Grim Dawn is an indie ARPG that’s fresh off the Early Access train. I had… well, I’m not exactly going to call them high hopes, but at least a reasonable expectation that Grim Dawn wouldn’t suck, as developers Crate Entertainment were formed from the remnants of Titan Quest developer Iron Lore1, and Titan Quest is pretty well regarded as far as ARPGs go. As usual with ARPGs I roped in my usual co-op partner Kenti to play through the campaign with me. The good news is that we had absolutely no problems with the netcode; after a year in Early Access Grim Dawn’s co-op is solid as a rock. The bad news is, unfortunately, everything else.
Hentzau: Let’s talk a little bit about Titan Quest first. This was a mythical Greek-themed ARPG that I dabbled in for a few hours but which largely passed me by – I didn’t even get to it until a good 3-4 years after it came out. I believe you spent a bit more time in it Kenti?
Kenti: I did, yes. In a large part because it is indeed Greek Mythology-themed (and Roman, and Egyptian and Chinese… but not really Norse I guess… or was that in the expansion?)
Hentzau: Even with my limited experience of it I can see that Grim Dawn isn’t really a spiritual successor to Diablo 2, it’s a direct successor to Titan Quest.
Kenti: Yes, but without any of its charm – and with a generic fantasy (maybe with a touch of generic steampunk) setting to replace the slightly-less-common mythology one.
Hentzau: I’m not even sure what is going on with the setting! It’s supposed to be post-apocalypse (the titular Grim Dawn) but you never really get an impression of that in game. Both mechanically and thematically it comes across as a standard fantasy land overrun with monsters. That guy on all the promo art with the witch hunter hat and the pistols? That’s about as far as Grim Dawn is willing to step outside of typical fantasy tropes of warriors and mages and shamans – and even then it’s just stealing one from somewhere else.
Kenti: We’ve all played your Van Helsings and Victor Vrans – so of course there are guns and science and whatnot as well. Apparently that is THE theme for smaller indie ARPGs these days. Anyway, enough about the setting – it’s generic, and it’s a step back, but we didn’t exactly mind it that much when we enjoyed Victor Vran – it merely compounds other issues with the game.
Hentzau: True. It’s an ARPG, so I’m not going to hold a weak setting against it too much as long as it gets the hitting of monsters and the loot right. Unfortunately there’s some bad news there too.
Kenti: The loot piñata is not satisfying.
Hentzau: Well, before we talk about loot (because that is going to be a long conversation), let’s talk about the basic gameplay: the combat, and the skills you use to mess up the hordes of bad guys who are just minding their own business until you come along. I think the combat isn’t actually too bad. Attacks feel appropriately powerful, and there’s always a lot of enemies on screen and a lot of explosions and fire as you blast them into chunky kibbles.
Kenti: I didn’t spend too much time thwacking things, but that was very meaty and fun, and shooting them is also appropriately explosive. Especially when you move on to producing a hail of bullets with a pair of pistols.
Hentzau: I should mention that we both picked the Demolitionist class (who is the hat-and-pistols guy mentioned above), this being the least generic one on offer. Also he (or she) gets to throw molotov cocktails.
Kenti: Curiously it also seemed the only obvious ranged non-mage class (though the Soldier mentions both ranged and melee skills… it felt far too generic to engage with). The others did look quite interesting too, but even with the Dual-Classing (same as in Titan Quest) there was little reason to poke too much into the secondary class. I got a forest dog thing from being a Shaman, and that was enough.
Hentzau: I tried. Because I really, really liked the Necromancer from Diablo 2 (no game since has let me summon as many skeletons at once) I thought I’d try Grim Dawn’s pet class, the Occultist, as my secondary class. You can invest points freely in either class, and so after buffing up a couple of right click abilities and auras in the Demolitionist tree I started to level up Occultist so that I could summon pets to keep the monsters at a distance while I peppered them with hot lead. Unfortunately this idea had a couple of key flaws:
- The Occultist lets you summon a grand total of two pets at once. One is a raven which just flies around and heals people. The other is a hellhound, which is much more what I was looking for.
- The problem with that, though, is that most of the good hellhound abilities were sitting towards the end of the skill tree. Which has been recycled wholesale from Titan Quest.
Kenti: Just as with Titan Quest, unfortunately the most effective way to upgrade your character is to pump the precious 3 skill points at level up into your class Mastery track. This improves your stats, and opens up the tiers of passive and active skills. If you race up the class first, you can take damage, do damage, and have mana, whereas if you try to pump much into the skills first, you’ll be very fragile and have to chug mana potions every second. A combination of the two is just about fine, but means that your character never feels powerful, and it’s a bit slower going.
Hentzau: I really can’t emphasise enough how discouraging it is to hear the level up sound effect, see a blast of light around your character and a big pop-up saying what level you’ve reached, only to then have to go and spend all of your hard-earned skill points on Mastery because that’s what you need to get the next big skill. Stat increases aside it feels like I’m throwing those points into a black hole. And if you’re going for a skill that’s some way down the tree, you end up doing this three or four levels in a row. It really takes the fun out of level ups.
Kenti: Ultimately this is the same system that was first used some 20 years ago in ARPGs, and while Titan Quest brought some interesting variation, Grim Dawn hasn’t nudged the design any further except to add a separate skill track (Devotion) which offers a slightly different, albeit confusing, path to getting stats and skills.
Hentzau: So here’s the thing I don’t get about Grim Dawn’s skill tree: you also get character points on level up that you can use to increase individual stats. This, to my mind, makes the Mastery system totally and utterly redundant. As the immediate effect of investing in the Mastery track is to increase my stats, why not just give me more character points to spend and reserve the skill points solely for, you know, increasing skills? That would have been far more interesting, since if you’re going to have that sort of boring requirement locking away the fun stuff you might as well separate it out entirely so that I can spend as little time thinking about it as possible.
Kenti: Like Hentzau, I can’t emphasise enough how boring it is to pump points into +3% damage or 0.15 increased Mana Regeneration. Especially when alternate systems have been presented and shown to work in other games (Hello Diablo 3! Hello VICTOR VRAN!) which allow you to play with exciting and meaningful skills.
Hentzau: I was wondering how far we’d get before mentioning Diablo 3.
Kenti: I think we staved it off a fair bit. Good effort! Go us!
Hentzau: But yeah, Diablo 3 is the sinister, 2001-esque monolith looming over everything Grim Dawn does. It had a rocky start but Blizzard have spent four years polishing it to the point where it is the current pinnacle of the genre. Other ARPGs have to look at it and take stock of how they can best differentiate themselves, as otherwise these comparisons are going to come up time and again and Diablo 3 is almost always going to come off best..
Kenti: Even if it’s unfair to compare Grim Dawn to Diablo, there is at least Victor Vran – which made skills equipment-based entirely, and meant that what you carried was intricately linked to what cool abilities you used (among other ideas and differentiation). Grim Dawn has tried, I suppose – you have the components you can attach to items that give you extra skills, but they all felt weak and cumbersome to me (especially as there was no easy way to upgrade them, so the use was hardly encouraged).
Hentzau: You’d have a gun that did up to 80 damage per shot, and then bolting on a… whatever it was, a fire gem thing, gave it a whopping bonus of 3-4 fire damage. And remember, we were the rapid-firing pistol class, so 80 damage is actually a really small amount since you’re attacking more quickly to make up for it. I was picking up long guns that did 200-300 damage per shot, against which the component upgrades look even more weedy.
Kenti: I do have a bone to pick with the pistol dual-wielding too. It’s cool, undoubtedly so! We both spent the majority of our playtime doing it, but bizarrely it is locked off by equipment requirements rather than anything else. Maybe it could have been a class thing, or a skill thing… but no – you had to wear a special coat or have a special badge. Fine. But it also meant that I didn’t change my chest armour for only the entire game. Very very fortunately, there was no pressing need to, because no significantly better armour ever came up that even made me seriously think about it. Look, I’ve brought it round to loot again.
Hentzau: Yeah, I think we can talk about it now, because there’s about a hundred questionable design choices around loot that mean it’s by far the weakest part of Grim Dawn. To start with, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding that players like loot, so enemies dropping more loot is automatically going to be better. Grim Dawn consequently has the loot dial turned up to eleven; a single basic named heroic monster will drop 3-5 yellow items (magic), 1-2 green items (rare) and a blue epic item about one out of every two kills, along with money, junk whites and crafting components. It gets quite comical if you come across a boss or a couple of hero monsters at once, as your screen gets almost entirely obscured by the loot pop-ups. There’s just so much of it.
Kenti: They were clearly aware on some level what they were doing – there is a specific UI button that lets you toggle which level of loot you see labelled on the ground so you can pick it up. There is clearly a need to quickly move up the tiers discarding the basic and then ordinary magical stuff.
Hentzau: The thing is, though, that thanks to the basic laws of economics the fact that there is so much loot effectively makes it worthless. Even the greens and blues were discarded without a second thought if they weren’t straight upgrades because they just weren’t interesting, and I knew there’d be another one along in a minute.
Kenti: What could you with all this loot? Sell it? Ok, what could you do with the money? Uh… buy… some… rubbish items that were almost always worse than anything you might (occasionally) find. Money became completely meaningless a third of the way in.
Hentzau: It’s used in crafting? But hey, the game is so stingy with blueprints that I never crafted anything that wasn’t a Relic (which you can only get through crafting). Selling the loot is entirely pointless, and that’s a big problem because Grim Dawn has fucked up the other thing you do with loot in ARPGs: dismantling it to get components to craft other, better items.
Kenti: We were so excited about this. Dismantling items was shown on an early NPC you rescue, but locked off behind another quest. It was dramatic! At least we could see that there was a quest worth going on – what wonders would we be able to achieve after unlocking the hallowed dismantling power on the inventor’s apprentice?
Hentzau: Which didn’t happen until about 7-8 hours into the game. I would be willing to bet money I could complete all of Diablo 3, dire fifth act and all, in less time than it takes to unlock item dismantling in Grim Dawn. Bear in mind that up until this point all you can do with loot is sell it. It’s immensely frustrating, which makes it even more of a kick in the teeth when you do finally get access to dismantling and discover how it works.
Kenti: It required us to deliver Dynamite into the hands of said inventor (or whatever he was – his name was Kasparov). Dynamite being a very rare drop, in just a few areas of the game (mines in the ‘Wild West’ themed bit, appropriately West of where you start). It took us a while to gather the dynamite for this quest (and even more to be able to progress into other areas, including the Main Quest path). Glorious! Triumphant! We returned with the three poxy sticks of dynamite for Kasparov.
Hentzau: Only to discover that actually dismantling a single item would require a further stick of dynamite. Per item. Making it impossible to dismantle items en masse, or even at all without visiting an certain area of the map and going through a specific type of dungeon in the hope of getting a random drop that would allow us to take advantage of what (up until this point) I had always assumed was a basic feature of ARPGs.
Kenti: We ignored the system after that, because the developers clearly didn’t expect us to do much with it. I stopped picking up much loot, stopped selling it. It was such a sidelined part of the game that I don’t think it even slowed us down in terms of our ability to level up and kill increasingly tougher enemies.
Hentzau: I know I didn’t upgrade any of my stuff over the last 5-10 levels, and that was mostly fine because most of my damage came from my skills anyway.
Kenti: I guess there is something to be said for it – there’s not too much equipment churn, you get used to what you’re using and consider hard before upgrading. This would work for some other game, where monsters didn’t explode in a constant shower of stuff with meaningless prefixes and suffixes. I suppose there’s minor praise to insert at this point – much like Titan Quest, the items dropped from humanoid (and humanoid-ish) enemies tends to be based on or related to what they are wearing/carrying. So gunslingers will drop guns, cultists will drop knives and magic books etc. That’s nice. And it was nice 10 years ago in Titan Quest.
Hentzau: Honestly though, after a certain point I just started completely filtering out the loot. It was totally irrelevant except in 1% of cases.
Kenti: So: setting is generic, levelling up largely unsatisfying, looting problematic… what else has an ARPG got to offer?
Hentzau: Fantasy dress-up?
Kenti: I liked my witch-hunter hat.
Hentzau: You’d be in a minority on that one. I thought that all of the equipment in Grim Dawn looked absolutely terrible, kicking away the one last reason I might have had to pay attention to it. It’s all grey and brown and looks like it’s been hammered out of scrap metal, which might be appropriate for their GRIMDARK setting but isn’t exactly exciting to look at. It essentially reduced all of the loot to just a statline. And as we’ve established that’s nowhere near enough to make me care about it. At all.
Kenti: It’s a problem, because although abilities look pretty and exciting, lightning and fire flying everywhere, the general palette of the game is grim. With maybe some morning or dawn light colours mixed in. At last I think I understand the name…
Hentzau: Ah, we’ve looped back around to mentioning the abilities again, which is good because I have some additional criticism!
Kenti: Say it isn’t so!
Hentzau: As mentioned earlier, most of my damage came from my abilities rather than my items. This is because the way the Grim Dawn (and the Titan Quest) skill tree is set up is because it promotes overspecialisation in just 3-4 abilities rather than developing a broader skill set. You can invest up to 12 skill points in a single ability, and the level 12 version will be far more powerful than the comparatively weak level 1 version, which is fine at the start of the game but which really won’t cut it later on. So of course you figure out which of the skills are going to be the most useful and reserve your skill points for those, and those alone. This is bad for two reasons: one is that, again, your level ups are reduced to boosting the stats of a skill you already have instead of unlocking anything new, and the other is that by level 35 I had a grand total of four active skills sitting on a 10-slot skillbar. Remember, this isn’t like Diablo where you can chop and change runes to fundamentally change your skills and your equipment will provide further skill- and build-altering abilities: a level 12 skill does exactly the same thing as a level 1 skill, it just has more numbers attached to it. That’s just boring.
Kenti: I have probably said it before and I will say it again – either let the players effortlessly re-skill their characters so they can work out what works best for them and what’s fun to play with, or make the impact of making irreversible choices equally dramatic and very very very obvious upfront. Diablo 3 (sorry!) and Victor Vran (again… has to be said) both choose the former option, with skills being very easy to swap out in Diablo 3 and Victor Vran basing it all in equipment so you just mix and match what you’re wearing to do different builds. I have heard countless arguments about living with your choices and the importance of not making it so you re-skill your character for every specific encounter, but frankly I very firmly believe that any difficulty based on making things hard and cumbersome are just tedious and unfun. The permanent option is fine as long as you make anything you choose big, dramatic and balanced. Yes, Grim Dawn offers you the ability to reclaim skill points, but you have to pay increasingly more for every one you take back, so there is no easy way to try out different combinations, and the developers clearly don’t want you to. This is not a good thing.
Hentzau: Hey, at least we just found a use for the money. I don’t think the cost on respeccing skill points was particularly onerous, but the big problem with it was that while you could get back the points you’d invested in individual skills, any points you’d spent on the passive Skill Mastery of upgrading a class’s basic attributes (which as we’ve covered is the dullest thing you can spend them on) were permanently locked in. I can’t actually see a good reason for Grim Dawn to do this, except that it fundamentally has a problem with how easy modern ARPGs make things for the player and is deliberately tossing obstacles in their path in the mistaken belief that that’s what made older ARPGs such as Diablo 2 fun.
Kenti: There are other ways to do difficulty and challenges, and it’s usually best when you present it as something on the players’ own terms. Grim Dawn did have a few of these things – optional areas with higher-level content, and a sort of challenge-dungeon (we found one, I assume there is more?) where you can’t Town Portal back and are faced with high-level opponents.
Hentzau: That was fun! It was probably the best part of the game that we played, because it was a) something entirely optional, b) something Diablo 3 didn’t do, and c) actually had a decent payoff at the end. Although that last one was more the loot RNG actually giving me something decent for once, it felt appropriate. Regardless, it was a 3-4 level dungeon filled with high level enemies and no respawns. For once the game felt risky and challenging rather than a braindead monster mash. Grim Dawn needed far more of these moments to establish its own identity as something new and different rather than presenting itself as a throwback to an earlier era.
Kenti: I think ultimately that’s all that there is to be said for Grim Dawn. Had it come out a few years after Titan Quest, it would have been considered a fun extension and continuation of those ideas. So many years on, despite the attempts to drag the genre kicking and screaming into better design decisions, so few games have actually thought it through and taken a brave approach. Grim Dawn has played it far too safe, and has looked on the past far too nostalgically.
Hentzau: One thing to be said for Grim Dawn is that it’s making me think far more fondly of Victor Vran.
Kenti: Indeed, it showed than an indie crack at the genre is possible, even with an entirely generic setting. Victor Vran was fun – it had lots of cool ideas, and it stuck to its own path. It followed the idea of new and interesting design, but without resorting to using Diablo 3’s new and interesting design.
Hentzau: It was still entirely disposable, mind, but I don’t regret the time spent playing Victor Vran at all. I don’t think I can really say the same for Grim Dawn, except that it functions as living proof that rose-tinted glasses are a very, very real thing.
Kenti: There are bits of Grim Dawn I enjoyed, but I am somewhat remorseful about a lot of it, and certainly somewhat begrudge the price tag. It did not provide me with 6 pints’ worth of entertainment.
Hentzau: It’s actually kind of rare that I invest more than two or three hours into a game without finishing it, but that’s what I’m doing with Grim Dawn. I can’t face the slog through to the end of the game, even though it looks like it’s only a couple more hours. So certainly towards the end I’d question whether the word “entertainment” was really appropriate; I did have some fun with it at the start before its largely self-imposed limitations had started to show through, but it definitely became a chore to play later. Fortunately, since it is a video game released in a month that’s as overpopulated with other, more interesting-looking video games as I can remember, that’s not a chore I have to carry on doing and I have no qualms about dropping it to move onto more promising, less Grim pastures.