Grim Dawn Review
Great depth, grand districts, grave disposition, and gratifying duels
The Kickstarter funding model made a big splash in gaming four years ago. Giving money directly to developers was surely better than letting publishers dictate proceedings. At least we hoped. Since then, the track record for crowd-funded games has been mixed enough to warrant caution. Grim Dawn may have existed without Kickstarter, but it is hard to see it doing quite as well without an extra $500 thousand in the bank that early in development. It was easy to see why gamers wanted Grim Dawn—an action RPG created by the lead designer of Titan Quest using that game’s engine. Titan Quest was a successful hack-and-slash game of the Diablo ilk from 2006, and Grim Dawn was aiming to be another dungeon-crawling, monster-slaying, loot-collecting adventure. The good news for backers, myself included, is that Grim Dawn is better than Titan Quest and a fantastic game in its own right.
Players take the role of a human that was formerly possessed by an Aetherial spirit. The Aetherials are supernatural beings that corrupt the land, raise the dead and mutate animals for one purpose—human destruction. Although your character is rid of this paranormal force, some power lingers within. This includes the ability to capture riftgates which prevents more from entering the world. Aetherials are not the only enemies; Chthonian cults perform blood rituals to summon devilish horrors from a dark void that will, in time, battle humans and Aetherials alike.
Blood rituals are always bad news
The world of Cairn becomes a warzone with only a few safe refuges—isolated settlements home to factions that may become allies. Faction allegiances and conflicts are tracked based on foes defeated or quests completed. There is an option to befriend some, angering others in the process. Incur enough hate, by killing faction members, and additional foes may spawn to impede progress. In contrast, earn enough respect by completing tasks and the rewards include powerful items, trade discounts and more quests. This faction system makes the tale more appealing than another good versus evil scenario.
Although hack-and-slash games are rarely known for their story, Grim Dawn is packed full of interesting lore. Most is found in written notes, as the limited voiced dialogue during the single player leaves something to be desired. Notes provide back-story, such as a series from a family during their transition to violent cannibalism as food became scarce. This lore is backed up by continuity within the world based on player choice. Securing cannons will see them take place in the battlements and repairing a water pump will make it flow again. Rescued characters return to sanctuaries and can provide additional trade or quests. Care was taken when creating this supporting content and it propagates across the world of Cairn.
Homestead is one of the few safe refuges to restock and sell loot
Grim Dawn is powered by the Titan Quest engine and it brings an intuitive PC interface with a 3D renderer built for isometric action. The ragdoll effects from Titan Quest return, providing regular combat satisfaction as bodies fly into the air and pile on the ground. Shadows and lighting are used carefully—it even has a day/night cycle that provides a surprising shift in mood. The isometric view can be fully rotated (and partly zoomed) although it is rarely needed when foreground objects vanish on cue. There were rare issues, including invisible walls and the inability to switch weapons, both fixed themselves upon restarting the game, and enemies occasionally tried to attack through solid walls. Minor problems aside, the engine was made for this type of game and it demonstrates it often.
The variety of environments and monsters is excellent, from zombie-infested villages to wasps swarming within dark caves. Watching the snow gently descend upon a mountain-top—already swarming with bloodthirsty cult members—was quite memorable. The dangerous Aether-corrupted land looks stunning, scorched green from crystals embedded into the earth. Grim Dawn has a dark influence inspired by the Diablo series and with this comes a horde of skeletons, spiders, and slithering serpents. An underground insect cave compared favourably to the Maggot Lair in Diablo 2 because it featured more expansive passageways. The similarity makes sense given one of Crate Entertainment’s developers previously worked on the first two Diablo games. While some levels can appear familiar, their designs are more like a sequel paying homage.
Cairn has been tainted by the Aetherials
Cairn has many dungeons and caves, but most of the action occurs on the surface across fields, swamps or forests. These large districts are contiguous—players can walk across the surface with no loads between areas. You discover new settlements by walking to them. The layout corresponds closely to the overall world map and this makes for a cohesive adventure. The level design is also clever, utilizing main roads to guide players to objectives. Secret nooks contain glorious loot, found only by observing the world. All zones in Cairn are hand-crafted but random elements are introduced when roads are blocked and doorways are sealed by chance. Even dungeon entrances can change position. This offers a decent compromise, as blocked paths can result in a different route to objectives on replay.
Captured riftgates, found in each major area, become permanent waypoints since the world is not saved between sessions. Enemies respawn when resuming, so it can be draining to traipse back through areas. You can try to run past enemies, but it is not always successful. Visited parts of the world are shown on the 2D map, so finding the next waypoint will take less time than the first attempt. The time between rifts can be anywhere from a few minutes to an hour depending on exploration and difficulty. Delving into a multi-tiered undead crypt pushed this out further because there were no waypoints inside. Rifts are usually placed in sensible locations—at chokepoints or around faction headquarters—although they still take time to locate. If you prefer to systematically clear areas of monsters, then rift locations may dictate when you stop playing.
Some riftgates must be cleared before they can be captured
Players can slay monsters with six familiar classes—Shaman, Arcanist, Soldier, Nightblade, Occultist, and Demolitionist. Although some have similar skills, the classes generally play differently. The Shaman can conjure tree roots beneath enemies, slowing them and causing damage. The Demolitionist’s flashbang will daze and blind. Occultists can summon a friendly hellhound that will tear apart any creature that gets close. Nightblades can dual wield weapons in a typical assassin role. Although you can play as one class, Grim Dawn is best experienced with dual classes. For example, a Battlemage is the name given to a mixture of Soldier and Arcanist, able to generate a cold explosion and shatter the frozen enemies with a blade arc skill. With 15 class combinations, and several skill trees within each, there are many possible builds.
All classes utilize a multifaceted armor and weapon system that resembles similar games. As expected, items range in rarity with various buffs. Some spells are imbued into magical equipment, like an explosion erupting after taking critical damage. All gear can be further enhanced with special upgrade components dropped by appropriate monsters. Like gemstones in the recent Diablo games, they provide resistances or buffs. There is a huge variety—after finishing the game, my inventory was held captive by over 50 different components. Some rare components even grant new skills that become useful in battle. Additional upgrades and useful potions can be created with an exhaustive crafting system. While the component depth is fantastic, a better way to sort and browse through them would have been welcome. The armor and weapon system offers gradual improvement and lots of options.
Devotion shrines grant points to unlock constellations
So Grim Dawn already has plenty of complexity, yet there is another layer—Devotion constellations. Points needed to unlock these star constellations are acquired from shrines found around the world. Constellations mainly alter character traits, like additional health or elemental damage. Completing specific constellations will grant a special ability that must be paired with an existing skill. Assigning a Tsunami Devotion to a Soldier’s Forcewave attack resulted in a one-two punch—foes were dazed by the basic attack and then literally washed away by a wall of water. Freely pairing skills in this way can result in awesome combinations. Taking into account Devotion constellations, skills from components, and the dual class system, the player options are near limitless.
After finishing the story quests, Grim Dawn provides a few avenues to continue playing. The classes are certainly diverse enough to encourage starting again, although perhaps not immediately after the anticlimactic ending. Faction quests, undiscovered shrines, and hidden locations will tempt further exploration. There are no random dungeons to conquer so Bounties may consume a fair slice of the post-game time. These require players to defeat a particular boss or eliminate certain enemies. Early bosses are scaled to provide a satisfactory challenge. Finding bounty targets can take some time because they might be in one of several locations. Finishing all the unique bounties may add another 10-15 hours onto the already lengthy 25-30 hour campaign. The single player provides good value and there is ample content to enjoy after the main quests.
Bounty tables provide a major source of post-game content
Multiplayer allows adventurers to take their solo characters directly online. As you travel Cairn with others, monsters get tougher. With four players on screen, the action can become cluttered with many effects. Personal riftgates bring players quickly into the action and certain skills buff allies. Faction alliances did result in enemies being friendly to other players but the majority of foes are hostile to all. Exploring dungeons with others operates as you might expect, although there were some strange bugs with gates remaining locked for unlucky players; fixing this required zoning out of the level. Players also became out of sync, resulting in one invisible ally wandering around while their corpse remained perched near a dungeon entrance. It is a pity there is no graceful recovery when the host ends the game, as players are thrown back to the main menu after disconnection. Although sessions lasting hours were common, multiplayer did generate a few more problems than the solo mode. Aside from some bugs, multiplayer is generally easy to play and can be addicting as you clear tougher dungeons together.
Grim Dawn has been worth the wait since its Kickstarter campaign ended four years ago. Using the Titan Quest engine provided that essential first step to greatness, and it helped create awesome locations populated with diverse monsters. The levels are huge and joined together in a cohesive manner. The inclusion of faction alliances, and numerous written logs, helps strengthen the role-playing aspects. Character customization, class combinations, equipment upgrades and Devotion skills allow for a titanic range of viable builds. Once you finish the game, additional time can be spent with bounties, faction quest, and exploration of obscure areas. If multiplayer was more polished, there would be nothing holding it back from being strongly recommended. For solo adventurers, there are few better hack-and-slash games than Grim Dawn with its tremendous depth and excellent world design.