Totally has the essence.
But frankly, I've been quite struggling with the recent triple-A RPG titles... For all their expensive audio-visuals, I kind of felt underwhelmed as far as pure gameplay and enjoyment is concerned.
And here, in a game that cost me only a few bucks, it started oozing at me right after the first jerky steps in the dungeon lobby. What is it exactly? It's difficult to name... It's what grips you and glues you to the monitor for several hours straight – a mix of challenge, suspense and progress.
Most reviews I skimmed through mention how difficult this game is. Well, I don't think it is difficult, I just think it isn't moronically dumbed down to oblivion (I mean, skyrim). It has secrets, it has simple mechanics and it has a few surprises. None of these are given on a silver platter though. Wanna find all the secrets? Well, you better get on all fours and turn every stone over. Or simply keep your eyes peeled and have a dose of Augmented Instincts ready.
As a long-time RPG player, I could feel subtle RPG winks from the developers in pretty much every nook of the game (down to a secret message in the game's Documents folder ;). Grimrock has borrowed many times and from a number of titles, but always with grace and for good reasons. Alongside the today-exotic tile movement and 2 by 2 party arrangement, the game is true to two of the most old-school RPG factors: food and light. Neither of these two resources can be taken for granted throughout the game. And although the requirement's aren't so hard-core as in some of the original titles, it does help keep you in mild to serious suspense all the time.
As far as thrill and surprises go, nothing in Grimrock beats the good ole ambush. This isn't your typical bullsh*t-out-of-thin-air-for-the-fifth-time-ambush you might well know from Dragon Age. This is the kind of ambush that lights up a Game Over title as you bang your head on the keyboard grinding out "I knew, I knew, I KNEW I shouldn't have snatched that thing off the altar just like that!"
Although combat mechanics is trivial, one still has to experiment a bit. There's a certain try-fail-triumph progression at first, which later evolves into more of a fine-tuning procedure when you as a player strive to be more nimble and effective. So, it's not like you'd get stuck on bosses for hours, but you can count on being pounded hard a few times before you learn how to outrun or sidestep the more challenging enemies.
The skill system is deliberately simple and straightforward. Attack, defence, health, wisdom, strength, dexterity, there you go. A few special skills and a simple element/resistance system. While this does seem pretty barebones, it's still principally pretty much the same you get anywhere else, minus a few bells and whistles. The developers managed to squeeze in a few "non-numeric skills" as I call them - skills that don't improve stats, but rather give me something new to toy with - a new move, gear option or specialization. The spell system is simple too, even simpler than in the original Dungeon Master. Still, the joy of figuring out each new rune is there, one of the more memorable turning points in the game.
Graphics is kept simple, but not ugly simple or lazy simple. It's thought-out, coherent, with nice details here and there. New textures and opponents are sparse as would befit an indie game that doesn't want to compromise quality with quantity. Still, you wouldn't think how snug and cozy can a well-lit dungeon feel. I reckon the authors of Black Crypt must be drooling in their cellar offices right now, begrudging all the lighting pizzazz in the Grimrock 3D engine. (Hey, they even simulate how your eyes get adjusted to sudden darkness).
While there is no music except for the heroic dam-da-daa on the intro screen, sound effects are great. Not only are they atmospheric and scary, but also useful. Where has the secret wall opened? Just turn around a few times and listen carefully (let's hope it wasn't that wall behind which there were all the incessant spider-y noises last time I went by).
As for overall build quality, I was surprised how polished this game is for an indie title. In fact, for any title. The engine runs smooth, load times are fast (quick save/load included), there are no crashes and – what has especially made me happy – the UI is really friendly and no-fuss, what with a neat map and key config. In this respect, this game is almost invisible – there are no annoying fads or glitches, everything behaves the way you'd expect.
All in all, this is a worthy game. Even if it's a rip-off, it's an elegant rip-off – well executed and badly needed in these times, if you ask me.