Before the end of the (previous) year, Crate Entertainment decided to give early access to all backers of Grim Dawn. Well, it just happened that I was a backer — although not an “early access backer” — on their Kickstarter, so I had the chance to play it.
Just beware that everything I say here is based on their alpha, which have access only to the first Act and not the whole game. So I bunch of things couldn’t be accessed yet and some things may change till the final release.
What’s Grim Dawn, anyway?
Grim Dawn is yet another ARPG, much like Diablo and Path of the Exile. The engine is a full 3D engine, which allows you to rotate the screen in any angle — although keeping the classic isometric view.
The story is somewhat intriguing, although not at all too different from other ARPGs: A race called “Aetherials” enters “our” realm and start turning humans into zombies, which puts the human race in the brink of extinction (I just read the Wikipedia page and it seems that the extinction was not brought by the Aetherials alone, but actually from a fight of the Aetherials and the Chthonians, the first trying to turn humans into an army and the later trying to kill all humans before that but I don’t remember reading anything about Chthonians in the whole first act, although I skipped most of the reading till the very end.)
Your character was saved in the last minute from a hanging due being possessed by one Aetherials. The whole story seems that it will float around the fact that you are now “infected” with aetherial material, which grants you some special abilities — opening rifts, for example, which can be related to “town portals” in other games, except require no special skill or item, require no mana and, be used as many times as you want and allow you to pick any other portal around (so not just to town, but to any other point you already know).
The whole environment is quite interesting too: instead of going full fantasy, Grim Dawn seems to be centered in a not distant past, as you can use fire weapons — pistols, rifles and shotguns — along weapons you’d find in any other ARPG — crossbows, swords, daggers, clubs, maces — not to mention the gear, with some heavy armor floating around leather jackets and such.
Getting your feet wet
When you start Grim Dawn, you’ll see your last played character, an option to jump to the next one or, if you have none, you’ll get straight to the character creation screen, which is as spartan as it can get.
It was my first surprise: No class/profession selection? No customization at all? Just “name” and “male or female” options?
Actually, yes, that’s it. It seems Crate took everything that was not really necessary for an ARPG and went down to the very bare bones of an ARPG. It’s so down to the bones that there are only three attributes to use: Physique, for health and armor usage; Cunning for attack speed; and Spirit, for your mana bar and mana regen.
Speaking of mana regen, some time after attacking or being attacked, you’ll receive a fast health regen. I’m kinda divided about it: First, it gives you some chance to recover health without resorting to massive health potion chugging — although the potion itself have a cooldown and, fortunately, gives health at once instead of simply giving you “regeneration” — or some other gimmick like health orbs dropping from time to time, but, at the same time, the simple fact that you can simply start running around your enemy, without giving it the chance of attack you and without attacking, will give you a massive regeneration feels so… gimmicky.
Even if you start with a clean slate, at level 2 you can pick a class, which will dictate your skills and abilities. There are 4 classes you can take then, which can be easily related to the “usual” ARPG classes:
The Soldier is, basically, the classic warrior:
The Demolitionist, although with a name like that, is basically the ranger/archer stereotype, without the pet and with a preference for fire weapons:
Occultists take the position the mage stereotype position in classic ARPGS:
And, finally, the Nightblade takes the assassin/rogue place:
I just need to stop here and point that there is nothing telling or even stopping you from using weird class/weapon combinations: You want to make a pistol solder? No problem, the game will not stop you from doing it so. The only barrier is that some skills — which I’ll show next — will require some specific weapons (for example, the soldier have a skill that requires a shield, the nightblade have skills that require dual wielding melee weapons and so on).
Once you pick your class, you’re presented your skill tree. And seriously, Grim Dawn rivals Path of the Exile in the “this will require some thinking” tree.
You have actually two intertwined trees: The basic one, at the bottom, indicates your class proficiency — the higher, the more skills are available to you, increasing your basic stats at the same time. At every level, you gain only 3 points, which you must allocate in those two trees — which is the part that makes it something you may need to think ahead: You can make a very meek character with very strong skills or an incredible build character with weak skills.
Balancing the trees is, obviously, the way to go, but how do you balance it is the part you’ll have to look for a while before just clicking away.
Oh, and if you think that’s easy enough, at level 10 you get the chance of getting a secondary profession:
And the second tree is not at all tied to the first class: Adding points to the second tree will earn as many attributes as the early levels — so you’re gaining attributes for a level 2 character instead of a level 10 character, but you need to put those points to open skills!
Going above the baseline
There are upgrades, like any other ARPG. The difference here is that there are no slots in any piece of gear: Everything has the ability to carry an upgrade beyond those in the gear itself.
Once an item receives an upgrade, it can only be upgraded with the same piece — you can’t mix two different upgrading elements in the same piece of gear. On the other hand, “upgrading” an upgrade component will complete its set, which can grant better results — pretty much what would happen if you complete a set of gear in other ARPGs, but with upgrades.
Gear sets are also available, although in my play time I only found two pieces of one set.
As I mentioned before, because you have been infected by the aetherials, you can summon personal rifts at any time, although only one rift can be open at the same time. Beside those, you can also find stable rifts all around, filling the “waypoint”… erm… “stereotype”?
And, as I said, one you open a personal rift, you can go anywhere:
Oh, and, in case you didn’t notice, the world is massive. I’d say that one map (from waypoint to waypoint) is actually larger than Path of the Exile maps.
The final tidbits
Obviously, there are other things in Grim Dawn that every ARPG have. Weapon swaps, health and mana potions and Vendors, for example:
In the case of the vendors, you’ll notice that items can have 3 different colors: Yellow means it’s a magical item (there are three other “quality” colors: red for set items, blue for named items and green for magical with better stats); Red means you don’t have the necessary attributes to wield that item; and Gray points that you don’t have enough money to buy the item.
The idea is good, but sometimes it falls to its knees: If you don’t have the coin and the attributes to buy something, the colors mix in and you can’t say if you can’t buy it simply because you need a few more attribute points or you need attribute points and coin. Yes yes, in the end, it means that you can’t use the damn thing, but it still annoys me, somehow.
Grim Dawm have a full economy with “iron coins” being used on sell and purchase, which I personally think it’s uninspired when compared to the barter system in Path of the Exile. On the other hand, it makes things easier, I guess. Also, as a side note, the whole time I played the game, the vendors never had something better than what I already had. Either that or I’m really bad at stats.
There are also factions, although I didn’t notice any difference in game play with it.
There are also destructible objects, which can contain loot:
One of the downsides I found is that the minimap encompasses the whole visible zone, without any visible zoom indicator, which completely removes the “fog of unknownness”. The only way to see where you still have to explore is through the full map.
And finally, when you’re low on health, the whole screen will get darker and the borders will point out that you’re in a really bad shape.
At this point you’re probably asking yourself “So what?”. And I admit, there are very few interesting things in this piece of my opinion besides the skill tree. That’s because the most interesting thing in the game can’t be shown by images alone.
It’s its atmosphere.
Seriously, the visuals are darker with an amazing track which in very few times reminded me of the old Diablo games which will keep you on tense the whole time: My right thumb is hurting by putting too much pressure on my mouse.
And the environment is really dark sometimes, which will reduce your vision to barely anything and will force you to navigate using only the minimap. And the maps are smartly designed to have some wet spots which will break your concentration by changing the noises and visuals.
And, to be honest, the story picks up really fast, to the point that after a while I decided to finally stop and read what was going on ’cause things were doing turns all the time.
Although I sunk more than 10 hours in the first act alone (8 with a single character, which was the only one I could finish the first act), I still think there are some points the game could improve:
First, voice acting. I admit that maybe this is asking too much, but I didn’t feel too interested the whole thing because there were too many walls of text. The story picks up and you start reading, but maybe I’d feel more into the story if I had someone to hear.
Second, the mini maps really needs some zoom and the “fog of unknown” zone needs to be smaller. If I need to explore around, I’d at least like to know if I’m not running around in circles.
Third, the maps could use some random generationness. I mean, 4 different characters and the maps were all the same. That makes me wonder if there is any replayability once you complete the whole campaign (well, besides multiplayer, that is).
All those are minor, in my opinion. The game is interesting enough, the skill tree is enough to keep (or, at least, to keep me) playing for a long time just to level up and open all those skills, the story seems incredible well written, even if you may skip most of it due the lack of voice.
At this point, with the latest build (released on the last day of 2013, nonetheless) I’m really not regretting backing Crate on this endevour, even if the final release seems to be a bit late — but honestly, with the quality shown so far, I guess no backer can be pissed if they still want to do some clean ups.
 Fun fact: After you complete the first act, the NPC which will probably grant you access to the second act zone only says something around the lines of “This is the end of the alpha version. In the future, you’ll be able to access the whole game”, which your character replies with “I can’t wait!”
 I didn’t notice any change in the attribute gain by class (like one could expect that the soldier would gain more physique per level than an occultist), but I could be wrong here.
 Compared to, say, Torchlight 1 and 2, which are pretty much the same musical tone, but that’s because Diablo 1 and 2 and both Torchlight games had the same composer.