The first thing you notice on booting Legend of Grimrock 2 is how ridiculously bombastic the main menu music is. It’s a fantastic swashbuckling remix of the theme to the first game, which was no slouch itself but which feels much more cautious and reserved in comparison. Nothing sums up the tonal shift between the two games more effectively than this tonal shift in its music. Grimrock 1 was an accomplished dungeon crawler that successfully resurrected what had previously been a dead genre, but it was limited both by its design and its available resources; it had an intentionally simple concept (start at top of mountain, work your way down through fifteen levels of dungeons, escape) that it executed well, and that developers Almost Human knew they could execute well. Having used the first game to stretch their legs, though, the sequel gives them the chance to really show what they can do.
Where the first Grimrock took place in a series of dank, dingy underground levels, Grimrock 2 throws open the doors to the outside world. Instead of being a group of prisoners thrown into a giant dungeon, this time around you’re… well, still playing a party of prisoners, except you’ve been shipwrecked on a mysterious island. The basic mechanics of the first game all make it through intact – tile-based movement, fighting monsters in real-time, solving puzzles, hunting for hidden switches etc. etc. — but with the significant difference that the vertically-stacked levels of Grimrock have given way to a sprawling set of horizontally laid out outdoor environments. This gives Almost Human much more flexibility to play around with their level layout and how you progress from one to the other; even though you can always see the seams and the game is still very obviously made up of a collection of 34 individual levels, the way they’re stitched together means that the conceit of the island environment is an incredibly strong one.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in how Grimrock 2 handles the route the player takes through its innards. Because it’s no longer limited to a one-dimensional progression through a series of sequential levels it takes the opportunity to create a truly sprawling level layout; the island hub will have two or more paths open for exploration at any one time, and there’s only three points in the game1 where it locks off an area to the player until they acquire the appropriate item. Other areas are locked, true, but it’s almost always by a puzzle that can be solved using brainpower alone, to the point where I found the ingrained behaviour taught to me by other games — where the seemingly open layout is actually an illusion hiding a strictly linear progression — was holding me back. Too many times I came up against a locked door or a gaping chasm halting my progress and assumed that I was supposed to come back later, when I could have easily figured out the way forward if I’d just thought for a minute.
Having several alternate routes open to the player is a really refreshing approach to game design, the power of which was illustrated by a conversation I had with my housemate a couple of days after Grimrock 2 released; we’d both been playing it for around five or six hours, but we ended up talking about completely different parts of the game because our paths had diverged so completely. In reality Grimrock 2 is probably more limited than it felt, but I didn’t care; it succeeded in making its environment believable to the point where it’s the most engaging RPG I’ve played since the original Grimrock in spite of the conscious artificiality of its core mechanics. Or maybe because of them – being locked to first person view and interacting with everything in a very tactile point-and-click manner instead of having a “PUSH E TO ACTIVATE SECRET BUTTON” message pop up certainly does wonders for its immersion value. There’s plenty of backtracking as you criss-cross the island from one area to another, but because you’re constantly uncovering new ground and finding not a few secrets you missed the first time around this never feels like tedious make-work, and in fact works towards the island feeling like an actual place rather than a collection of maps bolted together. Even if it does start to grate the game helpfully provides a hub teleporter system that’ll provide fast travel to certain locations from the centre of the island once you’ve unlocked the teleporter at the far end.
And what a centre it is. After Grimrock 2′s tutorial level you fight your way through a densely packed forest filled with horrible wargs and tree monsters, and once you get to the other side you’re greeted with this view:
Now that it’s made the transition outside Grimrock 2 really isn’t shy about hitting you with the occasional “Holy shit” visual moment, and this is one of them. The rest of the game is spent trying to gain access to this castle via collecting twenty power stones scattered across the island. You can get the stones in almost any order you want and they can be found anywhere — on the island surface, at the bottom of a two- or -three level dungeon, after killing a boss and so on. This is an appropriately freeform objective to match Grimrock 2′s new freeform environment, since it’s making you go out and actively explore that environment in order to find and acquire the stones. Who cares that the stones ultimately aren’t that hard to get and you’ll likely pick up all twenty just by being reasonably thorough in your meanderings? All it is is a driver, something to give you a long-term goal, and while it’s less single-minded than “Get to the bottom of the mountain!” it’s still effective enough to keep you picking at the edges of the map for the twenty-odd hours it’ll take you to explore all of it. That and how good the game looks. It’s not exactly a Crysis, but Grimrock 2′s environments are a hundred times more varied than the dungeon tileset in the original game, from the verdant castle environments to dusty Egyptian-style pyramids, and they’re all places you want to spend time walking around in simply because they look great, never mind the power stones.
I was really impressed with Grimrock 2′s overall structure. I was worried that the transition to outdoor environments would amount to the same gameplay in just another tileset, but it neatly twists that gameplay to fit its overall concept and results in something that feels very different from the first game while retaining the core features that make Grimrock Grimrock, as a good sequel should do. That’s not to say that those core features are completely unchanged, as Almost Human have moved to combat one of the biggest complaints about Grimrock 1: the combat itself. Because monsters moved slower than you could it was very easy to stay behind or to one side of them and hit them without fear of retaliation, and Grimrock 2 counters this by giving monsters special attacks consciously designed to wreck players who are trying the same trick twice, whether it’s an immediate turn-and-attack when the player moved into an adjacent space or a charge move to stop them from kiting the monster backwards. At first this works as intended; I was forced to stand and trade blows with the monsters instead of nimbly skipping away. Unfortunately I was also reminded that the reason I was doing the safety dance in the first game was because monsters all have tons of HP and hit like trucks. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but since the game starts you off with sod all good equipment the first three hours of Grimrock 2 were a miserable slog as I was repeatedly destroyed by lone monsters who had more health than my entire party combined.
Well, that wasn’t solely the combat’s fault. Partly I was playing the game wrong; I should have been resting far more than I actually was since there’s no penalty for doing so in an area that’s clear of monsters, but this was never communicated to me and so I thought it was too much of a risk and staggered onwards with half-full health bars until the nearest healing crystal had recharged. The character creation system is also to blame, since Grimrock 2 falls into the same trap Wasteland 2 did recently by failing to make all of its skills genuinely useful; as it happened I hadn’t built my party that badly, but having both my frontline fighters spec into Heavy Weapons made the start of the game extra painful since the only heavy weapon I found for those first three hours was a leg bone I picked up immediately after starting the game. For a while I was carrying around daggers that were doing more base damage than that sodding leg bone. It was only the presence of a fireblast-flinging Mage that got me through the start of the game by the skin of my teeth; it was a pretty miserable way to kick things off and I nearly gave up on Grimrock 2 because of it.
That’s a black mark against Grimrock 2, but it’s pretty much the only significant one I can think of2. Once you get some decent equipment the combat is more interesting and engaging than in the first game, and it’s the game’s failure to dole that equipment out in an appropriately timely manner which is more to blame for my woes than the combat system. There are a couple of other design decisions that are similarly questionable (a monster that can only be hurt by a spell you find in a secret area? If there’d been more than two of them I would be beating the shit out of Grimrock 2 around about now) but they come across as being more uneven than out-and-out bad.
The good news is that the puzzles — which are as far as I’m concerned the heart and soul of Grimrock — are almost as perfectly pitched as they were the first time around. There’s some new elements involving glowing pushable blocks and light bridges which are worked into the existing pressure plate/teleporter puzzles to give them a bit more life, and for the most part they manage to avoid veering into obtuseness; they’re hard enough that you actually have to stop and think for a minute or two to solve them, and the hardest of them require five or ten minutes of experimentation. What I like most about Grimrock 2′s puzzles, though, is that despite using those four or five static repeatable elements it’ll occasionally throw in something unconventional to trip you up, like having to place items in burial chambers based on the number of coffins or walking over and under a bridge a certain number of times. It’s never entirely predictable, and through this it avoids becoming stale over its twenty hour length. That being said I did have to google the answer half a dozen times — which is half a dozen more times than in Grimrock 1 — which is partly an artifact of my diminishing patience for scouring every single wall segment in an area for a secret button, and partly the game going off the deep end during the final dungeon.
Aside from this occasional hint of unevenness — and aside from those first three hours — Grimrock 2 is pure unadulterated excellence. The level design is great, the game looks stunning, and the puzzles are hard enough that completing the whole thing felt like a genuine achievement on my part rather than an inevitable conclusion to my time with it. So much so, in fact, that I happily sat through the end credits and their appropriately triumphant take on the main theme; in a game whose music says a surprising amount about it I felt like this was Grimrock 2 telling me I’d earned it. Finishing it was satisfying, instead of me just getting bored of the game and burning through to the end. It’s that feeling of satisfaction that says more to me than a thousand words of dispassionate analysis; there’s only a handful of games I can think of where I’ve been taken back to the main menu thinking “Yeah, that was really worthwhile”, and Grimrock 2 more than qualifies by building on and improving the original in so many ways. It’s not perfect, but it is a fantastic sequel nonetheless.