It doesn’t take a genius to make a halfway decent action RPG, since all you technically need in order to entice the subgenre’s core audience into purchasing one is give it a ton of powerful loot, a complex skill system to craft a unique-looking character, and an online arena that players can show it all off in.
The developer now known as Crate Entertainment, who once went by Iron Lore, knows this fact well. So well, that their 2006 ARPG Titan Quest is still held up by genre fans as one of the best of its kind. This is fitting praise, since Titan Quest was one of the few non-Blizzard developed titles that stood out amongst its cookie-cutter kin. Its sharp visuals, large number of class combinations, and its sprawling overworld areas were something you didn’t see in ARPGs at the time, and due to this, the game is still cherished by PC gaming aficionados.
Knowing this, it shouldn’t be too hard to understand the immense amount of hype Grim Dawn received when it first went on Steam Early Access in the summer of 2013 (following its Kickstarter in May of 2012). Iron Lore, who reappeared under their new studio name, pitched an idea for a Titan Quest-inspired ARPG that would bring back all of the features of that game and combine it with a fresh new setting and theme that the now much more experienced team felt gamers would appreciate. It was a lofty goal that, for the first year or so anyway, was never met. Having been a Titan Quest fan who played Grim Dawn since the beginning, I have to admit that the earlier builds of this new game were very disappointing.
Shoot ahead a couple of years though and the game I came back to last November in order to give it another shot is not just living up to its initial hype, but it could be one of the best ARPGs I’ve ever played.
Grim Dawn takes place in a post-apocalyptic, steampunk-ish style world that can best be compared to what you find in Troika’s Arcanum. The only difference is that unlike Arcanum, the world of Grim Dawn has been ravaged by a war between two extra-dimensional races that see humans as either cattle to exploit or insects to be stepped upon.
Somewhat amusingly, the entrance of these beings into Grim Dawn’s world of Cairn was due to unscrupulous scientists who figured out how to open portals to other dimensions and began luring beings out and trapping them. The tests performed on those beings revealed that they could be fused with mortals to create strong warriors, but as with all such experiments, the subjects began to escape and all hell began to break loose. Literally.
The game has you, a human who was about to be hanged due to being possessed by one of these extra dimensional “Aetherials,” traveling through the war-ravaged land combating the supernatural forces that nip at the heels of humanity’s last few settlements. It’s a terrific story filled with lots of lore and journal updates that hearken back to Diablo II and its own immense amount of written word. If you’re the type of ARPG fan who likes to dig deep into a game’s background plot, then you’ll be pleased with what Crate has built here with Grim Dawn.
…but few people play ARPGs for their story. The core of the subgenre’s audience instead plays it for the loot and the min-maxing, something that Grim Dawn borrows from Titan Quest in order to get right.
Like Titan Quest, Crate’s Grim Dawn has a character creation system that allows you to combine two different classes into one unique build. Though you aren’t forced to create such a hybrid and can instead opt to merely pick one of the game’s main five occupations and leave it at that, it’s often advantageous to take the second class choice at level 10 simply to gain access to a more varied pool of skills. What this boils down to is the player having access to 20 (5 main + 15 hybrids) different playable character classes to choose from, all of which helping to create a fair amount of replayability in a genre that is heavily reliant on it.
The skills within each class are a pleasant balance between passive buffs and active attacks, meaning that players who are more into a straight hack-n-slash without any fancy attacks (like myself) can still create a competent end-game character without needing a dozen different hot keys. Yet those who prefer the hot-key heavy, World of Warcraft “Grab-every-attack-skill-and-spam-them-in-order” style of combat can just as easily do so without any complications.
The amount of variety in the game’s character classes make for an insane amount of builds, all of which fill up the forums in much the same way Diablo II did with its own strategy board back in the day. Granted, it doesn’t have a skill tree the size of Jupiter in the way Path of Exile does, but unlike like that game, its builds are much easier to create and manage.
As a matter of fact, I have found myself slowly moving away from Path of Exile and instead using Grim Dawn for my “Gritty, hardcore ARPG fix”. Not to harp on Path of Exile, but Grinding Gear Games frequently wipes characters after every patch, resulting in your build becoming worthless and the need for “re-specc’ing” growing with each subsequent update.
I find it stressful to deal with the unnecessary changes they keep making and feel that the complexity in their game isn’t so much due to any real depth, but instead due to constantly changing skill trees and item lists. Grim Dawn goes about creating its complexity in a much more straightforward, old-school way – which is something I’ve fallen in love with over the past three months.
Once you have your build planned out, you have to learn how to use it…and Grim Dawn’s combat is both responsive and fast enough to keep you addicted to it through all 20 playthroughs needed to try out every class. So responsive and fast, in fact, that I ended up pulling out a higher DPI gaming mouse that was on my other PC just to use with Grim Dawn.
Enemies move and attack so rapidly that it requires the player to be on their toes at all times, something that players of slower/older ARPGs might take a while to getting used to. In the end, however, it works towards the game’s benefit, since Grim Dawn’s ragdoll physics and highly explosive AoE attacks give it a very flashy appearance that belies its humble, quasi-indie, crowdfunded beginnings.
Speaking of “flashiness”, Grim Dawn’s visuals are some of the best in the genre, with the developers having expertly nailed the “world in ruin” theme they promised three years ago. Spells flash across the battlefield, lightning arcs from enemy to enemy, shield bashes rock the screen while rag-dolling foes into walls, and multi-hit weapon attacks blow away nearby corpses with the wind generated from their swings. It created a lot of “Whoa, how did I do that??” moments for me when I first played it – something I hadn’t experienced since, appropriately enough, Titan Quest.
Most of what stands out in Grim Dawn is what also stood out in Titan Quest as well. One of the most treasured of those borrowed features is the large overworld areas that Titan Quest used. Though it can be a bit confusing to navigate the first time around, the game’s maps are well designed and fun to explore. I will admit, however, that even after two complete trips through the main quest, I still get lost trying to find some areas. Most notably the “Steps of Torment” dungeon, which is large enough inside of it, let alone the massive maze you have to wind around just to find it.
Though don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a single thing about Grim Dawn’s size. At a time when most developers are happy to just cut-and-paste a few interchangeable maps into the world and call it a day, Crate Entertainment has crafted a lifelike world that seems to never run out of content to explore. They even felt the need to pad things out by making several non-quest related side dungeons that extend your playing time even further, which is great if you’re like me and just want to grind levels or farm loot.
Also extending Grim Dawn’s play time is the faction system, which manages to add a tiny bit of non-linearity to a subgenre where you don’t normally expect it. Surprisingly, there are many quests that have multiple end choices, and your decision on who to side with during the events of each mission influences what faction you’ll gain favor with.
Through most of the game this just controls what merchants you’ll shop at and the level of gear they’re willing to sell you, but it eventually ends with you having to pick between two warring human factions that will force you into fighting the other. It’s nothing along the level of faction play in Gothic or Morrowind, but it’s something unexpected that does an admirable job of spicing up gameplay. Or at least giving obsessive gamers another “thing” to grind by having them kill mobs of certain enemy types just to improve faction standing.
By now, you’ve probably been wondering if there is any real downside to Grim Dawn. After all, it has the depth, the “Heft” of combat, huge loot tables, addictive quality, and even the visuals that one would expect of a modern ARPG…so does it have any flaws?
Just one, and it’s very large.
The worst sin Crate Entertainment committed in Grim Dawn’s development is that in their quest to be so much like Titan Quest, they forgot the one thing that every successful ARPG has adopted since then: post-game challenges.
Diablo III has its addictive rift gate system, Torchlight 2 has randomized high level dungeons you can pay to enter, and Path of Exile has its famous map room called the “Eternal Laboratory”…but what does Grim Dawn have? Sure, you can start over on a higher difficulty level with the character you just beat the game with and unlock more abilities as well as purify more shrines for devotion points, but this all occurs in the same dungeons and fighting the same enemies that you were before.
Granted, the difficulty surges in-between levels are much steeper than what we usually find in ARPGs, but it’s still just a difficulty bump. In the post “World of Warcraft Raid Dungeon” age, it has become the norm to expect high quality end game content that challenges your skill and your character’s build strength. Grim Dawn doesn’t have this.
It does try though, with a special 5-floor dungeon opening up halfway through the main quest that requires you to craft a key to unlock. The dungeon scales with your level and is guaranteed to have a swarm of elite monsters spawning inside of it, but its layout doesn’t seem to change and the time needed to farm the ingredients its key requires is extremely time consuming. So much so that it makes Diablo III’s grinding for infernal machines seem like a breeze by comparison.
Regardless of the weak end-game, the main quest is still quite replayable and offers enough combat opportunities for each class variation that most gamers should expect to play through it two or three times before wanting to take a rest. You can still grind for the key needed to unlock the level-scaled dungeon, but it (at least for me) never seems to give up the kind of rare loot you’d expect from such a hard-to-get-into area.
The bottom line with Grim Dawn is this: If you love action RPGs and want something with a deep class system whose combat is as flashy as it is addictive, then you’ll have a hard time finding anything better at the moment than Grim Dawn. It’s a fabulously well-built ARPG that takes everything that made Titan Quest so perfect and puts it in a cleaner, more polished package.
While I would have loved a post-game and perhaps some real community options built within it (such as what you find with Path of Exile and Diablo III), I still feel that there is no ARPG on the market that can touch Grim Dawn’s pace of combat or build creation depth. If you’re like me and those two things appeal the most to you, then you owe it to yourself to get Grim Dawn and see why it has such a large and devoted community.
Grim Dawn was reviewed on PC using a digital copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict 9.0
- Fast-paced, exciting combat
- Deep skill/class system
- Extremely large world
- Great graphics in a very optimized engine
- No real post-game content
- Should have used server-side saves to deter cheating
- Max level is currently 85