Friday eXcursion: Grim Dawn

There have been many games that have threatened to take up large chunks of my time. Many games that I have eagerly anticipated, thinking that I would play them for hours and hours. There are very few, however, that have actually lived up to that promise in my not-quite-30 years of gaming. As I have grown older, married and started a family, those big, all-consuming games have become even less frequent  and farther between.

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But every so often a game can still reach out and grab me, refusing to let go. As of right now, that game is Grim Dawn – it has held me in its grasp for well over 150+ hours as I write these words, and it shows no signs of letting go any time soon.

The Story So Far

Grim Dawn is an Action RPG from Crate Entertainment in the style of Diablo II and the Torchlight series. The creative minds at Crate Entertainment were responsible for the excellent ARPG Titan Quest and its expansion Immortal Throne. As genre conventions demand, the game is played from an isometric perspective in real time and is largely mouse-driven. Grim Dawn takes place in a post-apocalyptic, Victorian-era fantasy world. The game begins just a short time after the apocalypse – referred to as “the grim dawn” by the surviving population – that occurred when interdimensional rifts began to open up and hordes of gruesome undead-like creatures called the Aetherials began to pour into our world. Some Aetherials are able to possess humans and the player character is a nameless, recently un-possessed Joe who came back to his/her senses. Thus the stage is set for a one man/woman quest to save what is left of the world. Of course, doing so means ending the careers of lots of bad guys who drop more random loot than you can possibly carry at one time!

Crate Entertainment has done a good bit of world building for Grim Dawn and there is plenty of lore to be found during the course of the game for those who are into that sort of thing. These documents are  well written and give the player a lot of background information on the world itself and the nature of the various evils that have to be squashed. Grim Dawn does not entirely avoid certain tropes of the dark fantasy sub-genre and the usual nods to Lovecraft and Tolkien are present. But the world is cleverly designed in such a way that makes the player want to explore it. There are rewards for those who take the time to peel back the fog of war and find the secret areas hidden in the various maps and dungeons throughout the game.

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Set your GPS to “bad guys”

The artistic choices do a lot to contribute to the conceit that the game world has recently undergone a violent apocalypse. The music fits the grim mood well (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and, overall, the developers have done a lot to convey a convincing atmosphere that goes a long way to making the world and its environments feel, well… Right.

Of course, anyone reading this article on the eXplorminate website would be forgiven for thinking, “This is a strategy website! What does a game where you click on the bad guys have to do with strategy?”

That’s a fair question. It is certainly true that the criticism that is most often leveled against ARPGs of this style is that they are “repetitive.” Personally, I think this is a ridiculous argument and not just of this particular genre. Video games are, by their very nature, repetitive to some degree or another. From a programming perspective, they almost have to be: there must be what developers call a “main loop” of core gameplay to build on. But I find that the term “repetitive” is only used in its pejorative sense when the person in question doesn’t happen to like a game or its core mechanic. No one seems to use the term to describe games that they personally prefer regardless of how repetitive they may actually be.

That aside, even a fan of the genre like myself will concede that the actual gameplay is not really the part of ARPGs that will interest most strategy gamers. The strategy in most ARPGs, in the good ARPGs at any rate, is in planning and building your character as you progress through the game. And Grim Dawn certainly succeeds in that regard.

Paladin or Ninja Assassin?

Grim Dawn does not have classes in the traditional sense. Instead, the game offers six “masteries.” Each mastery contains the usual selection of active abilities, passive bonuses, and talent trees that anyone familiar with RPGs would expect. But the core mechanic of character building in Grim Dawn is the fact that the game allows the player to combine any two of these masteries to create the character’s class. To be fair, Grim Dawn’s spiritual ancestor, Titan Quest, had a similar system but the developers have wonderfully refined those features in Grim Dawn.

The masteries come in some of the usual RPG flavors, with a few additions that match the mood and theme of the game: Soldier, Arcanist, Nightblade, Demolitionist, Occultist, and Shaman. Each mastery definitely has its own flavor. The Soldier is a tough melee combatant, the Nightblade is a quick dual-wielding rogue, and the Occultist uses eldritch magics to afflict his enemies with debilitating debuffs and damage-over-time effects. The abilities and stat buffs found in a particular mastery are also appropriate for its theme. The Shaman mastery, for example, contains abilities that one might expect of a melee/caster in tune with the natural world – you will find a good selection of lightning-based abilities as well as nature-themed spells and pet abilities. It is readily apparent that a lot of work went into making each mastery feel unique.

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The obligatory skill tree…

But the masteries are also designed in such a way that a clever player can find synergies that make the various possible combinations work in interesting ways. My current character is a Trickster, the result of combining the Nightblade and Shaman masteries. At first glance the two masteries don’t seem to have much in common. The Nightblade is a dual-wielding dervish focused on cold, poison, and piercing damage types (there are a LOT of damage types in Grim Dawn), while the Shaman has the lightning and nature abilities mentioned above.

Going deeper into the abilities of each mastery, however, shows a few different ways that two seemingly dissimilar classes can be effectively combined. The first thing to consider is that many attack abilities in Grim Dawn actually use more than one damage type. With my Trickster, for example, one of the Shaman abilities that is lightning based, called Savagery, also does bleeding damage. As it turns out, there are several abilities in the Nightblade mastery that also do (or buff) bleeding damage in addition to other types. These powers can be used in combination to do lots of bleeding damage-over-time to the bad guys!

Then there are abilities that work together indirectly. The Shaman has a passive ability that gives the character a lot of additional raw health points. Meanwhile, the Nightblade contains an activated healing ability that heals a given percentage of the character’s health pool. The Trickster’s large HP pool (from Shaman) means that the percentage-based heal (from Nightblade) restores a larger amount of hit points when used. This translates into a character that can tank a good bit of damage even while dual wielding.

Further, one mastery can make up for the weaknesses of another. The Shaman mastery does not contain any ability that enhances the mobility of your character. But the Nightblade does: an ability called Shadow Strike, which allows your character to disappear and suddenly reappear right next to the selected enemy with a nice melee attack to go along with it. Shadow Strike doesn’t really go along with any ability in the Shaman tree; it makes up for the lack of mobility of the Shaman.

Oh Mighty Gods, Hear My Pleas

If the prospect of combining two character archetypes isn’t enough customization for any character-building, strategy junkie, there is also the devotion system for yet another layer of theorycrafting. Devotions are represented by a star map of constellations, all of which reference the world’s lore. As you explore the world, you will run across various devotion shrines, ancient and pitted remnants of the abandoned places of worship. Clearing them, either by offering specific items or killing the bad guys guarding them, nets the player a devotion point. The devotion points are used on the star map to increase various stats, give defensive buffs, or enhance damage types. Completing some constellations can even grant the player an additional ability that can be set to trigger based on the use of class attack abilities or active buffing auras.

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Now THIS is celestial navigation!

There are far more constellations than any character can possibly get in one playthrough. So the trick is to choose the constellations that will actually be of some benefit depending on your particular character build. My Trickster (the Shaman/Nightblade combination) uses his devotion points on constellations that enhance his lightning damage and ability to withstand punishment from mobs. But constellations that boost chaos damage or buff pets are a waste of points for this character.

Items also play an important part in character building in Grim Dawn, especially in the late game. After all, what is an ARPG without a metric crap-ton of random loot? Unlike most ARPGs, some items in Grim Dawn actually confer new abilities when they are worn or used. Some of these abilities are quite powerful – so powerful that there are entire builds based entirely on having a particular item and using its associated ability.

The strategy in a good ARPG is definitely in the theorycrafting, the planning and building of the character itself. Gameplay is often just the execution of that strategy – it is the test of all the planning and number crunching that goes on as the game plays out. The real trick is finding the right balance between pure offensive power, damage type resistances, and gear selection to clear the toughest dungeons and boss fights. The true beauty of Grim Dawn is that there are so many possible combinations of factors that can do just that. And like any good ARPG, new character builds are always popping into my head as I play a character and find new items I have never seen before.

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Loot, lots of stats… Yep, we got ourselves an ARPG here

What Does The Future Hold?

Grim Dawn has an interesting future ahead of it. There is some DLC in the works, some of it free, as well as a sure-enough expansion! Crate Entertainment has also been prompt with patches and updates. The game supports mods and there are some really interesting overhauls to be found on the official forums once you tire of the base game (but that will take a while).

Personally, I think Grim Dawn should be regarded in the same rarefied air as Diablo 2. I know it’s a bold statement to make, but I think Grim Dawn is just that good. The game might not have some of the random endgame map elements that some ARPGs feature (yet…), but Grim Dawn has plenty of replayability in its own right. With all of the possible mastery combinations, the build varieties within those combinations, and the huge variety of play styles that the items make available, there is plenty to keep any ARPG player busy here. Just like a good 4X game, Grim Dawn will make you wonder where the time went when you finally come up for air and realize it’s 3:00 am and you have to be at work in less than six hours.

All in all, Grim Dawn is an ARPG that any fan of the genre should love. A deep character building system, a compelling world to explore, and lots of shiny loot make for a hack-and-slash adventure with a heavy dose of theorycrafting. With more content on the way and great mod support from the developers, Grim Dawn promises to leave a lasting impression on the ARPG genre and may well be a standard to which future games are compared.

DLC Update: Crate Entertainment released the first DLC for Grim Dawn on August 3, 2016. Called Crucible, it is an arena-style game mode completely separate from the main campaign that is playable from character level 1 to the current cap at 85. In it, the player faces increasingly difficult waves of enemies and must eliminate them all for experience points, gold, and lots of random loot. After a set of 10 waves of bad guys, the player can choose to stop and collect his/her just rewards or commit to another set of 10 waves for even more/better prizes. If you happen to die in the middle of a set of 10 waves you still get some experience points and a little loot, but it is vastly reduced from what you would have received if you had survived the entire round. A special warning for those playing “hardcore” (i.e., perma-death) characters: If you die in Crucible it’s just like death in the main campaign – it’s permanent. So you might not want to use that character unless you are very sure of your abilities as a player and the quality of your character build.

Enemies are drawn from the length and breadth of the main campaign. That is to say that any enemy that appears in the campaign is pretty much fair game for Crucible, and that includes most of the game’s bosses. Of course, even the bosses that appear are scaled up or down to the player’s current level and some will not even spawn until the character is sufficiently advanced.

The Crucible DLC is certainly fun and provides a way for players to grind for loot outside of the main campaign. However, this DLC is not the place to go looking for tons of new content. Instead, it’s better to think of Crucible almost as an arcade-type experience based solely around the combat aspects of the game. The real interest comes from the risk versus reward nature of the DLC – do you stop while you’re ahead and take the rewards you have already earned or do you risk it all, betting that your character can take on 10 more waves of ever-stronger monsters before you get overwhelmed?

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This IS my happy face

TL;DR: Grim Dawn is an excellent ARPG in the traditional Diablo style. Strategy-lovers will appreciate the deep character-building system that allows for a wide variety of class combinations and play styles to clear the toughest content and hoard the best loot the game has to offer. Grim Dawn has an average story but a very compelling world with plenty of secrets to uncover and optional areas to plunder for prizes. Fans of the genre will find plenty to like about Grim Dawn and new players will find a great entry point to the ARPG genre.

You might like this game if:

  • You like Diablo-style, hack-and-slash ARPGs
  • You like planning characters as much as playing them
  • Singlehandedly saving the world via killing lots of bad guys sounds like fun

You might NOT like this game if:

  • You find hack-and-slash games to be tedious
  • A Tolkien-level story is important to you
  • The idea of randomized loot drives you crazy

Micah played 152 hours (and counting) of Grim Dawn on a FX-8320 CPU, GTX 970 GPU, and 16 GB of RAM.

3 replies »

  1. Been enjoying it as well though I haven’t picked up the DLC yet.

    If I may add a snippet that I think was missing from the review, co-op multiplayer is very much supported, reasonably balanced, quite stable (as of more recent builds), and does not require any 3rd party matchmaking. For the GOG version anyway; steam may work differently.

    Loved TQ/IT and I agree with Micah; they’ve hit it out of the park again.


  2. I enjoy DII, TQ/IT and TL1&2 but felt that Grim Dawn have too many and vague stats to keep track of, washed out colors and atmosphere and the major nail in the casket being way too wide a distance between portals making it a chore to slog through.
    Overall it’s okay but it’s not enough for me to leave an impression.



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