Grim Dawn: A Review From Scroo

I'm into ARPG's. From the isometrics like Diablo of the 90's, to the much more modern Path of Exile and the third person Darksiders from the 2000's, they've all entertained me and kept me in the hunt for newer and better gear just as they're designed to do. Grim Dawn is one such ARPG and I'm going to go into some manner of detail and hopefully give those of you who don't know about this title a reason to check it out.

Alright so Grim Dawn started as an early access title on Steam back in 2013 and honestly it wasn't initially very well received. The games developer, Crate had started things off pretty slowly, locking content from the start and only allowing players a certain range of access that included the starting area "Devil's Crossing" all the way up to the first real boss battle "The Warden, Krieg". This isn't exactly a small area but it doesn't change much as characters progress. People got bored and kind of fed up but Crate actually had the right idea. The limitation was there in order to balance all around game play. If they could get enough feed back and information then classes could be tuned properly as well as monsters and quests etc. Once they had what they needed more content dribbled in and people got interested again. It spent three years in early access and happens to be one of those exceedingly rare examples of how to properly make use of that program.

 As it stands now Grim Dawn is a real and proper isometric ARPG with loads of content to play through, better lore than almost everything of its genre out there and includes some clear thought and care in its design. The fact is that all those procedurally generated and modular, random dungeon builds are pretty awesome. But even better (at least in my opinion) is a world that is actually "built" like Cairn, the world in which Grim Dawn takes place. Even though it's static, every transition makes sense and fits neatly in its place. And no it's not boring. I've played over 300 hours of this game now and I'm still finding things I haven't seen before! Anyway enough hype and blah blah, let's look at it a little bit.action shot

Familiarity and Innovation

Grim Dawn uses a lot of bits and pieces and various familiar looking things from other games that make it easy to understand its systems. For instance the simple use of colors on item names: white, yellow, green, blue, purple, in order from left to right represent: common, magic, rare, epic and legendary item types. And that's very similar to other ARPG's so we already know what to expect. This kind of things is pretty evident throughout the game and makes players feel at home while adding new (and forgive my terminology) -features- here and there to freshen things up and tune the whole system.

Another example is the Skill, Health and Energy bar at the bottom of the HUD. Things look pretty similar to other ARPG's there as well. Health on one side, Energy on the other, but the addition of a gold colored overlay on the health bar represents the character's Constitution. While out of combat the character's health will pull from constitution to heal very quickly. If that bar is drained then the character relies on natural health regeneration. Items like "Untouched Meals" and "Food Rations" will be found in the world to refill a player's Constitution as well as gear pieces and components that will give bonuses to the stat.Health Energy Skill

Of course there are health potions and spirit potions to refill either bar and thank goodness they only come in one form. They stack in sets of 100 and fill a set number plus a percentage of those stats upon use, greatly simplifying and removing the need to buy different sized potions. Not to mention keeping a damn belt full of them to use every three seconds while you get the crap kicked out of you.

Fast travel is made easier by making the obligatory "Town Portal", Grim Dawn calls it a "Personal Rift", an ability to be cast when and wherever you like... for free... instantly. This small change to a system we all know completely cuts out the downtime created by needing to buy magic scrolls or wait for them to drop off enemies. It's also one less thing to have cluttering up an inventory or a space on your HUD. On top of that your friends can also use your rifts, further increasing their usefulness. Need to go back to town and dump your inventory off on some poor vendor? Just cast a rift and pick your destination. Your friend maybe decided they didn't need to head back yet. They'd just move forward. Well alright, when you're done they can just cast a rift that you can choose to use and in the blink of a short load screen you'll be right by them bashing baddies again.

Did you find an awesome piece of gear that will assuredly make you the best character ever? Well that's super cool. You know what else is super cool? The fact that you didn't have to take that item somewhere to be identified, or have to cast a spell or scroll. Once again taking out an unneeded and outdated mechanic in the name of simplification while not detracting from the experience. And of course you're sure to see many more of these tune-ups as you play, but let's move on shall we.

Scaling and Leveling

All characters start the same exact way in the world of Cairn with a basic set of clothes and plank shield and either a dagger or a club for a weapon. The first level you gain lets you pick a class and at level ten a second class is available but I'll go into that in a bit. First lets talk about how great and simple yet very deep leveling is in Grim Dawn. attribute_edit

"Blam" you gained a level. You'll get one point to spend on your core attributes "Physique, Cunning or Spirit" and until you reach level 50 you'll receive three points to put into your class mastery and skills. After level 50 you'll only be getting two points for skills so decisions become a bit more critical, except not really because if you don't like something you can just change it later.skills

The character skill trees themselves are pretty straight forward and easy to understand. But along your travels you'll spot ruined and desecrated shrines and once they're restored they give one point each to spend in your devotion tree. With a cap of 50 points total. This is a skill tree that all characters have access to and is represented by a "Star Map" of constellations representing the games various gods and deities. Devotions bestow powerful bonuses to characters with each point and often lead to "Devotion Skills" that you can then attach to your already existing skills. These devotion skills will level up as you play making them in turn more and more powerful.devition treeAll this looks complicated on paper but it's very simple to put into action. If you decide you've made a mistake you're allowed to respec very inexpensively one point at a time at the proper NPC. Really the only permanent choices you'll make while building your character is your class and attribute points.

"But can I power level?" Is a question I imagine some of you who would rather let someone else do the work for you while you sit in town and collect experience. The answer, you sorry chumps, is no. Game sessions will always scale to the highest level character and friends have to be within a certain distance of each other to gain experience from combat. "Well I can still get quests and let someone complete them for me though right?" Nope again sucker! Quests are progress based and if someone else has already done it and they're in your game, you can't do it until they leave. So hypothetically get off your exceedingly lazy ass, sit down and play the game yourself.

Anyway, as you level and gain more gear you're obviously getting stronger and one would expect that eventually you'll be such a badass you can just walk over everything like some sort of super god. That is mostly incorrect.

As said above, game areas will scale with your character more or less forever depending on your difficulty setting. I wish I could explain this in more simple terms but well, I can't. Normal and Veteran difficulties are interchangeable, sharing the same quest line and enemies scale a bit easier allowing folks to build themselves up. If you're finding Veteran too tough then you can simply switch back to Normal and vice-versa. Once you hit Elite difficulty you've been properly trained and probably know your class well enough to take it on, but it's a pretty drastic difference. Bosses and Hero monsters will scale much higher in level and the player's core resistances will be lowered by 25%. The reward comes from higher experience gains and better chances to find "epic lootz". Character deaths in all difficulties will result in the loss of experience to be partially regained once the player finds his or her grave marker. That's the worst of it though and you'll never lose a level thank goodness, so at least there's that.death screenAfter Elite comes Ultimate and this will make or break your experience. Grim Dawn is fun regardless but Ultimate will make you take your character build seriously. It's possible to reach a character level of 200 in this game and when Ultimate starts you'll probably be around level 70; Ultimate has to scale much, much higher in order to allow that to happen. What this means is that game play will slow some and will (almost) feel a bit grindy because of it. But I can attest personally that once you get a handle on the way things are done in Ultimate, it's balance is just fine and you'll make progress.

Update

So it was brought to my attention that I have reported the maximum character level incorrectly by stating that it's possible to reach level 200 in Grim Dawn. Turns out that's totally true and I'm wrong as hell.

Max character level level is 85 allotting over 200 (220 in fact) skill points in total to place in your mastery and skills. Somewhere in there I guess my brain confused the numbers and I've been playing from the start with the expectation of eventually reach level 200. Derp. Anyway, thanks for the information guys and sorry for the silly mistake.

Classes

So class building is super cool in Grim Dawn allowing you specialize in one class all the way through or pick a second class at level ten to become something altogether different. The first character I made is a Soldier, he's level 59 and still solely a Soldier. That's a perfectly fine and viable way to play. I still have the choice to spec that character into something else, but so far I like pure Soldier. Every other character I have is a dual class. A Demolitionist spec'd into Arcanist then becomes a Sorcerer. An Occultist spec'd into Soldier becomes a Witchblade, and so on with access to both skill trees to build as you see fit and change however you like.

For clarity, here are the base classes:

  • Soldiers are typically melee classes that use either two handed weapons or a sword and board combination. They focus on leadership buffs and raw physical prowess to survive.
  • Demolitionists are typically ranged classes. They use either two handed rifles and crossbows or single handed pistols and specialize in fire and lighting damage along with explosives, traps and mortars.
  • Occultists are typically casters and can summon pets to do their bidding while cursing, poisoning and draining the vitatlity their enemies while healing themselves in the process.
  • Nightblades are typically a dual wielding assassin type classes that rely on damage negation for survival and bleeding and posions in combat along with cold damage.
  • A Shaman is typically a two hand melee class that relies on elemental magic and pets to make their way. They can summon whirlwinds and slow enemies with grasping vines.
  • Arcanists are typically magic users that rely on power coming from the "Aether" and draw magical aetherfire and raw cold from the environment to use against their foes. They can also summon ice shards from the sky and cast protective orbs around themselves.

I use the word "typically" a lot because that's what the obvious choice would be when building these characters individually. In fact none of those things have to be true. Demolitionists for instance can decide to use a pistol and shield, or a pistol and a magic tome to increase abilities. Or they can use melee weapons of all kinds if that's your preference. My Sorceress is currently dual wielding pistols like some kind of magic, fire worshiping gunslinger and it's so much fun. Every class can be built basically however you see fit creating near infinite combinations of things to try and change and fall in love with. A new class is being released some time soon called the Inquisitor and promises to add a whole new level of awesome to what is already a very well developed character system.Interior

The World of Cairn

There's something to be said for procedural generation. The game experience changing every time you play, keeping things fresh while not confusing players is a pretty cool thing. Not to mention the algorithms needed to make that happen. That's all well, good and impressive. The original Diablo did a great job with that, as well as the very cool and worth playing Path of Exile. Modular dungeons like those in Torchlight were perhaps the best use of randomization I can think of.

The bad thing about random world building is that it can and often does feel formless. Or even worse despite its claims, isn't very random or interesting at all... *cough* Diablo 3. So even though it can create a great experience, it can also feel stale because it doesn't always seem to fit together properly.

Cairn is not procedurally generated and as I mentioned far above, that's a good thing. Crate put a lot of thought into the world Grim Dawn is built on. From the foul, "Aethereal" and "Slith" populated swamps of Burrwitch and Wightmire, to the outlaw gang and undead ridden hills of Arkovia, to the forrest of the Blood Grove infested with blood cultists and the high roads of the Asterkarn mountains littered with hostile beasts and "Groble Clans". Even further is great Necropolis, built long ago to honor the dead from greatest war Cairn has ever seen, this is a place steeped in its own mythos. Lore is found in the form of dozens of notes and diaries and pages all revealing the history of the areas you'll travel though or the various stories of individuals and their follies. Pay attention as you go and the story of the Grim Dawn is laid out at your feet.lore_edit

There is some level of randomness to certain aspects of Cairn. For instance there are some unmarked cavern entrances that will spawn in different locations each time. Some interior areas may have slightly different elements like a collapsed wall where there may have been a blockade in a previous game session. Nothing too special and never anything that makes navigation or exploration difficult. And please do explore as there are lots of secret areas to visit and some lead to pretty interesting discoveries.

Many factions still survive in the world of Cairn. Some friendly, looking for help from each other in order to have a chance at humanity's survival. Others at odds with those who would do good, or who are simply evil and working to speed along the end of the world as it is in the name of some forgotten ancient god or other. Reputaion with these factions is gained through questing and the defeat of a factions enemies. But a very well implemented and fun way to gain reputation is through the addition of the "Bounty Table". Each friendly faction has one at their headquarters and they contain a myriad of small and repeatable quests that will reward players with experience, crafting components, currency and of course reputation. You're allowed to perform five bounties for each friendly faction in each game session. Reputaion will unlock access to gear and magical augments that will prepare you for your coming adventures and I recommend going out of your way to attain it.reputaion screenNegative factions will dislike you more and more with each act against them and will go to increasing lengths to stop you in your tracks. First you'll be Disliked causing hostile action, then Despised while extra enemies are dispatched to hinder your progress. Being Hated will bring extra Heroes to bear against you while eventually reaching Nemesis reputation will bring about the rare and supremely deadly "Nemesis Heroes" who are in fact highly overpowered and very difficult to deal with; but guard locked chests promising powerful upgrades once defeated. Good luck with that though. The first one I met at level 78 was five levels above my station (pretty common for a hero type), but had teleport abilities and could use that power to move either itself or my character within striking distance, even through walls, instantly killing him. I eventually had to give up and start another game in order to continue. They can show up in any difficulty level as long that character has the reputation required and are always deadly. Hardcore characters beware.NemesisCairn has the typical outdoor areas with various villainous vermin to hunt and loot, ranging from the standard monster to more powerful Heroes and even stronger Bosses.  Of course the above mentioned Nemesis spawns will eventually turn their devastating will against you. All of which have the potential to drop items and currency to improve your character upon their defeat. Heroes and Bosses however will also provide a breakable orb that contain a higher potential for better items. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that items come in a pretty typical fashion with ever increasing quality, Legendary being the highest but you won't even start seeing them drop until your at least level 50.legendaryAlso available for your baddie bashing pleasure are the "Rougelike" areas that take a craftable key to unlock and once entered can only be exited by either completion or character death. Most recently added is the Port Valbury area. They provide a higher challenge than normal areas in both enemies and environmental hazards but reward players with extra lore, experience and loot. Provided they survive. Experience lost during a death in one of these places is non-recoverable and significant at higher levels.

As a very notable side, these Roguelike areas were added for free in various patches in Grim Dawn's life. The same can be said for the upcoming Inquisitor class. So more props to Crate for being effing awesome.

Crafting can be done in settlements by using the blacksmith. They make every item you can ever have crafted: Weapons, armor, components, accessories, relics and potions of every type (aside from health and spirit potions) as long as you have the blueprints for the item in question. They can be found in chests or as rare drops from enemies and can be given as quest rewards. Special crafters can be found in the world and in higher difficulties. Some can even make randomly built legendary items for you at a high cost of rare materials and currency. They are most certainly worth seeking.legendary crafter

Sound and Voice

At first I was a little on the fence about the voice acting and dialogue. But you can't let that opening cinematic be the cover you judge the book by. Dialogue is sometimes a little corny but it really redeems itself in other situations and the writing is actually pretty good as evidenced by the levels of lore. Not every NPC has a voice and not all dialogue is voiced for those who do. Let's remember though that this was an early access title and paying for voice acting is sort of a "frosting on the cake" kind of thing. However I'd love to see updates that add more character voices. It's a lot to think that it'd be along the same lines as Divinity: Original Sin with its entirely free new game with fully voice acted lines for every NPC. That's too much to expect from any developer really. But crate actually does seem to care about Grim Dawn so I wouldn't be surprised to see patches include newly voiced dialogue here and there.

Sounds and music here really set the mood, as they should and they do it very well. There are no droning tones over character auras (thank goodness) and combat sounds are pretty powerful. The only one that bugs me is the crossbow sound and it's not because it's not accurate, it sounds like a crossbow should sound. It's because there's only one sound for it, there are no tonal changes. So when you have 20 skeleton archers firing bows at you it's that same sound for what feels like forever and you guys, it gets on my nerves. But that's the worst of it and it's probably not actually that bad, I'm just easily irritated by that kind of thing.

Everything else sounds great, the character walking around has a faint jingle and clank as the sound of armor rubbing makes itself evident. Shields give a quick "thunk" when a shot is blocked, and some sounds can even tell you when you're in danger. Particle effects are great and many and can hide the fact that your character might be standing in the fire, so to speak. So as you play you'll begin to recognize certain sounds that denote what kind of damage you're receiving. Well done I say. Not to mention the awesome ambience of the areas you may be traversing.bridgeGoing back to familiarity a bit, one of the best things about Diablo back in the day was that amazing 12 string guitar and that super immersive music playing in dungeons. Grim Dawn also has a great sound track and honestly could be nearly as iconic if Crate had the word of mouth that Blizzard North did way back then. I and many others are doing our part to work on that issue with these kinds of articles. It's not the kind of score you'd sell separately to listen to. Not that you couldn't I guess but it really works best as background music and as such it does its job perfectly. Here's a link to the whole thing on the YouTubes if you're interested in hearing for yourself.

Multi Player vs Single Player

Grim Dawn can of course be played on or offline or with friends or strangers over a pretty solid player to player server system based in whichever platform you're using. Unfortunately that means different platforms aren't compatible with each other. So no GoG members playing along side Steam members. It's a bit unavoidable though since this game has no accounts to sign in to in order to play and there are no subcription fees or microtransactions to support maintained and monitored game side servers. But again this means no DRM and forced online play. Crate have really done things properly because all your characters can be played in all game modes. There's no transferring or any of that nonsense.Demo Guy2Solo is just as fun as multi player except for the added enjoyment of going through a game as well built and balanced as this one with friends. Any characters (up to four per party) will increase the overall difficulty per session in a typical fashion. Characters have lots options in multiplayer from PvP to shared or instanced loot tables and difficulty settings, passwords etc. But for me and those I've played with the standard settings are perfectly fine.

Graphics and Optimisation

This title looks pretty darned good with a fully 3D rendered world and 360 degree camera rotation. Grim Dawn is built on a fairly old engine by today's standards but it runs pretty well for the most part. It uses the Titan Quest Engine from the sadly defunct Iron Lore (what a great game TQ was as well by the way) and to my knowledge is a 32 bit engine so it's unable to make full use of modern hardware.

I'm not gonna say it gets a solid 60 fps all the time because that's not true. Running Grim Dawn on full settings at 1080P can at times result in some poor performance issues. Frame drops are common with lots of things happening because of lots of very cool looking particle effects. Luckily the options menu is chalk full of check boxes, sliders and drop down menus for virtually every aspect so you'll likely find a way to run the game in a very playable way with very little loss of quality.options

Conclusion

Alright I could go on as I'm sure I've missed some things that deserve mention, but I've been yapping away like purse dog about Grim Dawn for plenty long enough now. Let's summarize a little. This is probably (in my opinion) the best isometric ARPG out there right now and it's worth every penny. It's balanced, it's fun, there's no DRM, you can play online or off and there are seemingly endless ways to build characters. This is an absolutely brilliant example of how the early access program can be a good thing.

You're looking at $25.00 on Steam and GoG, but you want the same version your friends play as they don't coexist. There's some payed DLC if you feel like you need it but there are no microtransactions or pay walls and that kind of crap to deal with. Optimisation could be better but all in all this game runs very well and looks great doing it.

I'll restate that I've played over 300 hours of this title and I'm not bored with it. The world is well built and Crate just keeps adding content every so often. For free. If you're into ARPG's I'd definitely recommend Grim Dawn. If you're on the fence, wait for a sale or play at a friend's house first. I'm pretty sure you're gonna dig it.

System Requirements for Grim Dawn are as follows:

MINIMUM:

    • OS: Windows XP / Windows Vista / Windows 7 / Windows 8 / Windows 10
    • Processor: x86 compatible 2.3GHz or faster processor (Intel 2nd generation core i-series or equivalent)
    • Memory: 2 GB RAM
    • Graphics: 512MB NVIDIA GeForce 6800 series or ATI Radeon X800 series or better
    • DirectX: Version 9.0c
    • Storage: 5 GB available space
    • Sound Card: DirectX 9.0c compatible 16-bit sound card
    • Additional Notes: 4GB of memory is required to host multiplayer games

RECOMMENDED:

    • OS: Windows 7 / Windows 10
    • Processor: x86 compatible 3.2GHz or faster processor (Intel 4th generation core i-series or better)
    • Memory: 6 GB RAM
    • Graphics: 1.5GB NVIDIA GeForce 500 series or ATI Radeon 6000 series or better
    • DirectX: Version 11
    • Network: Broadband Internet connection
    • Storage: 5 GB available space
    • Additional Notes: 4GB of memory is recommended to host multiplayer games