Hands up, veteran gamers, who remember the classic step-by-step dungeon crawlers like Dungeon Master and Lands of Lore and Anvil of Dawn and Eye of the Beholder? You know, those games where your party of adventurers were sent into a maze full of traps, puzzles, and unpleasantly scented monsters and had to escape using their wits and the crap that they found laying about? Granted, they sort of ran out of steam in the mid 1990s once the first person shooter had taken over (and many 90s-style FPSes owe an awful lot to the dungeon crawler in their setup), but you do remember them?
Good. Because this is another one of them. And to be fair, it's far more than just an imitator with nicer looking graphics. It's a distillation of all things good about the genre. And the increase in graphical and sound quality makes Grimrock even more atmospheric than its predecessors from the 16-bit era. Not to mention quite scary at times. And considering it was made on almost no budget by four blokes from Finland, it's not bad.
Basically, it goes something like this. Your team of four adventurers are all death row inmates, and the King offers you a choice. Face the hempen jig the next day, or volunteer to jump into the hole at the top of the isolated Mount Grimrock, wherein all manner of traps, monsters, and ways to die horribly reside, and then to emerge from the bottom of the mountain alive, and to find the secret locked within its ancient halls, then they will be pardoned. Needless to say, your party chooses the latter, and as such are thrown into the depths with little more than the clothes on their back. Thirteen levels of step-by-step grid-based dungeoneering then commence.
As in the classics on which Grimrock is based, you have four party members and each of them can be one of four races. Humans, obviously, who are fairly average at everything. Minotaurs, who are hard as nails but have almost no magical abilities and are a bit clumsy. Lizard folk, who are fast as anything but slightly fragile, and insectoids, who are very fragile but incomparably good at magic. Sorry, no elves, dwarves, or hobbits here. Which makes a change from Standard Fantasy Setting for once. In fact, there's almost no mention of elves or dwarves or similar whatsoever in this game. But I digress. To succeed, you must navigate from the top of the dungeon to the bottom. To do this, you'll need to rely entirely on what you find in the dungeon. Food, for one, though thankfully certain monsters drop food when killed and in the upper levels it's fairly abundant as well. Light, for another. There's plenty torches about but they go out leaving you - literally - stumbling about in the dark. And you can learn a light spell but that uses up your wizard's mana reserves fairly quickly. Furthermore, food is finite, meaning that you do have to move into new areas comparatively expeditiously before you starve to death.
Then there's the monsters. They range from innocuous and comical (the snails), through various grades of annoying and unpleasant (the spiders and fire spirits), to the genuinely threatening (the ogres and giant enemy crabs), to the extremely dangerous (the ice lizards and Goromorgs, tentacle-faced floating spirits with forcefields and every projectile spell in the game). Unlike classic dungeon-crawler monsters, though, they can't all be beaten by kiting, hit and run, or moving around them as fast as the keys will let you. Some monsters are able to attack sideways or even behind themselves just to try to stop you doing this. Every monster has different varieties of movement and speeds. Ogres will charge you if there's at least two spaces between you and them, which damages your entire party and forces them back a space (or, if that's not possible, does even more damage). They'll also hit sideways. Fire spirits can float over pits and shoot fireballs at you from afar. And giant enemy crabs always move sideways (natch) which means that they're difficult to circle-strafe because they try to do the same to you. They can also be exceptionally creepy. One area that sticks in my mind is when you first meet an ogre, and you can hear snorting and tromping noises, and your torches go out because of the magical darkness field that triggers when you step into the room. Then the door shuts behind you. Then... GRAARGH! TromptromptromptromptrompTHWACK! as it charges into you from where you didn't expect it. The game also likes to play with lighting and traps to put you on edge. Certain monsters themselves give off light as well, and later on in the game you will begin to fear the silvery glow of a Goromorg's lamp in the blackness as it seeks you out and gradually finds you.
Also, the monsters don't just have frames in the screen. They leap out their cell to attack and a close-up of a bank of spears thrusting at you or a crab's pincer really adds to the immersion factor.
As expected, Grimrock is tough. Even on normal difficulty. The first couple of levels are fairly non-threatening but then on the fourth level you meet spiders. They poison you. They also are fast. The designers also seem to have put together the level geometry in such a way that it's all too easy to get cornered. Being cornered even early on is pretty threatening. By the end of the game you're saving every verse end and are on tenterhooks because you have no idea what unpleasantness there is in store for you next. Then there's the final boss. The being which invades your dreams when you rest. The Undying One. An indestructible mechanical cube that, for all intents and purposes, is Mount Grimrock, and must be slain to finish the game. You can't do this normally. You have to firstly de-invincibilise him with a legendary artifact which is only accessible once he is activated, and even then after that only lightning spells hurt him badly. Oh, and did I mention that his attack is to try to roll on you and that if he succeeds, it's an immediate Total Party Kill?
And if that wasn't enough, there's bonus areas which you don't have to complete but which are even harder than the main game but which can net you seriously excellent gear. In fact, there's secrets all around and you will need to discover them to prevail. This is not a game for Leeroy Jenkins types, but for patient exploration and thinking on one's feet. Every level also contains a special door with a special treasure inside, which has to be released by solving a puzzle of some description.
There is an automap, but if you tick "Old school mode" in the settings, there isn't. Thankfully the digital download version comes with some PDF graph paper thrown in to draw your own map with.
There is also a level editor which is definitely worth checking out as it's ridiculously easy to use, can import custom wall models, decorations, enemies, and items into, and has the ability to share your creations over the internets. And yes, there are already mods which turn the game into Dungeon Master and similar. And yes, there will be a Grimrock 2 in the near future. But for now, I recommend this. It's available on Steam, GOG.com, and as a boxed disc for those who want it.