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Wot I Think: Grim Dawn

Diablo II's gloom returns

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Grim Dawn [official site] is a hacky-slashy action RPG set in a fantasy world ravaged by monstrous invasion, in which you play a wandering hero seeking to stem the chaos with blade, bullets, sorcery or all of the above. It’s been in Steam Early Access for a while, following a successful Kickstarter, but is now designated ‘content complete’ and will see full release next month – though you’ll get essentially everything if you buy it right now. Here’s whether you should or shouldn’t.

I hesitate to make quite so blanket a statement as “this is the Diablo III that many Diablo II fans wanted”, both because there are key ways in which it’s not and because I can’t speak for people who’ve spent years memorising loot tables and now expect very specific things. However…
Fantasy/horror action RPG Grim Dawn is a huge and slick affair which clings tight to a doomy tone, eschews online funny business and is careful to keep lore overload at arm’s length. A lack of overblown cutscenes aside, you’d never guess that it was made comparatively under the radar and on surely a fraction of Diablo III’s budget. Grim Dawn will leave early access in fine, fine health.

The Titan Quest (with which it shares several developers) influence is as strong as that of Diablo, though sadly the Harryhausen monster aesthetic wasn’t retained. We don’t get many tottering skeletons or screeching harpies, but both loot and powers ramp up dramatically quickly. It’s rarely a question of if a murdered monster will drop anything, and more how the hell you’re going to fit it all in your bags. The same excess extends to the many and often wildly over the top powers. Grim Dawn, despite the downbeat title, is determined to make you feel good.

By the later stages of the campaign, I was being aided in battle by a ghost raven (who could also heal me), three different kinds of hellhound plus the reanimated corpses of defeated enemies, and also I could transform into a giant. Who summoned lighting and threw big, exploding, poisonous eyeballs at people. And randomly exuded a wall of fire on a regular basis. I can’t even remember the rest of the skills – I was merrily cycling through the 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 and 8 keys in addition to hammering both mouse buttons, and basically everything was exploding all the time. And the monsters kept on getting bigger, long past the point where I’d thought they surely couldn’t get any bigger.

Almost nothing in Grim Dawn isn’t familiar, but almost everything is amped up enormously – yet its mood and its aesthetic is so buttoned down that it never actually becomes absurd. Well, no more so than several dozen hours of mouse-abuse in order to slaughter the entire population of a continent inherently is.

I’m in two minds about the look, and the tone. I understand that if you call your game ‘Grim Dawn’ then rainbows and unicorns are not to be expected – especially if Diablo II’s many fans are indeed your audience. On the other hand, there is a ton of inventive and even playful stuff in the world and creatures of Grim Dawn, but the gloom and also the relentlessness of the fighting often obscures it.

There is, for example, a sizeable section that’s trying to be a Western, capitalising on the fact that guns play a major role in combat if you want them to. I’d love to play a Western-themed ARPG, or at least a zone. Unfortunately this doesn’t really make it more meaningful than hats and boss names. It’s really just more spiky men attacking you in the dark. Similarly, the heavily Cthulhu-influenced stuff which shows up later on mostly (there are some noticeably large exceptions) just ends up thrown into the blender with all the other swarming monsters. There’s a broader Dark Victorian theme to the whole game, but I’m just not convinced that it manages to sell it, even if the weird hats are there if you zoom in close enough.

Partly it’s an art/lighting issue – though rarely overwhelmingly dark as such, it comes off as muted most of the time – and partly it’s hamstrung by the very nature of a game like this, but I did have this persistent sense that something joyful was being kept down by the overarching decision to be Grim. To be Diablo II and not Torchlight. And that decision winds up limiting Grim Dawn to A Fantasy ARPG as opposed to The Pistols and Cthulhu ARPG. If I were to pick the most representative monster in Grim Dawn, it would be a zombie. And we all know how we feel about those guys these days.

It’s not that it’s always that dark, but somehow the contents come off as indistinct much of the time. Look close and this isn’t the case: wonderfully detailed environments and intricate monsters put the lie to any lingering belief that 2D ARPG art is necessarily superior, although as you can see in the screenshots the screen is often too cluttered to take much in. This, and the need to play with the camera pulled out as far as it’ll go is perhaps more of a problem than the murk is – it becomes a seething mass of spikes and lighting effects. There’s no doubt that the artists have gone to town though, and on the occasional stretches where they do turn the lights up, it comes alive with colour and all the concerns of the last few paragraphs fade away for a short time.

It quickly reverts to form every time, though. An over-reliance on tradition, both visually and mechanically, is the chief black mark against Grim Dawn as far as I’m concerned, but clearly it’s also its biggest selling point. ARPGs may be one of the most well-worn grooves in the PC gaming LP, but at the same time we don’t get too many straight ones these days, and especially not as slick and sprawling as this is. Sometimes you just want to click the button and enjoy the twin rewards of a monster bursting into a fountain of giblets and the dopamine-triggering metallic chink of a new toy dropping to the floor.

Grim Dawn does try to offer a little bit more than this. There are conversation options with the handful of questgivers in the handful of towns, though they’re rarely more than Yes/No/Lore Please. More substantially, there are a few key factional choices to be made, which have a big effect on who or what you’re fighting at certain points, as well as eventual access to bonus trinkets (although expect some grind if you do want that).

If you’re of a mind to play ARPGs through repeatedly, then you’re guaranteed to be facing a few different bosses and clearing out or accessing alternative areas should you choose the opposite decisions second time around. I haven’t been able to play this twice – c’mon, just once took me almost an entire working week – so can’t speak to how the ultimate outcome is affected, but it’s definitely going above and beyond the ARPG norm in that respect.

But there are respects where it’s not, and I wish it did. For instance, there is so much loot but so little of it is useful, either for equipping to your character or for selling at a worthwhile profit, that I have to question why it’s there, other than for the hormonal hit of that aforementioned ‘chink!’ noise. I wish it had a more interesting alternative use than collect and sell.

As a consequence, this is also a game which is heavy on return trips to town to sell off all your junk once your bags fill, and sadly it’s declined to investigate the merciful Torchlight system. My Occultist/Soldier character might have had a dutiful menagerie of fighting pets, but not a one of them could return to town with my unwanted spoils to save myself the effort of going back and forth through a portal again. At least the portalling is ever-on hand and relatively quick, but it’s still a drag.

Clearly the sensible thing to do is to not pick up anything which isn’t yellow, green or blue, in ye olde ARPG/MMO rarity-flagging system, but it’s very hard to bat away the hunger for coin. By the mid-way point in the game I had given up on collecting standard loot, but again – why is so much of it there if that’s what we’re going to end up doing? I appreciate this stuff is part and parcel of why we play ARPGs, but given it’s specifically chosen to have a tidal wave of pointy metal objects, it’s a damned shame Grim Dawn didn’t even attempt a more interesting way of managing it.

Also coming up short is characterisation. Clearly Diablo III’s success demonstrated that the market is happy with posturing at the expense of personality, but bar an appropriately big finish Grim Dawn doesn’t really manage either. I’m not going to mourn that there are no cutscenes, but it’s a shame the vast majority of NPCs function only as talking signposts, sometimes with an option for a few written screens of lore. Very occasionally it dares to become playful – there’s a well-judged damsel in distress inversion at one point, for instance – but in the main it’s extremely dry, and neither the NPCs or your character have personal stakes in what’s going on beyond “please stop the end of the world.”

Granted, this is often par for the course for this genre, but it’s an area where Grim Dawn could have traded additional blows with Blizzard without necessarily requiring vast expense. Really it’s that it doesn’t want to be much more than hit monsters/collect gear, and it seems happy to drape a (very) loose Lovecraftian structure around that.

The one world-building thing it does pull off is that this is a land which has already suffered a monstrous invasion rather than is only on the verge of it – settlements are few and far between, and the roads, mountains and valleys which connect them are absolutely overwhelmed by beasts, bandits and beyonders. The whole place is a nightmare. Though, of course, what that really means is “kill everything all the time”, and the late-middle stretch of the campaign felt a little fatiguing as a result. (Usual reviewer’s proviso though: I cram-played this across a few days, whereas you’ll likely chip away at it over several weeks’ worth of evenings.)

Fortunately, the excess of loot aside, Grim Dawn is an extremely good hit monsters/collect gear game. It’s solid, the character classes are both very distinct from each other and impressively flexible (you even get to dual-class a few hours in), it goes big quickly and even bigger later, and it mixes up environments and enemies regularly. Like the best ARPGs, it feels like a hard-fought journey across the world, not simply a series of linked corridors which change colour every half an hour.

If backgrounds and props are repeating as often as one might expect would be necessary for something of this scale that doesn’t have a big publisher attached, it pretty much doesn’t show: it’s high-gloss all the way. The size of the fights and the range of both creatures and attacks on show in the final third or so of a campaign is riotously large; never mind Diablo II, this is definitely a Titan Quest follow-up. It might be muted, but it’s certainly not sterile.

This is solid, solid stuff, without a shadow of a doubt. Particularly, the character classes offer a ton of different and flexible powers, and then there are multiple ways of adding entirely new powers – weapon augments, an extra skill tree built by finding and reactivating shrines – on top of that. You’re just not going to have the same build twice.

If you have an ARPG itch to scratch, I can’t recommend you look anywhere else right now. And while it’s still in Early Access for a few more weeks, it absolutely feels complete, and the only sign of any technical rough edges were a couple of crashes that I can’t 100% guarantee were its fault rather than my PC’s. Don’t fear buying it now just because it says ‘early access on the tin’ – you’d never guess it’s not quite finished.

It’ll keep you busy for a long damn time too, even if you only play it once – though, of course, for many there’ll be later playthroughs in co-op or at unlockable higher difficulties. I think it’s the (admittedly presumed) desire to be the spiritual sequel to Diablo II which holds me back from heaping breathless praise on Grim Dawn, though. The need to be grim first and foremost forbids a clear personality from shining through, and the result is that I’m not sure how to finish a sentence which begins “Grim Dawn is that game where…”

Well, other than “…I had a better time than I did in Diablo III at launch”, anyway.

Grim Dawn is available now and content complete for Windows via Steam Early Access.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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