Legend of Grimrock 2 is a good game. Some might even say it’s a great game. I might even be one of those people. But why talk about how good it is, when I could complain about it instead?
To clarify – Grimrock 2 is an immersive dungeon crawler RPG. Think along the lines of Wizardry or Might and Magic, only updated for the modern age. For the most part, it’s lavishly designed and well balanced. The level design is solid and the pacing is pretty good.
But there are some places where it falls apart. I’m sure these places differ from person to person — this game focuses heavily on puzzles after all — but just in case there are any game design lessons to be learned here (and also for therapeutic reasons) I’m going to complain about 3 problem spots I found.
(WARNING — minor spoilers about specific puzzles and monsters!!)
1. That Bloody Puzzle with the Spider and the Teleporters
As you’re nearing the middle act of the game, there’s a complex puzzle that blocks access to a large chunk of the gameworld. It involves teleporting a spider to the floor above you, and luring him to fall on the proper pressure plate, which activates lights over a few pressure plates you can’t reach. There’s a note nearby that tells you to “Follow the Light”.
The emphasis here is on the spider, the lights, and the pressure plates. I spent an extraordinarily long time fiddling with these and exploring the surrounding area hoping I’d find a secret switch or a teleporter that would help me solve the puzzle. However, the trick is: there’s a set of gates in front of pits on the 2nd floor. These pits are above the pressure plates. I did not realize for many hours that you could place an item through the gates into the pit.
It sounds silly of me to not realize. After all, there was a puzzle earlier in the game where you place an item through a gate onto a plate on the other side. The problem is, that puzzle was a very long time ago. At this point in the game I had forgotten to consider gates as permeable objects (especially gates with pits on the other side).
This is the kind of mental block that Portal goes out of its way to address. Before presenting the player with a complex puzzle – especially one using a mechanic introduced a while ago – Valve often adds puzzles designed to refresh those mechanics in player’s minds (as mentioned in the developers’ commentary).
In this case, I think Grimrock 2 could be improved by having a simple ‘put-the-item-through-the-gate’ puzzle somewhere nearby. After all, this is the first (and only?) time the player places an item into a pit from the other side of a gate. With all the distraction from the spider and the teleporters, it would be helpful to have that mechanic recently on the player’s mind. The spider nonsense is more than complicated enough that you won’t realize you’re missing something much simpler.
The game design takeaway is, if you have a complex or difficult obstacle, consider refreshing the player’s memory on the mechanics involved. Otherwise your player may get hung up on the wrong part of the obstacle.
2. Invulnerable Enemies That Ruin Everything
#1 was a nitpick, and could arguably be dismissed because Grimrock is a game about getting stuck on puzzles. But this issue — THIS is just inexcusable.
At a certain point in the overworld you encounter a creature called an air elemental. It’s immune to all damage except from the spell ‘Dispel’ and from weapons that are ‘Ethereal’. It’s 99% guaranteed that you will NOT have either of these when you encounter this creature. ‘Dispel’ is hidden in a secret, optional area off the beaten path. The Ethereal weapon is not available for another 5+ hours of game time.
Okay. So far, so bad. But you can just steer clear, right? That just means you can’t go into that area yet?
They will hunt you forever. They have immaculate tracking, will never get distracted, and will follow you anywhere on the map. AND they start spawning in other overworld areas. So basically, you can no longer do anything in the game anymore. If you try, you’ll end up backed into a corner by air elementals and killed.
The only real recourse is to cheat at this point. Any sane player is going to assume they screwed something up royally to cause invincible death machines to spawn, and they’re going to look it up online to know what they did wrong. (Nothing.)
There isn’t really a design takeaway here besides the obvious — don’t design &#@$ing stupid obstacles that make the game unplayable.
Or, consider what your obstacle makes the player think when they encounter it. They should be able to recognize it as an obstacle, and recognize a general approach they should take to solve it. It shouldn’t look like a punishment or a glitch.
3. The Sound-based Puzzle
This is a far more innocuous failure. Near the end of the game, you encounter a puzzle with 3 switches and a button. Nearby runes tell you cryptic nonsense like “One III, Two V” and such. Pretty standard stuff. It’s clear the button is what you’re supposed to press after you’re done playing with the switches.
The failure is pretty simple. When you press the button, a number of clicking sounds play; how many clicks you hear is integral to solving the puzzle. There’s no visual component to these clicks. That’s bad.
Many people turn the sound down when playing games. Some listen to music or podcasts, others might be playing in a public space. There are many reasons someone might not hear these clicks. To these people, pressing the button does nothing — because, the player would assume, they switched the levers the wrong way.
This is exacerbated by the fact that, prior to this, no other puzzle has been sound-based (and this is near the end of the game).
That isn’t to say you can’t have sound-based puzzles in a game. But it needs to be communicated to the player somehow — maybe with musical imagery, like a picture of an instrument, or even just the word “Listen” scrawled somewhere in the vicinity.
All that said, Legend of Grimrock 2 is still a darn good game. I recommend it to anyone who likes thinky RPGs (especially now that you’ve been warned of a few of its pitfalls and frustrations). I’m actually planning to replay it once I’ve had enough time to forget most of the puzzles.