With the digital glut of horror games released this year, it might be hard to find the scariest moment. Heck, there have been three Resident Evil games put out. And Slender. And Zombie Islands of the Dead of Space U with its very own Zombie mode. And yet my fear has been kept in check for the most part. Why? Because terror — real, dreadful terror — doesn’t rely on how many desiccated bodies you mow down or how gory it is. It sprouts from two things: ambiance and threat.
With that in mind, easily and without a close second to make it competitive, Legend of Grimrock is the scariest thing I’ve played in months. What makes this game So Damn Scary is how uncertain Mount Grimrock is. Around every corner potentially lurks your demise, every leap of faith you take could end with your slaughter or fabulous riches. It is a game so unwilling to coddle you, so assured in the player’s intelligence, the burden of survival is laid solidly on you. And that is scary.
Ambiance and threat, though. Let’s get specific.
The whole package of Grimrock — from the difficulty to the controls to the graphics to the audio– is simply perfect. The hallways are damp and slimy, eventually giving way to ancient ruins still haunted by diabolical guardsmen. Traps are sprung with one false step and some secrets will just have to go unsolved. If one of your completely-randomly assigned and generated party members dies, there is no item to bring him back until you find a crystal room seemingly miles away. However, unlike what I debased LIMBO for recently, Grimrock forces learning upon you in a reasonable, fair and satisfying way.
The chunkiest parts of the learning process will come from fear, though. With death only one small step from permanent (I reload immediately if a single person dies), you move cautiously. Every secret room you find is met with readied spells and daggers, not optimism. Legend of Grimrock is a not a game where you ever feel too powerful. The looming dread of the entire dungeon haunts your moves, whether it takes the form of an unidentified scraping heard through a door or being awoken from rest by the ground-shaking and mysterious rumblings that quake the entire mountain.
Quickly, you discover how important the aural cues are. When flipping a switch, you stop and wait, praying that you hear the sound of a door opening or a stone wall sliding. When listening for enemy rustling, you actively try to pinpoint its location because you certainly don’t want to be caught unawares. To that end, the game should have come with a Mandatory Headphones-In DRM policy. While the caliber of the audio is not on par with the Battlefield 3’s of blockbuster budgets, the utilization of it is amongst the industry’s best. Period.
But what about threat? Oh, boy. Grimrock is a hard game; a rootin’ tootin’ slog of bleak, McCarthy-esque minimalism. There is no respite from the dangers inside and the feeling that the game has no qualms killing you for good is refreshingly succulent. Opening a menu doesn’t pause time and resting better be done in a closed-off room. Running out of food or potions is a real problem. Running out of torches is an even bigger one if you don’t have a light spell. Each time you encounter a new enemy type, it is genuinely frightening; a flaming knight hovering in the distance or a glowing ooze behind the grate. What do they do? How do I fight them?
While difficult to describe, the gameplay is best detailed as a tile-by-tile, first-person RPG (however, you’re a party of four … logic be damned). Think if the Etrian Odyssey series remained in the exploring phase for the entirety. Combat takes place in real time but, because of the mechanics, it has the distinct smack of that turn-based flavor we love. You have to dodge, yes, but effectively run-’n'-gunning won’t work.
There are times when you stumble into the wrong place at the wrong time — a room of skeleton phalanx knights, let’s say. Here is where the game excels, much like the Souls series. Initially, after your first death, you think “Psshhh. There’s no way I can do this!” So, you leave and scour the dungeon for a hidden button or a previously unseen pathway (note: on hard, you have to draw your own map!). You’ll come up empty-handed, faced with the fact that “Oh yes, you can do that!” Thus, you must carry on or give up.
But when you manage to make it through, the feeling is holy. Considering how remorselessly the game will take your life, it is a miracle when you win any encounter. You shut all the doors, remake your spent potions, and rest to recover after the grueling fight. Fast-forward a few hours and you’re felling the same knights in seconds. However, now there are flying ice drakes who loudly squawk in unlit store rooms that are far scarier. You’ll wish to have those phalanx soldiers back.
Back to the room with the knights. Back into the lightless dungeon. Back into the hallways rife with deadly creepy crawlies. Every step traced and every corner deadly. Legend of Grimrock is one amazing, scary, hard game.