Grim Dawn is the first release from Crate Entertainment- a company made from several vets that previously worked for Iron Lore Entertainment. As Iron Lore, they made an RPG called Titan Quest. As Crate, they licensed the engine from Titan Quest, and after making some improvements they began working on Grim Dawn- making it a spiritual successor, of sorts. Grim Dawn is set in Cairn, a semi-Victorian era where civilization has been decimated and humanity has been driven to the point of extinction by the Aetherials- a race of demon-things that are possessing humans and using them for their own ends. Obviously, Cairn is a bleak and desolate place to live. Almost everybody's been possessed and killed, and even after they've died people are getting back up and wreaking everything. The few who remain huddle together in whatever passes for a building, struggling to survive and understand a world that seems to want them completely wiped out. You play as a person who was once possessed, but the Aetherial fled your body just before you were hung at the gallows. You were not left unchanged by this- you have no recollection of your life before you were possessed, But you can now summon portals to transport you from town to town, and you have really fast health regeneration. So, you've got that going for you.
Grim Dawn does away with a lot of peripheral details that have been staples in similar RPGs like Diablo and Torchlight. First, no scrolls of town portal. Summon a portal and go back to town whenever you want. And since they're persistent, you can just drop one every once in a while and use them as a checkpoint in case you die. I've always thought that town portals were an odd thing to itemize- it's as archaic as requiring an ink ribbon and typewriter to save your progress. Second, potions are one-size-fits-all. No small, medium, large, vente, grande, whatever potions; just healing potions and spirit potions that instantly fill your meters. In addition to that, if you're out of combat for four or five seconds, your health bar refills itself. I have mixed feelings about this- On one hand, It's always nice having free and fast healing. But on the other hand, it makes battles in wide open spaces less threatening, since it's so easy to run away and get all your health back before diving back in. So encounters in the overworld are really easy to recover from, and since Bosses have their preset areas, it's easy to dip out and jump back in as needed. Although to be fair, it would be easy prevent players from getting the respite they need, so I wouldn't be surprised if later areas account for this by tightening up the level design and adjusting enemy AI to hound players more. All the same, having a health bar that constantly refills itself is sort of a forgiving mechanic- it takes a bit of the edge away from the grim, gritty setting.
When you are building your character, there are only three hard stats you need to work with. Physique, which gives you more Health, lets you wear heavier armor, and lets you dodge more attacks; Cunning, which makes your attacks more powerful and increases your chance to land attacks and critical hits; and Spirit, which increases your Energy (mana) pool, makes your magic attacks deal more damage, and lets you equip items with better enchantments. There are four classes to choose from- the Soldier (the primary tank), the Demolitionist(the crowd control class), the Occultist (the caster/DPS), and the Nightblade (the rogue/DPS). Every time you earn enough XP to gain a character level, you get three points to upgrade your skills and class level, and you can increase one of your three stats by 8 points. Leveling up your class unlocks higher level skills and gives you a permanent bonus to your hard stats, health, and energy that reflect how important they are to your class. For example, Soldiers get a higher bonus to Physique and Health while Occultists get higher bonuses to Spirit and Energy. I like this leveling system because it gives you a pool of points and lets you assign them as you please, instead of laying out prescribed skill trees. Although you still have to balance spending your points between making your skills more potent and increasing your class level to unlock higher level skills. Some skills are still linked, but it's more freeform than games like Torchlight or Borderlands where classes have a clearly defined DPS tree, a healing tree, or a crowd control tree. My favorite part, is the fact that you can multiclass once you reach character level 10. I really like the multiclassing in Grim Dawn because it doesn't dilute your character at all. I made a Saboteur- a Demolitionist that dabbles in Nightblade skills, and it turned my character into a cloud of electricity, bullets, and death.
As much as I enjoyed being a gun-toting avatar of pain, I couldn't really get into the game until I hit level twelve or thirteen. Up until then the game was a little slow, clunky and repetitive. But once your character gets some skills under their belt and you start getting into the serious dungeons that mix up the roster of baddies (instead of just sending wave after wave of zombies), the game really picks up, and the fights become more dynamic.
My biggest hang-up about Grim Dawn is that the controls can be unwieldy. As a Demolitionist, one of my primary skills was dropping caltrops that stun and shock enemies- so my primary tactic was drawing them into a tight corridor where I could drop my trap and blast them with my rifle while they were stunned. The problem is that my character couldn't just throw the caltrops behind her. She had to stop running, turn around, throw the caltops, turn around, then continue running. And if the caltrops weren't a direct hit, my foes would have to walk right over them for them to do anything. I eventually got used to the timing, but I'm always frustrated when I can't drop a skill as soon as I need to use it. Also, when you click to move your character, they will only move in a straight line. Meaning that you have to manually guide them around large obstacles, instead of them automatically taking the best route around it. This normally wouldn't be a huge deal, but the environment makes it difficult to discern what's an obstacle and what's just part of the background. Say I come across two similar bodies of water- one of them makes up the invisible wall that keeps me within the area, the other just makes a splashing noise as I walk over it- the only way I can tell which is which is to check the map. It's not like it's hard to check the map in the upper corner, but I feel like there should be some kind of visual cue that says 'Hey! You can't walk through this!' or 'Good to go, keep on truckin'!". The overworld is a large map that should be separated into distinct areas, but the borders aren't defined on the map. You'll be walking and suddenly, oh, you're apparently in the old dumping grounds now. The areas should each have their own feel, but really, each area is a different flavor of desolate wasteland. The overworld is also punctuated by skirmishes with wild beasts and Aether-touched monsters, but since you recover so quickly from the encounters, none of them really pose a threat. However, there are plenty of mini-dungeons scattered throughout Cairn, and like any good RPG, Grim dawn really comes alive once you put on your dungeon-crawling boots. The dungeons are made of tight corridors that make battle more lethal for you and your enemies, and the level design becomes a lot more concise and coherent.
Overall, Grim Dawn takes some time to get invested in, but once it gets its claws into you it's hard to put down. I appreciate a lot of the small details that Crate took the time to develope, but there are still a few issues that need addressed while it's still in alpha. All in all, for a game that's still in development, it's coming along really nicely. I can't wait for the online multiplayer so my Saboteur can back-to-back with Soldiers and Occultists against hordes of demonic forces and undead atrocities.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
I've spent an embarrassing percentage of my life planted in front of a screen. I'm pretty sure I know the layout of Planet Zebes better than my own home town, and most of my social life in high school revolved around Halo 2 and Super Smash Brothers. When I wasn't on a console I was playing every ROM I could get my mitts on.
These days I spend most of my time with games made by small studios, because they tend to make what I'm interested in playing. I love developers that experiment with new mechanics, write challenging and immersive narratives, and realize that a game's aesthetics are more than it's graphics. So long story short-you'll see a lot of posts from me about Kickstarter campaigns and Early Access debuts.