Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Grim Dawn - First Impressions

Grim Dawn is a PC action-RPG created by Crate Entertainment, an indie studio staffed by veterans of Iron Lore, creators of Titan Quest. It's available via the Steam early access program, and is still in active development. I picked it up during the Steam summer sale, and I've put about eighteen hours into the game, mostly on a Soldier character.
Grim Dawn, a bad place for horses

Grim Dawn's basic game play will be very familiar to ARPG vets. Run around third-person view maps killing things and taking their stuff. Characters are classed, Soldier, Demolitionist, Occultist, and Nightblade, but there's a twist. Once you get past level ten (current level cap is 35), you can choose a second class to spend your points in, effectively creating hybrid characters. Class advancement is based on attribute gains plus a class skill tree. The skill trees feature three main skill types. Active skills are things you bind to buttons and use, attacks and spells. Passive skills provide buffs and bonuses without player intervention. Finally, modifiers alter / enhance active and passive skills. A fourth category, transmuters is coming soon. These skills change the way active (and maybe passive) skills work.

Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?
Skills are fairly straightforward, I set up my soldier to use Cadence, an active that provides a bonus to melee attack / damage every third swing, and Blitz, a multi-target charge with knockdown potential. I added in a few passives for toughness and healing, and modifiers to my two main active skills. Here's where I hit my first negative in the game: characters use very few active skills. My soldier is now level 31, and I've used two active skills throughout (I did throw in a one-point summon from the occultist tree just to try out dual-class, but that's once a session fire and forget). With only two skills in use, play felt monotonous: blitz the pack, LMB nearest remaining target, blitz again when cooldown was over, pick up loot. There's very little more to the combat side of the game. I started a Demolitionist as a second character and they feel about the same, toss out Shock Jacks and then fire gun at approaching monsters.

And speaking of monsters, there are lots of them: swarming packs of undead, giant hog herds, weird cultists with summoned demons, and more. Sadly there's not a lot of variety in monster action. Most battles involve getting swarmed by a pack and beating them to death as they try to return the favor. There are some ranged variants that fire bows or guns or spells, but overall, there's not a ton of difference between a bandit spell-caster and a cultist spell-caster. You can also expect to fight your way across the same maps a couple times, because monsters respawn between game sessions; return trips mean clearing again.

Burrwich used to be a nice place
Why return? Grim Dawn is quest driven. The inhabitants of Devil's Crossing, the survivor's enclave in a prison, need your help, as do the various strangers scattered across the world. That, coupled with large zone sizes, means repeat visits across multiple sessions, unless you have huge chunks of free time to devote to the game. The quests aren't bad, and they match the lore of the world quite well. And it's a nicely imagined world, with floppy-hatted cultists, nasty gun-toting bandits, nasty harpies, and lots of undead zombies, skeletons and ghosts (oh my). Completing quests also builds faction with the various groups in the game, though that doesn't seem to affect much yet.

By now it probably sounds like I didn't much enjoy the game. That's not quite right. There's some gold in here. First the world really is quite interesting, both in lore and in appearance. The graphical style is what I'd call quasi-realistic, not my favorite, but it's done very very well. Zones are (too?) big, and have some really good complexity to their layout. Colors are muted, especially in some of the grimmer areas, but even the darkest dungeon is graphically appealing, with tons of small detail that brings things to life. It reminds me a bit of Path of Exile, but with a more polished and refined finish. Kudos to the devs for carrying this off so well.

Another nice feature is the treatment of secret rooms and areas. There are some destructible walls scattered across the world, and these allow access to hidden tunnels, caves and fields. There are also tons of breakable loot caches in the world, and some of these are very subtle, which I like quite a bit. It's a game where paying attention pays big, since these caches and secret areas often contain  really good loot.

And speaking of loot.. this is an ARPG; loot is a big deal. There's a lot of it, in the usually multi-quality style (though for some reason the devs thought not using the standard color progression was a good idea -- it wasn't). In addition to the usual slot-based gear, there are add-on components that can be affixed to gear. These drop (in pieces) as treasure, and once you complete them, you can simply right-click them onto appropriate gear. There's also a blacksmith, who can craft new items for you, including high-quality gear from found recipes; and a stash (plus shared stash) for storing your loot.
Just a cellar, but look at the nice details!
Minor gripe about the add-on components: they don't auto-stack, and the click-stack mechanism is tedious and clunky. You can't right-click assemble components in your stash, and their icons are tiny, so there's a lot of inventory shuffling involved. I'd rather be killing monsters. That said, the component system provides a lot of customization to gear, allowing you to set up your equipment to support your play-style.

OK, probably enough babbling there. I haven't touched on a couple of things, like the waypoint travel system; or the healing system, which is an interesting potion plus out of combat healing if you have enough constitution from food system; or the rotating camera POV; but I think I've hit the highlights and initial impressions from my eighteen hours of gaming.

So what's the final impression? Mixed. The game has a really great look and feel, but combat felt a bit boring because of the low active skill count. There are some quirky bits so far as inventory / item handling that are minor annoyances, but I'm hoping those get addressed in ongoing development. The game is still actively changing, with new content and skill changes, plus multi-player in the works. The developer forum is active, and the team seems open to feedback. I'm really hoping some of the clunky bits get sorted out, and some excitement gets injected into combat. If they do that, Grim Dawn might just be my next big ARPG time sink, especially with multi-player on the horizon.

Beware the Harpies

Like what you read? If so, you may want to check out my other video-game related posts, either via the convenient tag or the summary page here.

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