What is it? An action RPG channeling the glory days of Diablo II and Titan Quest.
Expect to pay: $25/ £20
Developer: Crate Entertainment
Publisher: Crate Entertainment
Reviewed on: Windows 10, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 980
Multiplayer: Yes, co-op with up to 4 players
Link: Official site
I find myself hanging from a rope in Grim Dawn, seconds from death and moments after barfing out a mutagen-colored spirit who’d used me as a puppet. Some grizzlefaced bastard among the group who strung me up sees the spirit flee and saves my life by snapping the rope with two clean shots. Are there hugs? Nah, they shove a shield and sword in my hand and instantly send me to face the undead hordes outside alone, my throat still hoarse from the ordeal. This is how Grim Dawn begins, and my saviors' callousness reveals the priorities of a world long gone to hell.
So dark. So very grim. So many of us wanted this in the wake of Torchlight's Pixar-ed up heroes and Diablo III's dazzling halls, and Grim Dawn certainly delivers. It's a true heir of old ARPGs like Diablo II and Titan Quest, dumping mountains of loot in dimly lit dungeons but with far more spunk and personality than you'll find in its closest cousin, Path of Exile. It's got skill trees, five classes, and (admittedly fiddly) peer-to-peer four-person multiplayer, and it plays like Crate Entertainment used the most upvoted nostalgia posts on Reddit as a blueprint. If you want an old-school action RPG, this is it.
It sticks to that legacy with such grim determination, in fact, that it pushes it to absurdity, as if afraid any fleck of humor might oust it as a sellout. Grim Dawn unfortunately never recaptures the promising pathos of the opening cutscene, but it slathers the grittiness around in text boxes and often laughable voice acting like old crunchy peanut butter on otherwise savory fresh bread.
Here's the guy who tells me to track down the partner who stabbed him and stole his cart full of scrap; here's his partner, who tells me the other guy tried to rape his daughter. There's the traitor I let live in return for the key to a loot-filled hovel; in the distance there's a man attempting to burn his family in his house as a mercy. All this, all the time. It's so unrelenting I ended up wanting to skip over a lot of it, but Grim Dawn allows enough important choices regarding which factions to level and which NPCs to send back to base that I never felt comfortable ignoring the depressing conversations entirely.
Ten-gallon hats and telekinesis
Happily, though, the story's a mere sideshow to the action and exploration. Grim Dawn handles these aspects so well I barely cared about the origins of the "aetherials" who've borked the world and why the second act suddenly becomes Red Dead Redemption with greataxes. With the ability to mix classes like demolitionist, occultist, and soldier with one other class to make a hybrid, there's virtually no playstyle it doesn't embrace.
For me, the lion’s share of its joy springs from that freedom. Rarely if ever do I slip easily into an RPG class; instead, I frown at archetypes and agonize for days over which class "suits" me. But I love my Druid. Drawn from the Shaman and Arcanist skill trees, he's my RPG dream character brought to life. I click the left mouse button, and he chops up Lovecraftian horrors with his lightning-kissed greatsword. With the right, he calls insect swarms that bring even bosses down to their knees. Press one hotkey, and twisters tear through undead hordes; press another, and magic missiles shoot out, splitting on contact and ricocheting into the rotting guts of nearby trash. I especially like how the progression of the skill trees crescendoes to a point where the screen is bursting in splattered blood and blinding magic and frenetic action. It certainly doesn't hurt that the whole game wallows in a strange Medieval England-meets-Wild West aesthetic that agreeably evokes Stephen King's Dark Tower series, allowing him to slash zombies in general stores advertising alchemical goods and slaughter otherworldly horrors in laboratories that'd fail any health inspection.
And the massive world around him is a wonderful canvas on which I use him to paint destruction. Some settings slightly outwear their welcome and the trek from one hub to another often tends to drag, but the shattered, wasted landscape nevertheless delivers a welcome balance of light and color to serve as the yang to the yin of the gloomy dungeons and basements. Grim Dawn also caters to the challenge-minded with two starting difficulties and two tougher unlockable ones. It offers choice on virtually every front, and thus the limitation of choosing between a dirty brunette man or a dirty brunette woman on the creation screen feels like some kind of inside joke.
The loot can feel a bit like a joke, too, as gear, weapons, crafting parts, lore scraps, and more drop like Louisiana rain. More often than not, the gear's not even useful, being either vendor junk or limited by huge stat restrictions, and I found myself accidentally picking it up in my click-trance even when I meant not to. That thus leads to one of Grim Dawn's few real downsides: the perpetual trips back to town to sell it all off. At least it has the decency to give us a free portal to get back there.
But this is the experience we said we wanted, isn't it? If anything, Grim Dawn is both empowered and chained down by its retro stylings, preventing, say, the randomized levels of Diablo III and thus its endless potential for replay. But on the upside, none of its recent competitors deliver that old-style hack-and-slash experience so purely and so satisfyingly, and its hybrid class system makes each new jaunt a little different. More than once it found me playing until dawn, and my appreciation for any game that manages to do that is anything but grim.