In a gaming age that contains both Candy Crush and Call of Duty, two distinct classes of gamer have emerged. Casual gamers appreciate games like Farmville and Peggle, simple games that reward players quickly with points and power ups. These games are cheap, if not free, and can theoretically be picked up and put down within minutes. Serious gamers have powerful video cards in their PCs and fancy wireless headsets for PS4s. Their games, such as Destiny and League of Legends, require dedication, time, and money.
But what about those of us in the middle? Those who have enjoyed Bejeweled, but will never be good enough at Starcraft II to play in a league? With hundreds of games coming out every year, it’s inevitable that some will fill that gap between casual and serious games. One of the best genres for this purpose is that of action role-playing games (ARPGs), whose hallmarks include top-down visuals, real-time combat, and “point-and-click” controls. Arguably the most well-known and well-played ARPG in existence is the Diablo series. It’s so well-played that the definition of ARPGs was effectively changed to mean “a game like Diablo.”
Even with the insane level of replayability Diablo II and III offer, you’ll eventually get tired of them. So, what next? Titan Quest is an excellent game that introduced new dual-class options (you could make a wizard/tank, for example), but even considering the anniversary edition and brand-new expansion released last year, it was still made in 2006.
But that’s okay, because in 2016, a decade after Titan Quest, a game was made using a highly upgraded version of the same engine. Because of this, it is often compared to TQ and, as most ARPGs are, Diablo II/III. So, how does it fare against the big boys?
This week’s game you haven’t played is Grim Dawn. It’s set in a Victorian steam-punk/fantasy world called Cairn (yes, like a pile of Scottish stones), and includes both guns and magic – the Demolitionist class uses both, with a rather extreme emphasis on fire. It’s a great game, and here are some reasons you should play it.
For starters, the plot is relatively original. In a nutshell, your character has been possessed by a ghost-like creature called an Aetherial, caught by a group of humans resisting the invasion, and very nearly killed. Just before death, the spirit leaves your body, but you’re left with the supernatural gifts it brought along. Now you’ve got to prove that you’re human again, so you go around popping hundreds of Aetherials, who have been possessing dead bodies in droves.
But these aren’t the only bad guys. There’s also the Cthonians, chaos monsters who make an appearance a bit later. They promote blood rituals through their cult, which some humans willingly join, apparently, and they often have claws and face tentacles, which is impressive. What’s not impressive is that these are clearly monsters from the mind of H.P. Lovecraft, rather than custom-made for this setting.
So, the part where humanity is under attack from otherworldly beings isn’t original. Neither is the “only you can save the world” character you play. What is original is the fact that you’re not the only one fighting the monsters – they’re also fighting each other. It’s made clear pretty early on that the Cthonians and the Aetherials hate each other, to the extent that the evil Cthulhu monsters are specifically trying to blow up the world before the glowy ghost monsters can take it over.
Luckily for you, this means they will fight each other if the two factions meet on the battlefield, and you can bravely wait until one side is mostly defeated before deciding to kick in heads. This is good, because there is a lot of ground to cover as you attempt to save the remnants of an empire in tatters, and the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality will take a little of the burden off your shoulders.
If I’m entirely honest, the setting isn’t the most original thing either, at least when viewed on paper. The pseudo-Victorian fashion and architecture, the steampunk weaponry… it’s been done, and no few times.
And I don’t care.
The fact is, the setting is brilliant. The art lends the game a bit of an indie feel, but the quality is top notch. After the apocalyptic invasion of the Aetherials (the titular “Grim Dawn”), traditional currency lost all its value and has been replaced with iron, which is both sturdy and useful. Journals found while exploring give some additional insight into the backstory.
Everything about Grim Dawn adds to the moody setting, from the writing to the art to the skill names (I quite like “Vindictive Flame”). Just like Diablo, the maps range from deserts to swamps, but for some reason, I prefer Grim Dawn’s maps. They draw you in and don’t let go, despite being static, rather than randomly generated. But being static means you can set the game down without worrying that the map will get erased and all your hard work exploring each map will be for naught, so there is a major upside, there.
There is quite a lot of content to Grim Dawn, certainly enough to get your money’s worth out of it. Optional side-quests, hidden nooks and crannies, an arena (The Crucible DLC), and superb multiplayer all combine to keep you playing long after you’d have put most games back on the virtual shelf.
In addition to the game’s engine, Grim Dawn also borrows Titan Quest’s dual-class character model. You pick a class to start, then after you’ve played enough to get a feel for the game, you’re given the option of picking a secondary class. It’s a frankly brilliant system, and I have no idea why more games haven’t done it.
Let’s take a look at Diablo II, shall we? I played every class in the game (despite Druid being the obviously superior choice), and although there were different skill trees for each class, some didn’t interest me in the slightest, meaning I missed out on a lot of potential gameplay. With the dual-class system, though, I can take a class (or skill tree) I’m not overly fond of and use it to compliment the classes/skills I love. There’s just so much more opportunity for awesomeness in Grim Dawn, and that comes across in replayability.
You’ll find yourself choosing from eight classes, ranging from the melee-focused Soldier (out of work, now that the Empire stopped paying the bills) to the mystical Arcanist (the group who is arguably to blame for the Aetherial invasion). Shamans are the closest to a middle ground, with skills split between crushing your opponents with giant mauls and shoving lighting down their throats. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the time to cover all of the classes, but the level of customization is enormous, and I highly recommend experimenting. Read a little bit about the classes, find a few masteries (skills) you want to focus on, then go wild!
If I had to pick a favorite game of the past few years, Grim Dawn would be a definite contender. Seriously, for a game like this to be on the same short-list as AAA titles like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Middle-Earth Shadow of War (oh, it was good, shut up), it has to be first-rate, and I promise you, it is. While the standard Steam price has remained a solid $25 for quite a while, it does go on sale, so keep an eye out.
Sorry to all you console fans out there – this one is PC only. However, the technical requirements aren’t ridiculous, so you don’t need a specialized gaming machine to play it. It’s also been updated to be controller compatible, if that’s your thing, although I’d tell you to stop being a heathen and use a mouse and keyboard like the rest of the civilized world (not that I’m opinionated or anything).
Have you played Grim Dawn? Have any thoughts on the ARPG genre? Let us know in the comments!