Hands On: Grim Dawn

Grim Dawn may still be a good few months away (currently perhaps at the end of August), but I’ve had my hands on some early alpha code to get an impression of this furrow-browed, grimly serious action RPG from the former Titan Quest developers. You can see my thoughts below.

The first time I heard about Grim Dawn was when Kieron spotted it in August 2010. A few members of the Titan Quest team had bought the rights to the engine, and were set to make another game – this one a far darker, more hardcore action RPG. I got in touch with the team and suggested that it might be good if we could visit their studio at some point. Which was when I found out they were working out of a garage.

Leap forward a couple of years, and after Tim Schafer invented Kickstarter there was a way for the game to receive the financial boost it needed. In fact it nearly doubled its target, making over half a million dollars. Presumably they’re not in a garage any more. And now: I’ve been playing it.

This is alpha code, and just the first third of the game, but it’s enough to sate my need to finally play the thing. And gosh, that title’s appropriate. It is, mostly in the right way, grim. Dark, gloomy, and mercilessly tough, it’s the game I’m certain so many furious Diablo fans wanted D3 to be when they found out that had planned to feature colours. There seem to be two central pillars here: traditional, and difficult.

Which is a mighty good thing, I should add.

It’s extremely dark and bleak environments at first can look a little primitive, but you quickly realise the detail comes with study. Much has been done to the old Titan Quest engine, not least freeing the camera to rotate on the X axis, and you don’t need frills when it’s serious business. So you really already know what to expect: A Tetris inventory attached to a character sheet of square slots, basic stats embellished by a sprawling choice of skills, and hundreds and hundreds of monsters to left and right click all over.

Structurally, there really are no surprises. Portals take you back to town, inventories get bursting full with items incrementally better or poorer than those you’re currently using, combinable gems to slot into weapons and armour, and everything else you might expect. And blimey, that’s always a pleasure.

While Torchlight 2 has done a splendid job of fulfilling most people’s needs for a classic aRPG, at the same time it remains a very breezy, light and cheery game. Grim Dawn is its aesthetic antithesis, far less immediately friendly or becoming. It growls at you, where Torchlight offered a warm hug. And as I’ve mentioned, it’s far more challenging. Perhaps, I’d argue, at this point a little too challenging.

As I’ve been playing, and having a thoroughly good time, I realised I’ve been forming a shopping list of features I’d love to see tweaked or improved in the remaining development time. There’s always a danger when this happens of ending up writing one of those shopping list pieces, in which you just list them all out and what’s already a very decent game can end up looking like it’s a collection of problems. So instead I thought I’d just write a shopping list.

These really do fall down to balancing issues at this point. My experience with the Soldier class – offered alongside Demolitionist and Occultist – was so difficult that I eventually restarted, going for the more mixed abilities of the Demolitionist. Soldiers should really be the tank character, but he was very weak against larger gangs of enemies (and you can be fighting upward of fifteen at a time), with no ranged abilities of much use. You can, after level 10, mix in another class, but even the Demo ability I picked was still not enough to stay alive quite long enough at this point. Restarting with the Demo, I’ve had a much better time, although again around the level 10 mark the difficulty really kicked in. Get to 12, however, and suddenly things even out again.

Not that it’s a bad thing, of course – an ARPG can be a tedious affair if there’s no challenge, and Grim is obviously aiming to be on the much tougher end of that spectrum. But there’s a line between high difficulty, and not having enough fun, and with the Soldier at this point I was dying so frequently that the repeated runs from the last rift gate became pretty frustrating. And that’s furthered by the slow addition of new skills. It would seem ideal if you were adding your third ability to your roster by level 10, rather than 12-13, but unless you’ve left your current skills extremely underpowered, you’re not there yet. It’s not a huge deal – it’s only another 45 minutes play – but spikes like that can need smoothing out.

Although I really do wonder how much would be fixed were there only more health potions. Obviously the genre is well known for having players just spam the things, and clearly a greater emphasis on tactics, running away to let the rapid heal kick in, and just being better at the game, are all an improvement on that. But health is so prohibitively overpriced at the start, and the rarest of rare drops as loot, that using one feels like quaffing the precious bottle of wine you were saving for the birth of your first kitten. There’s also an enormous cooldown on them, meaning proper health spamming is just impossible. Good, in many ways, but when combined with the issues mentioned above, it leaves me feeling extremely helpless.

Like I say, these are just balancing issues, most likely born of the team being so good at their own game they’ve forgotten that new players at the very start are going to need a bit of a warm up. Beyond this, absolutely everything is in place for a great action RPG. Right now this is early alpha, complete with bugs and all, so absolutely no judgments can be made for the long-term. In the short-term, it’s already shaping up as a properly challenging game in a genre that’s recently become perhaps a little over-user-friendly, and that’s a very welcome thing. Grim as it is.


  1. Gorillion says:

    Sounds upsettingly similar to PoE’s heinous balancing issues. Hoping the combat flows a bit quicker than that, though, and in any case still eager to get my hands on it.

  2. RedWurm says:

    One of my main annoyances with Titan quest is the glacial leveling speed, but that aside, this looks pretty tasty. Admittedly, with Path of Exile and proper mod support for Torchlight 2 I already have a few arpgs in my life, but I could just sleep less I suppose.

  3. ran93r says:

    I have my game code but not access for the alpha, glad to hear its looking nice though, it’s the very first thing I ever kickstarted. Currently dicking about with the Van Helsing closed beta while I wait for Grim to hurry along.

  4. EvOr says:

    You did not mention how fricking good the soundtrack is, this was the biggest surprise for me coming into this game.

  5. gschmidl says:

    I’m not a big fan of the enemies levelling with you and hope they’ll balance that a little more. Their forum is pretty split on the topic.

    And yes, the soundtrack is fantastic — I initially thought it was by Matt Uelmen himself.

    • Svant says:

      So if you go up level all enemies get stronger, thus making your gear instantly weaker? Like Dead Island did? If that is so, what the actual fuck is wrong with the developer. That is the worst system contrived for a level based A-RPG. Seeing your gear suddenly not work against an enemy it used to work against because you leveled up is all kinds of stupid.

      • EvOr says:

        They already patched the game to limit the leveling of the different areas. So that all ennemies don’t level up indefinitely with you.

        • Svant says:

          Does not make the system less stupid just slightly less broken. It is just such a bloody bad idea and feels lazy. Instead of making fun balanced levels where you gain more abilities instead of just getting linearly more powerful by getting more health and more damage they just let monsters go up in level to still be a challenge.

          Have not tried the game so do not comment on the actual leveling in the game, just that scaling enemies makes leveling up feel pointless and actually detrimental because your gear get relatively worse for no reason at all.

          • violentbydesign says:

            Just to be clear, the only reason monsters scaled with players was that Crate was afraid we would get bored with only 25 levels to get to in Alpha.

            It was to be reverted anyways at launch. This was just a way to make all, but limited, content fun to try out and to really go over lower level areas to find and report bugs.

          • Keyrock says:

            @violentbydesign – Actually, the level scaling isn’t going anywhere upon release, it’s an integral part of the system and very necessary for a loot em up. The level scaling is necessary because without it farming would not work, or at least not very well. Farming is a central part of loot em up gameplay. The level scaling does have a limit, though, so it is possible to become more powerful than an area or run into an area that is too powerful for your character.

  6. Ultra Superior says:

    John, you so cute when you play all these “difficult” games mwahahaha.

    I think it’s balanced quite right. Not counting in two immortal monsters. But then, I’m full on demolitionist.

    I’m surprised you don’t like the XP gain rate. I thought it’s almost too fast.

    • Knufinke says:

      I’ve played the soldier and the demo-man, and the latter was so much easier to handle since you could kill everyone from a distance with a very little risk to get swarmed, surrounded and killed in melee.

    • frightlever says:

      When a gaming professional is having difficulty with the difficulty there’s probably something wrong with the difficulty. Hey, when you’re making a decent living playing your difficult games, then you get to wave your willy around. At your other job. Which you wouldn’t need if the playing difficult games thing was working out for you.

      • John Walker says:

        There will always be hardcore gamers who find things easy. I’m not the world’s greatest gamer by a long shot, but I think my perspective is a lot more useful to a broad audience than that of someone who finds everything a breeze.

        (And it’s worth noting that I pointed out it was much better with the Demo – I suggest Ultra checks out the Soldier to see if he/she agrees that it’s under-buffed.)

        • Ultra Superior says:

          I should absolutely do that. I’ve studied the skill trees extensively when I was deciding what to play and I believe Soldier will become a breeze once all the passive skills click together and get around 20% chance of activating. Soldier has the highest physique gain, so they’re allowed much better armor (and therefore they may be more equipment dependent)

          My theoretical point is, Soldier might be well balanced for midgame.

          I’ve decided for combination of demo+occult, I’m using just the raven to heal me, and only the chaos buff to infuse all of my rifle shots.
          It works absolutely perfect. Spamming molotovs without recharge etc.

  7. Nova says:

    The difficulty spikes and the health potion cool down sounds very much like Titan Quest. I liked the art design of that much better, though.

    • Ultra Superior says:

      My initial thoughts, but the drab atmosphere, once it sucks you in, is so overwhelming, it’s in the end better than faux mythology setting of TQ.

      • Lacero says:

        It’s clearly the same engine, but it feels like it’s being something rather than pretending to be something as in Titan Quest. It really does feel like a place, a horrible place where ruined buildings reflect in pools of stagnant water and lurid green magic burns your eyes.

        The little notes you can pick up are a great touch.

  8. The Laughing Owl says:

    Are you seriously expecting to have lots of powerful skills by level 10?
    Excuse me, have you even played Titan Quest? Level 10 is next to nothing, you should feel like a commoner in the first hours of gameplay and then quickly start getting more powerful and feeling more heroic.
    Based on my Titan Quest: Immortal Throne 250 or so hours of gameplay, the game really starts shinning in the second difficulty, where you have most of your skills unlocked, but monsters and bosses are way more challenging.

    • Buckermann says:

      If I understand you correctly, than in your opinion the second play-through of TQ is much more fun then the first.

      Wouldn’t it be better if the first round would be just as much fun as the second?

      • Dominare says:

        Fun? FUN? Min-maxing is serious business!

        • The Laughing Owl says:

          There not much of min-maxing on TQ. I don’t know about this particular game though, at least much less than, let’s say, Path of Exile.

          It’s just a matter of not being stupid and using common sense while making a character build

      • Rocketpilot says:

        I liked Titan Quest a lot, but that’s amusingly true.

        To be fair, you can have quite a bit of fun in the game without having to unlock the harder levels. Mainly by going back to older bosses and whomping them with new powers.

    • durruti says:

      just… no… at level 10 you can have some good stuff – not that what you say is intended or something…

    • waltC says:

      Agreed. RPG’s by definition are supposed to start slow and painfully. I stopped dying fairly quickly in IT, but the first couple of hours were a bit tedious. IT is one of the best games I’ve ever played, graphically speaking. I would bet that the pre-beta state the software is in at the moment has a lot of tweaking to undergo before becoming the finished product.

      I think that releasing the camera x axis will add another dimension altogether. All through IT, I’ve kept wondering why they haven’t released a mod for the game that would free the camera–the graphics certainly seem up to the challenge. 360 free degrees on X will be a great improvement, provided the Y-zoom axis remains operational, of course.

      • aliksy says:

        Agreed. RPG’s by definition are supposed to start slow and painfully.
        This here is some reactionary, traditionalist, weapons-grade bullshit.

        Some rpgs do well by starting off with an underpowered character. Some. Not all. Probably not even the majority.

        • Tanksenior says:

          Think he might have meant to say ARPG, not just RPG’s in general… I hope.

        • waltC says:

          Thank you…;) I’m relieved to hear it isn’t “…some reactionary, traditionalist, weapons-grade bullshit” after all! Good grief, guy–first and foremost, games are meant to be fun for the player. No need to wax so sensitive about the precise meaning of a few words.

          opinions are like armpits; we all have at least two.

  9. Yosharian says:

    Please do not make this game easier. Some of us like a challenge.

  10. GSGregory says:

    Loving the game myself and how high the quality is over many games that are in beta or even released.

  11. Bartack says:

    The UI is an ugly beast.

    • GSGregory says:

      Why? I personally Haven’t found any issues with it.

    • nimbulan says:

      It’s funny, a lot of people complained about the original UI so it was redesigned, and I actually liked the original more.

  12. durruti says:

    wot i would advise you actually do is not to stay with the initial skills but advance up the tree to get more skills and spread the skillpoints out a bit so my bet is on your built sucked – in addition to melee being more gear dependent – sorry. :P at level 10 you can definitely get one tanky skill “halfway” through the tree as well as the blocking passive.

    i started with a melee occultist so i took neither of the damage dealing skills that make the occultist (much like the demo) a breeze, had to do some adjustments but then i got by even with subpar gear and rather sparse use of potions.

  13. Gap Gen says:

    There is only wawn. Or something.

  14. nimbulan says:

    I don’t have access to the alpha but I watched a gameplay video and I must say the thing I’m the most happy about is that they seem to have fixed that annoying bug/feature of the engine in Titan Quest where it wouldn’t let you move for a short time after your attack animation finished. Man that was annoying.

    The game’s looking very good and I’m eagerly awaiting being able to play myself.

    • Rocketpilot says:

      Mmm, actually it still pauses and rubber-bands at times, but far less than Titan Quest did. Really it must be something pretty fundamental in the engine.

      It’s a pretty bug-free alpha, overall, but sometimes when there’s a foggy zone you can disappear and walk around under the landscape.

  15. strangeloup says:

    Graphically it reminds me a bit of Dungeon Siege III, which reminded me that I liked that quite a lot, apart from the utterly nonsense last boss (and to a slightly lesser extent, the last dungeon).

    It’s frustrating because I like this genre a whole bunch, but as there’s only a few titles with controller support, it ends up being a fast route to RSI trouble if I play for anything more than half an hour or so at a time. Hence why I’ve not got very far in the otherwise awesome Torchlight II so far.

  16. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    Slow leveling is the real bane of ARPGs in my opinion. Borderlands 1 & 2 and Titan Quest had engaging systems, but I always hated how slow you level in them. Borderlands got by with decent FPS mechanics while Titan Quest had tremendously fun multi-classing, but damn if I don’t prefer Torchlight 1 & 2’s faster leveling. And here’s the thing: if you play Titan Quest with that mod (I forget the name) which lets you tweak XP and skill gains, it’s still tougher than Torchlight (at normal difficulty on a first playthrough; I think Torchlight 2’s difficulties ramp up quite nicely, and New Game+ eases you into greater levels of challenge very organically)

    Part of my grumbling is the fact that I tend to play solo in these games, when multiplayer increases XP gain and adds the fun of camaraderie, but still. Make enemies viciously tough if you will, but please be generous with skillpoints!

  17. dee says:

    John has the most adorable drawing style.

    • Sucram says:

      It’s Brian the rabbit, there to guide you through all things.

  18. MentatYP says:

    I think all of John’s complaints boil down to dying a lot as the primary source of dissatisfaction. If you didn’t die so much you wouldn’t feel like you’d need more health potions, level faster to get more powerful skills faster, etc.

    To that end I have one piece of advice: run. When you’re low on health start running away until your health regenerates. After a few seconds of not getting hit your health regen kicks into overdrive and you’re completely healed within a matter of seconds. I think the lack of health potions and the long cooldown is a conscious design choice when you look at how health regen works.

    Having said that I haven’t tried a soldier class from the start (playing a demolitionist right now and loving it) so while all of the above still applies there might be room to buff the soldier somehow so he has better survivability early on.

  19. Valanthyr says:

    I don’t know what you’ve done wrong with your soldier, but mine got through the whole content with 9 deaths in total, including a few I could easily have avoided (mindlessly overconfident). Granted, my demolitionist still has no death so far (nearly reached the end) and her equipment is comparatively slightly less effective, but I’d say the solider is properly balanced nevertheless.

    As for the health potion lengthy cooldown, it’s actually counterbalanced by the fast health regeneration once out of combat, which you can boost further with a solider skill. The whole system makes sense and I’m afraid either adding more health elixirs or shortening the cooldown would weaken it. The solider, with more than twice as much hit points and armor and a massive health regen through his gear, already has insolent survival skills, I’m not sure he actually requires more, especially since he has some decent crowd control skills too.

  20. Synesthesia says:

    Sounds fantastic, but the horrid, horrid art direction has taken me away me from this one. Everything seems like it’s been chromed and embossed in photoshop 20 times, then the specular lighting blown up more than the trinity islands. dLooks like those stickers MACHO GPUS come with.

    GW can get away with it, to some extent. I’ve played horus heresy and understood where that comes from, but looking at it in UI’s and game animations constantly is a little bit too much.

  21. Adod says:

    I’ve played the alpha a good while and it is certainly well done. I found the combat enjoyable and difficult as the author mentioned. I’m anxious to see the addition of the other two mastery trees, they both seem the most appealing to me.

    I’m sad to say that I believe the lack of procedural generation is going to mean this game gets played a few times through and then put away. It’s a fun game, but IMO one of the big the reason games like D2 are still played online to this day are because the environment changes from game to game. If left the same, you have a romp that lasts a few play sessions and that’s it.

    • MentatYP says:

      I used to think procedural was better, but I’m liking hand-crafted worlds better these days. The problem with manually created maps has to do with repetition after multiple plays, but if the maps are big enough there’s less of an issue there because it’s harder to remember all of the maps all of the time, thus reducing the likelihood of the maps becoming predictable and boring. Grim Dawn’s maps look quite large but time will tell.

      I think attributing D2’s success to procedural maps is overselling the point. Torchlight and Torchlight II would have sold much better and had better longevity if procedural maps were as big a draw as you think they are.

  22. Keyrock says:

    I’m playing a Commando (soldier/demo) that’s heavily skewed toward soldier and have had no problems with the difficulty. I can usually take huge swarms without any kiting at all, unless there are some cold ones, furies, or a hero monster thrown in the mix. I’m up to level 14 and have yet to die once and have bought exactly zero health potions from vendors. Of course, grain of salt and all that since I’m a seasoned loot em up player, so I have maybe a bit of an advantage to making a build to suit a particular play style. Also, I played a Pyromancer first and only started playing the Commando recently, so maybe some things changed since the early builds.

  23. MariaStepp46 says:

    uptil I looked at the paycheck which was of $8237, I be certain that…my… cousin could realie taking home money part-time at their laptop.. there sisters roommate started doing this for only 10 months and just cleard the loans on there cottage and bought a great Buick. read more at, Exit35.com

  24. icedmetal57 says:

    When I found out about the game in 2011 I immediately pre-ordered it to get alpha access, etc. I checked in on the game’s forums every day for about a year or so after I pre-ordered, while my interest slowly declined past that first year. Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, the game’s alpha is finally released while many are anticipating myself included, though like I said my interest had declined over time. The alpha was out for almost 2 weeks by the time I found out, I just wasn’t informed and hadn’t checked the forums in a while. So I immediately downloaded the alpha with the intent of playing just a couple hours or so just to check things out. Those couple hours or so quickly turned into a few 6+ hour binges where I played all the way through with one character, starting a new character right after beating the final boss.

    I think my original hype for the game had died down quite a bit over time, but it didn’t stop me from just diving in and playing it quite a bit. I rarely play a new game as much as I have this one anymore. I just simply lose interest in a game shortly or find some other game that captures my interest, despite my large collection of games and large amount of free time.