An old school exercise book lies in a box on the top shelf of a wardrobe at the house where I grew up. The book is tattered, creased, and faded yellow with time, like some long-lost explorer’s journal. Inside, its pages are daubed with strange runic symbols, directions to the locations of assorted shrines, and rough sketched overhead maps of villages and dungeons. Although scattered and haphazard, this book tells the story of my time spent adventuring in Ultima IV’s Britannia and my quest to become the Avatar.
Back in the ‘80s it was common - often necessary for many RPGs - to take copious notes as you played. Subsequent decades saw the proliferation of in-game quest logs, auto-mapping and dialogue that remembered information you knew rather than relying on the player to write it down. You no longer needed to take notes - the game did it for you.
Legend of Grimrock remembers how PC RPGs once were. Purchase the game direct from the developer or through GOG.com and you receive a Grimrock themed pad of grid paper. Select to play the Old School mode when starting a new game and the auto-map function is permanently disabled, leaving you to chart your own progress one square at a time.
But much like my scrawled notes, Grimrock isn’t a perfect reproduction of an ‘80s RPG. It’s more akin to a fond memory, embellished by nostalgia. The likes of Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder, the bygone grid-based dungeon-crawlers that Grimrock closely resembles, were hard work, fiddly, punishing and often not terribly intuitive. Grimrock preserves their spirit - the feeling of being lost and alone yet slowly but surely progressing deeper and deeper and conquering the full extent of each map - while simultaneously applying the touch of a skilled mortician to reshape the controls into something more accessible and overhaul the art and audio direction for modern eyes and ears. In a sense, Grimrock remains a corpse, a relic of a genre done and dusted. But looking at it you’d swear it was as alive and well as any other currently popular genre.
All of this means you don’t need to have played its ‘80s ancestors to enjoy Grimrock. Character creation is straightforward and relies on familiar types - the fighter, the mage and the rogue - and intuitive skills. The only slight oddity is an attribute system that sees strength favour ranged weapons and dexterity support melee combat, but even that actually makes more sense than the opposite way we typically see those traits represented.
Once you start exploring you’ll realise that constant movement is central to your combat tactics. In a nod to modern expectations, WASD move you in the four cardinal directions while Q&E turn you through 90 degrees. Although movement is confined to the grid, you won’t wait around for enemies to take their turns. Instead, everything moves at a deliberate speed, meaning spiders, for example, are quicker than slimes, and attacks are tied to a cooldown. It’s perfectly possible - and, frankly, compulsory - to attack an enemy, sidestep around it while it turns then attack again, all without it gaining the opportunity to hit you. Multiple foes prove more taxing and require considered use of poison or freezing spells, limited use items such as powerful bombs and enchanted weapons, or cunning kiting them one at a time back to a more manageable area.
The real-time nature of play (and occasional respawning enemies) means you never feel entirely safe waiting in a corridor to check the map or mix new potions. And you’ll be pausing a lot, especially as you mull over the many cryptic riddles etched on the dungeon walls, each pointing the not-very-obvious way to a secret room or, just as commonly, the way you’re meant to be going. Some of them are easy to work out, but some will leave you stumped and staring at weird combinations of pressure plates, trapdoors, teleporters, levers, and gargoyle heads until you’re ready to tear out your hair. And in one case that’s the very solution.
You’ll also find yourself scouring walls in a desperate search for a hidden button, running across temporary platforms, jumping down pits just in case there’s a clue down there, dodging balls of lightning, navigating corridors that magically seem to repeat themselves, and finding keys. Lots of keys. Even if you do use the auto-mapping feature, you’ll be annotating it with dozens of little comments: “Heard something move here” or “Door needs two ornate keys” or “How the hell do I get this open?”
Your journey through Grimrock won’t ever end up in a tattered notebook in a box. But it provides the same kind of deep-seated satisfaction at having to work things out for yourself, that same sense of something tactile while exploring a virtual world. Mostly, it’s a wonderful reminder of a genre and style of play many thought we’d never see again.