(Review based on V 126.96.36.199 — V 188.8.131.52 of Grim Dawn. Reviewer purchased game from Steam. Grim Dawn is exclusive to the PC. The version of the game played was purchased by the reviewer.)
Update 05/11/2016: a previous version of this article mistakenly listed the number of classes as 5 and devotions as 15. The writer swears he learned this math.
Action RPGs on the PC have been undergoing somewhat of a revival in recent years. A lot of developers have been chasing the legacy of Diablo II — a game still seen as the benchmark for the genre. Enter Crate Entertainment, a studio comprising ex-employees from now defunct Titan Quest developer Iron Lore, and their long in development ARPG Grim Dawn.
At first glance, Grim Dawn gives you everything you’d expect from a modern Action RPG. Point and click game play, an isometric perspective, optional multiplayer, and a bunch of monsters to fight and gear to loot. Grim Dawn nails the basics. The monsters are varied and fun to squish, the loot is abundant, and the games skill tree’s are rewarding to progress through.
But within that framework, you have some very welcome deviations and refinements from the standard ARPG formula.
First let’s talk about the class and skills system. Grim Dawn allows you to combine the games six classes and accompanying skills in any way you choose. This leads to sixteen dual-classes (called Masteries) with massive variation in build types. In fact, there is so much variation that players new to the ARPG genre may end up over-faced if they don’t familiarize themselves with the system first. Luckily, there has been a lot of work done during the early access phase of Grim Dawn to help balance classes and skills to make most build combinations at least viable in game — if not optimal.
The leveling and stat system also has a decent level of complexity to it. Instead of unlocking certain skills at certain levels, you can choose to invest skill points into leveling up your class directly. This allows access to different skills, and also gives bonuses to the stats associated with that chosen class. You can re-sepc your skills at any time without too much penalty, so you aren’t saddled with having to invest in low-level skills you no longer use in order to get the higher level skills you want. Instead, the skill tree augments earlier skills throughout your progression. Grim Dawn also features a devotion system in which you accrue devotion points as you cleanse the game’s various shrines which can then be spent on constellations which grant you passive abilities and bonuses.
Grim Dawn is a game you can play how you want to. You’re never railroaded into certain classes or skill paths to make sure you character isn’t a muddled mess by late-game. While Grim Dawn does reward knowledge of what types of skills/play styles complement each other, that’s really left up for the player to discover. Between your class combination, skills, and devotions the level of customization is mind-boggling.
As in any good ARPG, the other big aspect of your character is gear. Grin Dawn characters have 14 equipment slots, and everything you equip can be enhanced by semi-permanent components. Weapons, armour, and components can all potentially grant active or passive skills meaning some gear will become an integral part of your play style and character builds. This again combines with the aforementioned devotion/skill selection. If you feel like farming the gear, you can make a build precisely tuned for any purpose.
For example, in my review play through of Grim Dawn I was assisted by fellow site contributor and amateur game developer GwenLilyKnight who was able to play a pure support build through carefully choosing her skills, devotions, and gear. Bad or low end gear is easy to ignore with the item drop filters, and you’ll usually be wanting to pick up rare and unique items. Legendary equipment is suitably rare and powerful, making it feel suitably special. My only gripe with the otherwise stellar gear system is that there isn’t a way to transmute or trade in duplicate gear aside from exchanging it manually with other players. During our review run we encountered an entire unique set more than twice over that neither of us could utilize, and it was frustrating we couldn’t really do anything with this nice but otherwise useless gear.
When it comes to multiplayer, it’s a blast, and the netcode is solid. I would totally advise playing through Grim Dawn with friends if you can. Monsters scale in difficulty as you’d expect to the size of your party, and all-round the implementation of multiplayer is just as polished as the single player aspect is. We only had a few crashes during our play through, and those were eventually attributed to hardware instability of the person hosting. I’ve never personally had the game crash on me at all.
The game runs smoothly on high setting with most setups I’ve tested it on. With a higher end gaming rig, you should have no issues maintaining a consistent framerate. Even when tested on my laptop, Grim Dawn ran very playable using high settings on a GeForce 930M. There is a good amount of options allowing for customization of in-game options, graphical detail, and lots of individual volume sliders (which I always appreciate). There’s nothing missing from the options menu that can see on a technical level, so the game gets a big thumbs up in that area.
Graphically, Grim Dawn can be a little dark and well… grim at times. Whilst some of the games dungeons can be a little on the generic side in the early game, as the game progresses you experience a wide range of varied environments each with their own selection of monsters. Grim Dawn has a more grounded and earthy graphical style than many of its ARPG compatriots, but pulls off a world that both looks fantastic and relatively realistic. Particle effects look great, although in busy battles it can be difficult to tell what’s happening where. My one gripe is that the player and allies are not easier to pick up at a glance. This game really needs a system to highlight allied players more obviously.
Grim Dawn’s soundtrack is also definitely worth mentioning. It’s largely made up of spacey and atmospheric guitar tracks, gentle pianos, moody droning sounds, and tense beats. When the guitars show up they have an anxious and grim quality with lots of tine and reverb — overall a very post-rock vibe. Steve Pardo produced the soundtrack, and did a very good job fitting it to the feel of the game whilst giving the soundtrack it its own unique flavor. Another aspect of Grim Dawn I really like.
The game’s story also features its fair share of Grimness. The premise of Grim Dawn is actually refreshingly original. The world ending catastrophe has already happened, and humans are vastly outnumbered by monsters. You are essentially the last desperate hope of the fractured resistance. You aren’t saving the world as much as you are restoring it. The release version of the game also features a decent smattering of voice acting to tell this tale, and main quest NPCs are all voiced — giving you a good overview of what’s going on in the plot as well as delivering the flavor of the world. You’ll want to pay attention to this dialog too, as quest chains contain quite a few meaningful choices that will permanently impact the game later on. Simply skipping through dialog may end up in a fight with an NPC that you’ll want to keep around, so stay alert.
Finishing the game’s story will probably take you around 20 – 30 hours depending on a number of factors, as there are lots of optional quests, secret dungeons, and a few rouge-like dungeons with enhanced loot to occupy your time. Grim Dawn does well rewarding player curiosity and exploration. The final 3rd of the game also ramps up the intensity and tension, with some pretty stunning environments appearing towards the games climax. A minor niggle is Grim Dawn lacks any real obvious tutorial, although a lot of very good information and guidance can be obtained within the game’s codex. Whilst this lack of hand-holding is welcome to this player, I think it should be made more obvious where this information is, especially for those not playing on higher difficulties. Again this didn’t really effect me, but its something to bare in mind.
For players new to Action RPGs I would recommend the normal difficulty, but for players familiar with the genre you’ll want to start on veteran. Whilst I wouldn’t call Grim Dawn “too easy” on its standard difficulty, it is very possible to power-game if you know what you’re doing. So veteran is a must right off the bat for experienced gamers. Elite difficulty provides quit a stiff challenge, but also grants easier access to the games best loot. Ultimate difficulty is pretty brutal, but again ups your chances of seeing the games best drops. Each difficulty can be played in hardcore mode, making death permanent. So the challenge level involved in Grim Dawn is really up to you. The game can go from relative cake-walk to soul crushingly unfair with perma-death. Combine this highly scalable difficulty with the variations in the class system, and you have yourself a highly re-playable game.
With patch V 184.108.40.206, Grim Dawn has been equipped with a suit of official modding tools for the community to use. The game already had a budding mod community, and since these are the exact same tools the developers used to make the game it opens the door for whole new campaigns. Many modern games forgo mod support in a pretty transparent attempt to sell microtransations and DLC that would have to otherwise compete against mods. The release of these comprehensive tools shows developer Crate Entertainment is serious about offering good aftermarket support, and keep up a good dialog with their community. It also shows Crate trusts in the strength of Grim Dawn as a product, and they aim for a sales and support cycle measured in years rather than months.
It’s also worth noting the standard pricing of Grim Dawn is well below that of most retail game of its size, sitting at $25 (£20) on Steam at time of publication. These are the kinds of mid-sized projects I was hoping would come out of Kickstarter and Early Access — Grim Dawn is indeed an example of a Kickstarter success story, having raised over $500,000 in 2012 and having a lengthy period in Early Access. It shows what’s achievable when an independent team is able to live within its means and deliver, if slowly and steadily, on promises. It sharply highlights the difference between the poser “indie” genre of games and the level of quality and polish a team can actually achieve without a publisher.
I don’t use the word “exceptional” about games very often, but Grim Dawn is an example of an exceptionally good game. Its breadth of content, depth of game play, price point, and aftermarket support all put it ahead of the pack, making it shining example of its genre. I’ve felt compelled to squeeze as much content out of the game as possible before reviewing it, with about 50 hours invested in the game so far. I try to do this with all games I review in the interest of fairness, but very occasionally you come across a game where the obvious passion of the developer makes you feel even more invested in giving the game an honest and detailed review.
If you’re in any way an Action RPG fan then you really owe it to yourself to give Grim Dawn a try. I don’t think its hyperbole to say that this is the new benchmark by which action role playing games will be judged.
Purchase Grim Dawn at full price if: you have even a passing interest in action RPGs. Its full price is already a lot lower than most games.
Purchase Grim Dawn at discount: There’s no caveat here. Just purchase it.
Do not purchase if: you really can’t stand action RPGs at all as a genre. That’s the only real reason I can think of.
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