I’ll be honest with you, there will be a lot of comparisons in this review. Mainly because this type of game is for a specific subset of RPG fans, those that like to click a lot, and the genre has certain heavyweights that one must acknowledge. This game in particular has a lot of features that make it so easy to compare to other games in the genre. This is by NO MEANS a bad thing.
Action RPG (ARPG) fans aren’t left wanting in today’s market thanks to entries like the free to play juggernaut Path of Exile (PoE) and the sequel to possibly the greatest ARPG of all time, Diablo 3. A sequel in name only, some might say but I digress. Grim Dawn is a game that has been delayed quite a bit over the course of its development but I think that has worked in its favour. There is a good amount of polish and balance that has come about because of the feedback from the backers and playtesters and almost all of it was squeezed in before the game was fully released in February. There is already a free content patch and mod tools coming out towards the end of this month which speaks to the devs commitment to the game but that’s another story. Grim Dawn wears its lineage on its sleeve. The gameplay designer (and possibly others) that worked on Titan Quest (TQ), it’s spiritual predecessor, had moved on to take advantage of the Kickstarter craze in its infancy and quite frankly I’d like to call it one of the few campaigns that has actually turned out a product like what was offered in the marketing blitz.
The gameplay is probably the most crucial part of games like this one so I’ll get straight into it and leave somewhat incidental details like story until later. The combat is satisfying for the most part and your class selection doesn’t necessarily define how you play. Like TQ, the skill system has a watershed moment when you hit level 10, where you pick a second class to mesh into the first one you chose. Imagine if you could pick both Barbarian and Sorceress in Diablo 2 and the skill sets were designed in such a way that it actually made sense to do that. Considering there are 8 classes, that’s a hell of a lot of ways to play the game. Each pairing of classes also gives your character a neat subtitle. There are some obvious synergies that are easy to utilise between a few classes and some combos that I personally just don’t think will work at all but I’m sure there’s someone out there with more play time than me who could prove me wrong.
There are different ways to build and play each class that could change them from melee tank, to spell caster, to ranged weapon user in most cases but there are still optimal selections to be made for specific play styles if you’re just trying to make your damage numbers bigger. For example, the Demolitionist is far and away the best character for ranged weapons and while your secondary class selection won’t really have a negative effect on your damage output, it could definitely change your chances of survival. If you wanted to play a summoner however you’re pretty limited to choosing the Shaman and Occultist. There are only 3 directly summonable pets that come from the various skill trees, there is another mostly passive skill tree however which houses summons, and buffs to summons, as well as buffs to your character itself. This skill tree, called the Devotion system, sits above the 2 classes you have chosen, this tree is somewhere between PoE’s passive skill tree and a Rubik’s cube. In the course of your travels you’ll come across shrines that, once cleared by either sacrificing specific items or defeating monsters that are summoned by the shrine, will grant you a point to put into the Devotion tree. There are 5 colours or Affinities that permeate this tree and you need to pick up certain constellations that give Affinity points which in turn unlock other constellations for you to put Devotion points into.
Got all that? Good.
For more casual players, you may not even touch the Devotion Tree, as it’s completely possible to beat the Normal difficulty without the bonuses provided by it. Personally, when I’m trying to get the most out of my characters, I spend a lot of time on the Grim Dawn wiki and with build calculators like grimcalc.com. So if you’re looking to get through every difficulty and crush all that there is to crush, keep that in mind. This may well be one of the more complicated ARPGs getting around at the moment. The forums are constantly hit with questions about how specific mechanics work and there are a lot of mathematical formulas thrown around in these threads as well, so if advanced class mechanics and theory crafting is for you, then Grim Dawn definitely offers it.
Maths and theory aside, Grim Dawn pretty much boils down to clicking on things until their red bar is empty (preferably before your own red bar is empty) and there are a hell of a lot of different ways accomplish this. Allocating skill and attribute points is quite important as only the former can be respecced, then there are the stat points in your character screen and skill points that go into the bottom bar of the skill trees (see the picture below). This bottom bar isn’t just an arbitrary gate that locks skills away, it actually provides stats as it grows, and the dispersion of those stats changes for each class so you may want to keep that in mind when you’re leveling up.
There is a bit of a design flaw in Grim Dawn when it comes to stat allocation/health, which in my opinion, is shared by both PoE and Diablo 2. Generally, for end game/high level play, the “better” way to distribute stats dictates that you will need to dump a lot of points into the stat that increase health most of the time.
While we’re on the topic of similarities, Grim Dawn has a few features that are extremely similar to the Diablo series and PoE, one of these being the itemisation system which features plain, magic, rare, set and unique items. There is a lot of loot to find and a whole bunch of bad dudes to beat up to get it from. The drop rate is satisfying enough that I never had to rerun bosses to try to find more gear and there are even “one shot” chests hidden around the place that always give 1 unique or legendary (super unique realistically, designed for level 50 and up) in the higher difficulties. These chests only appear once in each difficulty so it really is in your best interest to explore every inch of the map to find as many secrets as you can. Moreover, there are some things NOT on the map which house some great rewards. There are hidden areas where you can actually walk off the minimap after either smashing down a wall in a sewer or tomb or simply walking where you didn’t think you could, to find extra goodies. It’s things like this that help you to avoid grinding. I’m not totally averse to the grind but I like when it’s kept to a minimum and I’m happy to report that if you want to hit max level all you need to do is push through the main quest and maybe pick up some side quests for the extra experience points (EXP). By the time you’re up to the final quest in the final act of the final difficulty you should be pretty much there.
Some of the secrets you will find are tied to lore and story. There are papers, notes and ledgers that drop regularly throughout your progress that give you EXP after you’ve read them. I can only assume this was put in place to incentivise those with intense and incurable loot lust so that they at least made SOME attempt to read the lore, which is pretty good in my opinion. There is an entire hidden quest line that is only available in the final difficulty that revolves around you having read some of the lore and interacted with one of the NPCs in the correct manner.
The story revolves around the titular Grim Dawn, in which some powers from beyond several different veils, decided to intrude on the world of Cairn for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me other than to gain a sweet new pad that may or may not have belonged to them in the first place. Your role is to simply help eek out a liveable existence for those that have survived the event. You do so by gathering things to help rebuild, or by arming yourself against the various monstrosities that have appeared or become stronger since the event. I have a feeling the story will be expanded upon in the upcoming content patch and maybe even an expansion down the track.
One thing I’ve not touched yet on is the graphics and engine. The engine is an interesting topic mainly because it’s VERY similar to the one used in Titan Quest. It has of course been modified and upgraded to match the gaming rigs that are being utilised today, which is 10 years since Titan Quest came out. There are still fun little features like creatures ragdolling across the screen if you hit them with an attack or spell hard enough or straight up gibbing which even the bigger titles in this genre haven’t managed to massage into their respective engines yet. The HUD is scalable, you can make it miniscule or massive depending on your preference and there are a many graphic options to fuss over if you’re not getting good FPS or if you want everything to look prettier. The looking pretty part can be a bit hard at times as the textures are a bit odd in places. I would say the world textures are good but the character and armour textures leave a little bit wanting. I mean, I get that some universal powers have invaded the joint but does everything have to look dirty and dull? The overall graphic fidelity is still pretty good considering the small team of devs who worked on it but there seems to be an overemphasis on particle effects. Below are 2 screenshots. The left one being of my max level character with his various auras and enchantments turned on and applied with the particles turned up to high. The one on the right is the same character but with the particles turned to low.
You can’t actually turn them off and I’d say that’s because almost all of the spells are actually entirely particles. I definitely prefer playing the game with particles set to low, especially in the higher difficulties where the enemies can throw out spells of their own. It can get REALLY hard to read what’s happening at this point so my advice is to just keep them at low.
Animations are another slightly sore point for me, as they can be a little stiff for both enemies and the player characters. It also bugs me that when you cast a spell your items in hand disappear when the cast starts then reappear after the animation is over. I’d say the animations for the grobles (totally not goblins) are the ones that stand out for me the most, when those little guys wind up to swing their weapons it really does look like they’re putting their backs into it.
The sound design is good and if you were to turn item text off you could even tell which items drop just by the sounds. Combat sounds certainly add weight to your actions and but I think the sounds tied to spells could have a little more umph. I understand why spammable things like the lightning nova don’t have emphatic sounds because you can cast that every .2 of a second later on in the game and that would probably hurt your ears. The music suits well but doesn’t really have a stand out track or scene piece that I’d recommend you look up.
To wrap things up I’d like to mention that there are a few features that I didn’t even bring up like the crafting and Component system, the latter being another feature brought forward from TQ which do really enrich the game but I’ve said too much already. I definitely think it’s worth your time and that you should find out about all of those extra things by playing the game. I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth.