Grim Dawn Preview: In-Depth Hands-on with Crate Entertainment's Gloomy Action RPG

By Matthew Buzzi , Updated Apr 21, 2014 12:55 PM EDT

Dark fantasy action-RPG Grim Dawn has been under development for several years by the small indie team at Crate Entertainment, which features veteran members of Titan Quest development group Iron Lore. Following a successful Kickstarter period in 2012, the developers are hard at work improving the playable alpha that's available on Steam now, and I was given a chance to play through the current build.

When I began Grim Dawn, the Act II update had just been released, which added more features and improvements as well as increasing the level cap to 35. I have invested almost 30 hours into the game as of today, and I came away feeling generally positive about the experience despite having some significant issues with the combat and death system.

The setting, as the title of the game may give away, is a gloomy Victorian era-inspired world in which humanity is clinging to survival. Magical foreign invaders are waging war against one another in what used to be home to a powerful human empire, and only scattered pockets of survivors remain.

The story isn't explored very deeply at the start of the game, but you can find out more as you play through conversations with NPCs and notes that you come across. What you do quickly learn is that your player has been touched by the foreign magic, a nearly fatal experience. Instead, you survive with the ability to enter and open portals--a useful mechanic for navigating the world's map in addition to a narrative element.

The game begins from there as you take on a couple of quests at Devil's Crossing, which serves as your hub. You always respawn there if you die, and most missions you accept will be based out of the former prison, which was turned into a makeshift settlement for survivors. There's a good chance it won't always serve as the only main location once the full game is released, but for the alpha it will be your base of operations.

While some aspects of Grim Dawn look a bit dated (mostly the interface, but with the game still in alpha I can't be assured it won't change) the graphics are quite good overall. It's impressive from a small team, though the quality didn't jump out at me immediately. The environments are crisp and well-textured, and the character models are pretty high resolution, something I appreciated more after I had played for a couple of hours.

The magic and spell effects are pleasing and believable, though I did experience some consistent slow-down in more frantic situations. Being surrounded by enemies while multiple fires were burning and other ability effects were going on would make my framerate hang for a second or two. I'm admittedly not playing on the most powerful computer (though it should be able to handle Grim Dawn) and it only happened in the most chaotic instances, so your mileage will likely vary and it won't be a major issue either way.

I did suffer several abrupt game crashes which is obviously frustrating, but the game does a good job of saving your file even when you don't manually do it yourself. I never really lost significant progress, though all of the enemies do respawn when you re-launch the game, which can take a while to fight through again. Other than those relatively infrequent problems, the game did not have any technical issues, and it was again important to keep in mind that this was still an alpha build.

At the start of Grim Dawn your character feels fairly weak and somewhat plain, which is pretty par for the course in RPGs that allow you to customize and grow stronger as you play. Gameplay and combat will be familiar to anyone who has played an ARPG or MMO before, with your skills on the quick bar along the bottom and mobs of enemies ganging up on you in each area you travel through. Levelling up earns you new abilities and increases your core attributes, which are Physique, Cunning and Spirit.

You can later select one of the four classes--Soldier, Demolitionist, Occultist, and Nightblade--which is when your character starts to develop some unique skills that instantly make the combat more enjoyable. I played as a Demolitionist, which is most similar to a traditional Ranger class. I used guns (which are matchlock-type rifle and musket weapons in Grim Dawn) to defeat enemies at a range combined with some area-of-effect abilities to help deal with multiple enemies at once. 

The alpha is currently just single-player, which I think definitely changes the experience from what it could be. Constantly trudging through mobs of enemies and spamming attacks on your own can be a grind, and I think the experience would be more fun with other players (multiplayer is coming).

Whether it's due to my character class choice or just the fact that I was playing alone (or both), I will say the combat can be repetitive. Given that I was playing without a tank or support as a class without too much survivability, I was forced almost exclusively into just hitting my splash damage fire ability as fast as I could, jamming my 2 key constantly and aiming into the sea of enemies if I wanted to survive.

There's a rhythm to the combat (which I eventually subconsciously got used to) of occasionally using support spells and chugging health potions as I'm overwhelmed with enemies, but I can't say I felt like I was doing anything that required too much thought. You need to keep an eye on your health bar and pick skills at the right time, but my tactics remained pretty much identical--spamming the same two spells with my fire shield and familiar partner active--no matter who or what I was fighting. There are a variety of regions with different enemies, but the battles felt more or less the same across all of them.

I also died very frequently. Perhaps my character wasn't developed optimally (something the game does not help you with much--hopefully the full version will have more guidance), but sometimes I would sweep through enemies with no problem only to die very quickly at the next encounter. It didn't seem to be anything that I did wrong compared to the battles I won, but rather that the combination of enemies and their abilities in the next section simply dropped my health at an insurmountable rate. This leads to a lot of returning to Devil's Crossing, buying and selling as needed at them merchant, and then teleporting back to the nearest portal to try again. 

I did appreciate that you can drop portals anywhere at any time, and are not limited by a number of portal scroll or some similar item in your inventory (Path of Exile does this, for example). Everyone is always going to make sure they are equipped with enough of the item needed to get around if they're required, so I'm glad Crate decided to do away with any restrictions that would only serve to clutter your inventory.

Considering how easy it was to get back to where you were with such prevalent portal use, dying really only felt like a time-wasting inconvenience. You drop some experience behind when you die, (which you can reclaim some of if you make it back to where you were killed) but I didn't feel particularly punished by death.

Dying was frequent enough that I became used to it, and the only downside felt like having to teleport and walk back to where I was and try again. The enemies kept any damage you inflicted on them in previous attempts, so you never felt like you were going to fail: even if you were outmatched, repeating the cycle of chipping away some health only to die and come back to attack them again made victory inevitable.

I didn't have to rethink my strategy, go level up more in other areas, or find new gear--I just needed to keep throwing myself at enemy bosses after dying until their health was gone. More severe penalties for death should be in place on normal difficulty, in my opinion. I understand harder difficulties have harsher consequences (including permadeath at the highest level), but can't imagine how many more times I would have been killed if the enemies were even more difficult--a balanced level in between is needed.

On a similar note, a somewhat strange mechanic (which I perhaps should have abused more to reduce my death count!) is the automatic health regeneration outside of battle. When combat is over, your HP bar rises rapidly towards the top, and you'll be at full health in seconds.

It's useful in terms of gameplay when you clear an area and want to quickly move on to the next one without waiting long or using a potion, so I understand why they implemented it. But the mechanic can be very easily abused when you're fighting: run away for two seconds when it looks like death is imminent (you can outpace pretty much any opponent) and your health will refill within a few steps, letting you turn right back around and finish off the remaining enemies. I tried not to abuse it, and sometimes you can't get away from the midst of the mob in time, but it can be a pretty game-breaking method if it's your main tactic.

Despite these issues, I did enjoy playing once my character was more powerful. The respawn system could use some work, but you'll still want to survive each encounter (to save time if nothing else) and see what's next. The quests unfortunately did not make me feel very invested in the narrative, with some NPCs giving you multiple walls of texts to read regarding what they want you to do. Nothing they said really impacted the gameplay or appealed to me enough to read every word, so I ended up simply collecting multiple at once and setting out to complete the objectives like you would in MMOs.

You are able to select a second class to complement your first later in the game, which opens up the potential for interesting combinations of skills. You only get three skill points to spend every level, so splitting them among two skill trees (or choosing to level up a class for stat increases and access to higher level abilities) can lead to difficult decisions. Sometimes I wanted to unlock a new ability or upgrade one I already possessed in my Demolitionist tree, but I also felt like I needed to put more points into my Occultist level or abilities. It's a balancing act that benefits you more if you decide at the start what sort of character you'd like to have, rather than assigning points as you go.

You can customize loot with upgrades you find, which add elemental effects or attribute increases. I found a lot more armor than I did weapons, which led to me holding onto only a couple of guns throughout my entire play-through. I would've liked to see a few more weapons so I felt like I was improving, but combat for my class came down much more to my skills and attributes than my rifle.

Grim Dawn is still in alpha, which means some of my issues are still likely to be addressed. I may have found a more preferable difficulty level than normal had I explored the others, but normal is likely to be the most-played, and investing dozens of hours in more than one file to test which difficulty is best is a task I did not have time for.

Multiplayer should benefit Grim Dawn greatly, as tearing through enemy mobs is likely much more fun with a couple of partners. The team at Crate has done a fine job crafting a unique world which should continue to be improved in the future, even if it has its share of problems now. The Early Access alpha is very playable, so if you're a fan of the action RPG genre I would recommend checking it out on Steam. Grim Dawn might not be for everyone, but fans of the genre will appreciate its traditional roots, attractive graphics and tough battles.


Grim Dawn was previewed from a Steam code provided by the publisher. You can purchase the Steam Early Access alpha for $24.99 or get it directly from the publisher here, which will give you access to all of the upcoming Acts, as well as the final version.

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