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Review – Grim Dawn

“Joel,” you say to me in a thinly veiled premise, “why have you never reviewed Grim Dawn?”

I say nothing because there is a hot mug of set-up to my face.

“I mean,” you continue “You’ve spoken about it, ranted about it, shoe-horned it into a Top 10 wherever you could. It’s been a year since the Hack-and-Slash ARPG by Crate Entertainment was released and you’ve clocked seventy hours of game-play, and yet I still haven’t read a review from you.”

“Look over there!” I point. You politely indulge my poor deception and turn in your equally fictitious seat, “Never mind it’s dead now. Hey, look at this!”


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Back in 2006 I spotted a THQ title by a studio called Iron Lore, it looked like a fairly transparent Diablo 2 clone, but one that was well made, set in real-world mythology and an Oscar nominated writer in the credits. Had to be good right?

While other games have taught me to be more wary of what I read on the cover, Titan Quest was not amongst them. It remains one of my most heavily played games to date, so when I learned that some of the creative minds from the now defunct Iron Lore had begun a new and similar project, I followed it like a dog. Sadly I was too impoverished to donate anything to the Kickstarter back in 2010, but once it became available for purchase I lapped up an early-access copy and began watching as Grim Dawn went from strength to strength. In February of last year the game was declared “done” (at least all the main content is there, they’re still making new stuff), but it’s only recently I’ve found myself called back to it as time and other titles have demanded less of me.

I needed a game to relax with. Grim Dawn feels like coming home.

Story

The world is over, those humans who would not embrace the new order, conform or convert, huddle together in the defensible corners of the world, shining lights of hope that barely cling to survival, but we are not the enemy. The Aetherials have come to turn mortals to their service, or raise their corpses as weapons; the Chthonians seek to eradicate humans to disarm their hated enemies.

You begin as one of the humans enthralled by the Aetherials, a host to one of their incorporeal forms, hanged by the neck from a gantry surrounded by a ring of salt and arcane symbols that ward the people of Burrwitch Prison from the creature that you have become. Just before the life leaves you, the Aetherial does, and under the orders of Captain Bourbon the executioner cuts you down and puts your freed vessel to use. Imbued with the incredible powers of the Aetherials but freed of their influence, Bourbon puts you to work scouring the world of the terrible creatures that haunt it.

Alright, so it’s an isometric hack-n-slash, the story is never really going to be the best part, you just want to smash some stuff, but so far as motivations go it makes for an interesting start and gives your character scope for growth. Your actions turn Burrwitch Prison from a refugee camp into a settlement for survivors. I’m also learning that there are some very real decisions that impact the world – probably shouldn’t have killed the bandit extorting the refugee camp in Old Arkhovia, pretty sure the village wouldn’t be burned down now… I guess I’ll find out on a replay, but for now, kill in moderation.

Style

The world of Cairn is grimy on an epic scale. You fight your way through a world that has already seen war up close and personal, but where in many games you’d just pass through a few ruined buildings, little details make the difference between a wooden husk and a lost home. The diaries of children found in the bedrooms, the bars where a social gathering is reduced to blood on the floor, even the names of companies on the sides of fallen carriages make for a more lived-in setting.

Post-apocalypse you’ll find lines of salt to ward against the horrors that come in the night, rune circles to call them forth, strange and terrible tableaux that paint vivid pictures of what has become of civilisation. I found a man who had trapped his family inside their house and was preparing to burn them alive inside rather than allow them to fall prey to the horrors around him. Mining equipment repurposed to serve as instruments of torture, a prison turned into a fortress of salvation, that grows and strengthens as you save more and more from the hell outside it’s walls.

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By and large your villains are fairly typical fair with a few exceptional stand-outs. Zombies, giant bugs and beasties, varying applications of the different damage-types like fire and ice and whatnot, although there are some changes to the standard cast. Fury zombies are a lot faster and heal when they deal damage, a small difference that forces a sudden change of tactics. You’re standard resurrector/spellcaster monster is a variation on a D&D style beholder, they burst like balloons but they do make for a slightly harder fight unless dealt with swiftly. Bandits make for a more haunting visual when cascading with arcane energies or smouldering with fire, and even more entertaining when they have the audacity to use player-skills against you.

There are times when the voice acting is a little stiff but it’s broadly well delivered and well written. Having played in the earlier days where there were no such voices it’s a definite improvement to have main characters speaking. The composition of Steve Pardo is an incredible compliment to Cairn, but while every piece of music is a pleasure to listen to – with or without the haunting ambient sound effects – I’d have to say that it’s one area where Titan Quest did a little better. The music carried a distinct theme from chapter to chapter, but was almost all procedurally generated. Tone would shift drastically and seemlessly as you entered and left combat, would take a darker tone as you crossed the boundary line into dark ruins, all without breaking tempo.

Gameplay

One of the elements of Titan Quest I adored the most was the mix-and-match Mastery system. Rather than choose your character and be set to that choice from minute one until you’re done as you would in most RPGs (at least those that support a class based system) you may choose a Mastery early in the game, and then much later as you find your feet and probe the strengths and weaknesses of your choice you may choose a second. The two combine to make your class. In Titan Quest I most frequently combined the Dream Mastery which allowed me to bend reality with a range of low-damage/massive-area powers with Defence to amp armour and offer some focussed damage output, creating a juggernaut of crowd control.

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Rather than being given a set path of skills, each rendering the last obsolete, your growing power adds extra abilities to your earlier powers. That explosive cocktail you’ve been throwing? Now it makes the ground burn. The giant thorn-monster? Wouldn’t it be nice if it could flatten your opponents instead of just hurting them? No more powers being forgotten, just more potency!

I’ve played most of the masteries in Grim Dawn and I think I’ve found my favourites, but I’m left with a grievance. A few of these classes have too many “active powers”. To clarify, some of these powers are simply active constantly or have a chance to activate, and are therefor “Passive” so far as the player is concerned. Most require the pressing of a button, which you map to the number bar at the top of the keyboard. If you have two of these classes adding their skills to the bar it fills up quickly, which wasn’t a huge deal in Titan Quest, I’d maybe fill up to 6 by the final chapter. Grim Dawn I’ve hit 6 and I’m not even a third of the way through. The Demolitionist alone has eight active skills (not including those you simply toggle on and off).

All well and good, right? Just move your hand, or scrap a few skills? Well a lot of these skills are useful on a regular basis, especially in concert with one another. And my keyboard is ergonomic, moving your hand may be an option for some, I am sadly penalised for being different. Woe unto the gamer with a writer’s keyboard. And it does mean that earlier skills end up just falling by the wayside, not replaced with a similar function, just made redundant.

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Anyway, there is the extent of my grumble, and one area where Grim Dawn does not live up to it’s forebear. By and large Grim Dawn offers a superb and unique ARPG complete with everything you could ever want. Carnage and violence mostly, with options on crafting, factions you can choose to pay attention to, some really awesome hidden or unlockable areas that offer challenge and reward in equal measure. Failing all of the above, just charge head-first into the fight and kill some extra-dimensional scumbags!


“See” I say, restoring the original narrative “it’s been here the whole time!”

You look at me disdainfully and say “You’re fooling no one, and this whole framing device has been a pointless distraction.”

The premise collapses under scrutiny.

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