Legend of Grimrock strikes a perfect balance between accessibility and nostalgia.

My love of brutally difficult first-person dungeon crawlers goes back to my childhood. Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, Dungeon Master…the list of classics goes on. While my beginnings in this genre are from long ago, my interest has been reignited in recent years by titles like The Dark Spire, and the Etrian Odyssey series. Casting off the steep learning curve and deadly difficulty of its predecessors both old and new, Legend of Grimrock picks up the torch and keeps the genre moving.

Don’t get me wrong here: Legend of Grimrock provides a solid challenge, one which will have you feeling triumphant over the smallest victories. That said, it’s not soul-crushing or keyboard-breaking in its difficulty, nor does it hide the basic functionality of items or loot. Grimrock has clearly been designed with the intention of allowing modern gamers to partake in the good ol’ dungeon delve, while maintaining an atmosphere and overall feel that would seem right at home in the mid-80’s. I’m sure there are purists out there that’ll be butthurt by these concessions, but the truth is that it’s nice to not need a FAQ just to figure out what a certain item can be used for, or how a character’s stats will impact their effectiveness. Worry not, however: there’s still plenty of mystery left for you to discover. Grimrock doesn’t reveal all its secrets to you, but it does tell you just enough to feel like you aren’t wandering around aimlessly.

For me, one of the biggest things that sets Grimrock apart from its peers is that you aren’t searching for treasure, or on a quest to defeat some evil wizard, or trying to solve the mystery of a giant tower; your primary goal in Grimrock is finding a way out in one piece. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but it drastically changes the overall atmosphere of the game. Rather than pushing forward in search for the next shiny piece of treasure, you push forward in search for the next scrap of food, or the next rock you can use to hold down a pressure plate, or the next empty bottle you can use to make a healing potion. There is an interesting bit of narrative here beyond simple escape, but it’s nigh impossible to say anything about it without invoking any spoilers, so all I’ll say is this: dream a little dream.

Combat in Grimrock is an intense affair, one that requires you to settle into a steady rhythm. Depending on the kind of party you have assembled (I personally went with two Human warriors and two Insectoid mages), your tactics might range from going toe to toe, to hit and run guerilla tactics, to everything in between. Learning when to attack each enemy, what order your party should attack in, what kind of weapons or spells you should use…it sounds fairly standard on paper, but thanks to Grimrock’s ingenious use of grid-based movement and real-time combat, you’ll find your adrenaline pumping more than once as you traverse the deep, dark underground labyrinth. Enemies can flank you before you know it, so using the “fight through a doorway and close the door when your health runs low” tactic works very well here.

Equally engaging are the various puzzles strewn throughout the dungeon, which, as to be expected, start off relatively simple, and increase in complexity the further down you go. There’s nothing astronomically difficult here, but there’s definitely some solid head-scratchers waiting for you. The solution to most of the puzzles is staring you right in the face; it’s just a matter of you separating the wheat from the chaff.

Grimrock’s sound design begs for you to have either a solid surround sound setup, or a good sound card & headphone combination. Noises travel down the dark passages, creatures can be heard gurgling on the other side of walls, and having some form of 360 degree audio directionality is very helpful in locating hidden doors as they open, since they might not be in your line of sight when you find that elusive switch or lever.

The overall look and feel of the dungeon really gets under your skin, and does a great job of inducing a sense of claustrophobia. Despite a few relatively open rooms, the whole dungeon is nothing but stone hallways, iron and wood doors, and mossy rocks that seem to gradually close in on you. Torches send eerie shadows dancing, dust particles swirl, and doors groan as they reveal the next horror awaiting you. The name “Grimrock” is quite fitting, given the circumstances.

If you’ve never played a dungeon crawler before, Legend of Grimrock is a great place to start. On the other hand, if you’re nostalgic for the dungeon crawling days of yore, Legend of Grimrock is a great way to take another trip into the foreboding darkness.