whole is assumed based on the player’s previous enjoyment of other “classic” fantasy RPGs. If you’ve played enough of those, you know everything you need to about what might otherwise make Grimrock an interesting place to play. The environments in LoG2 are much more diverse than its predecessor, with tilesets for pyramids, beaches, woods, and of course several dungeons. They just don’t come together in any meaningful way.
The Myst series used complex narratives and intricate world design to create a uniquely monolithic world, giving the puzzles and exploration a whole new depth. You, faceless, nameless, and strange, had a story. You had a purpose. It’s this kind of depth that is tragically missing from Grimrock 2. That is the difference between the myriad “classic” dungeons of any given Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and a truly fear-inspiring place with dark domains hiding darker things; something watching, lurking, waiting; a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, dramatically torn from its hopeless participants.
Archetypal? Or just generic?
Overall, LoG2 brings nothing new to the table. Whether or not that’s a bad thing depends on you. What it does bring is an old school RPG with all the elements a fan would want, which is sure to please retro-RPG enthusiasts. Others, like myself, might be disappointed that such a passionate and talented approach to development didn’t really deliver to a wider audience. LoG2 is nothing if not by the fans, for the fans.
This fan love is apparent from the opening menu. Right away, players are presented with a (yet again) “classic” character creation system, which faithfully provides all the key RPG elements you would expect to see. Old School mode removes all map functionality; go grab a notebook. Ironman mode limits your ability to save to specific locations (with the option to limit yourself to only one save at each point). The addition of new monsters, new puzzle elements, new items, new environments, and more is a great boon to this sequel. Unfortunately, the lack of a greater overhaul leaves LoG2 feeling more like LoG1.5.
Fortunately, LoG2 doesn’t completely ignore modern advances. The Dungeon Editor tool is a fantastic feature; it’s nothing out of the ordinary to see alongside deeper RPG titles like this, but absolutely key for its longevity. One of the best parts of LoG2 as a whole is not the game itself, but the framework it provides for truly limitless dungeoneering.
With a numerical rating system in mind, I feel compelled to grade a game based on the experience it was attempting to deliver. If Almost Human wanted Legend of Grimrock 2 to serve as a ploddingly methodical, well-executed if not well thought out, partially fulfilling RPG experience, with a lackluster regard for any form of modern design? 10/10. As it stands next to others in the RPG genre, turn-based, action, pen ’n’ paper, or otherwise? Well…