Let me begin this review by saying: “Thank goodness for Kickstarter!” Crowdfunding platforms have completely re-shaped the gaming industry in a very favorable way. Where previously, indie titles were relegated to the periphery, stuck in the shadows of the big, corporate, triple-A gaming companies, these days all of the highly creative folk out there can make it happen and get their projects funded outside of the big dogs. Kickstarted games have allowed original ideas and incredibly immersive worlds to be shared by everyone, instead of being relegated to the sidelines while the monolithic (and in many cases full of hubris) gaming publishers seize all of the glory and lime light.
Having said that, my first brush with Crate Entertainment’s recently Kickstarted dynamo, Grim Dawn, wasn’t a good one. After receiving the game, downloading it, installing it, and firing it up, I felt sort of let down that I wasn’t presented with some sort of snazzy intro. I was given a rather generic looking character and unceremoniously plopped down into a little grungy town called Devil’s Crossing. I looked around a bit and spoke to a few of the locals and eventually gained my first quest, which was something about investigating the source of a recent series of undead attacks originating from a nearby burial area. The game certainly looked the part, and featured graphics on par with any of the modern RPG games out these days, but that’s not the most important aspect of a game of course.
As previously mentioned, I was wondering how I was to take on a proper character class, and something beyond just a rusty knife and simple plank shield. What if I wanted to be a magic-caster? Or perhaps a scurrilous rogue? As I pondered these questions I neared a bridge which led to the burial area in question, and that’s when I spied a guard shooting at throngs of incoming undead. I blinked, no that guard wasn’t slinging stones at the zombies, and he certainly wasn’t holding crossbow in his hands; it was indeed a rifle. Right then and there I said “Hmmph” and quit the game. Fantasy-based games with gunpowder weapons never appealed to me since they seemed incongruous. From there, I went on to the next game.
Boy was I wrong.
A few days later I met up online with a gaming friend of mine for our weekly “geekend” gaming weekend.
“What? No, you have to try it again, man, it’s really what Diablo 3 should have been,” he implored me.
“Mmmmm, I don’t know about that, but okay I’ll try it again,” I said, since my friend shares many of my same tastes when it comes to games and gaming.
“You’ll see, you just have to get into it. Co-op is also definitely a blast!”
So, we began a game together and I must say, I sure had it wrong. To start with, I quickly learned the basics of the relatively intricate combat system. It featured locational damage (you wear separate pieces of armor for each of your body’s main regions), a highly intuitive UI with assignable hotkeys for spells and abilities, and room to customize your combat play style how you want to.
I also realized that I had to reach level 2 before even being allowed to choose a Mastery, that is to say, a bona fide character archetype. I instantly fell in love with Grim Dawn’s class selection. You can choose from six different base Masteries, including the Archanist, Nightblade, Demolitionist, Occultist, Soldier, and Shaman. Since my friend was playing a more melee-centered Nightblade, I chose a Demolitionist, since I could both attack from a range and also set up traps, as well as engage in close quarters combat when needed.
As we played on, I learned how that with each experience level gained, we were awarded points for boosting up our three main attributes. Physique allows you to carry heavier armor and weapons, Cunning controls how much damage your attacks inflict upon enemies, and Spirit is your energy meter for both spells and abilities. After dispatching tougher foes we gained more desireable loot, some of which we couldn’t use because our attributes or class level weren’t high enough. Thankfully, back in town there was a “smuggler” who would hold on to items temporarily for us until we were able to utilize them. This created a fun sense of wonder as to how these for-the-time-being-unusable items would perform in the future and would make us feel all giddy and warm inside upon being able to wield/wear them.
The ability trees are also handled very nicely. My Demolitionist chose to carry “stunjacks” and “blackwater cocktails,” which both shocked and blew up our enemies respectively. Every skill, spell, and talent was laid out very logically and featured an easy to use, yet highly detailed interface. Soon, my partner and I began to find our rhythm, combat-wise, as he began to put more points into his physique and donned heavier armor, becoming more or less our tank. I, on the other hand, focused increasingly on more ranged abilities such as imbuing my firearm’s rounds with incendiary magic which would explode upon contact with enemies.
Yes, after learning more about Grim Dawn’s lore I realized that it was set in a loosely Victorian-era world, so the firearms made more sense. As a matter of fact, I came to enjoy using them immensely, since they not only were unique from a narrative standpoint but also allowed for additional tactical considerations. Should I carry a two-handled blunderbuss and blast away at groups of foes from a medium range, and then switch to my shield and ax when foes closed in on me? Or, should I remain at a longer range, firing at them with more pinpoint accuracy with my repeater rifle and spells, and forego melee combat altogether?
Luckily, the intuitive interface allows you to easily manage such things as hotkeys (you’ll be using the one for health potions a lot!) for spells, abilities, items, and other fun stuff, as well as switching between kits for melee and ranged considerations. I’m not a big hotkey gamer but Grim Dawn’s system is so accessible that I got my system down—which consisted of firing off my ranged attacks and stunning enemies, and then switching to my melee kit while charging them—in no time.
What was really cool, however, was how we were able to pick an additional class once we reached level 10. Not only can you become a multi-classed character but you’re also given a unique designation for them. My buddy was a Nightblade who chose a Soldier for his second class, thereafter becoming a Blademaster, while I, a Demolitionist, picked Occultist, thereby transforming into a Pyromancer. Little touches like that show the developer’s attention to detail and go a long way in defining Grim Dawn as a work of passion.
I also found the storyline to be interesting. You are thrown into the war-town world of Cairn, which has fallen from grace after being recently invaded by otherworldly forces. I won’t spoil anything here, but let’s just say that Cthulhu references abound, which is fine by me since I lap up anything related to the Cthulhu mythos. On a more micro level, the quests that you take on and complete really have profound consequences, and are also very memorable. One of our early ones featured us finding the source of poison flooding the town’s water system. After tracking it down to an underground labyrinth filled with evil, Naga-like, lizard men, we found and slew their big scaly boss. When we got back to the town and told the gentleman who tasked us with the quest, that we’d dispatched the head creature, and handed over some items for the water pumps restoration, we noticed how the nearby water flow suddenly turned from a sickly yellow to a crystal clear color.
The graphics in Grim Dawn are stunning. The more I travelled across the world map and entered into its different areas, the more I realized that this was a real labor of love. Each zone is meticulously detailed and looks fantastic. You can also zoom in using the mouse wheel and check out your gorgeous character model complete with all of their items and weapons. 4k gaming folks will be in for a real treat.
Overall, I found Grim Dawn to not only surpass the games that it has been compared to (Titan’s Quest and Diablo 2 and 3) but also offers a unique fantasy setting to play in. Its combination of highly intuitive gameplay mechanics, refined physics, tweaker-inducing loot system, and super fun combat, along with an immersive storyline, make it the best action RPG I’ve ever played. And it’s scary to think that although it is now “content complete” as the developers report, it’s still in Alpha. Grim Dawn has succeeded in setting the bar higher than ever for other gaming companies to strive to reach. I, for one, will be losing large portions of my life to this game in the near future.
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