It is one thing to aspire to give a retro experience in a modern game; to pay homage to things past yet completely relevant today. It is another thing entirely to ignore the advances in game design and to lose sight of the "entertainment" in video games.

This post will contain spoilers for The Legend of Grimrock. I think the point that I am spoiling NEEDS to be spoiled. However, if you want to avoid the spoiler, quit reading right before the ***SPOILER***.

Before I get to Grimrock I should let you know about the wonderful time I spent with Lara this week. I finished Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light this past Tuesday and it might have been one of the absolute best co-op experiences I’ve ever played. Amazing two-player puzzles and engaging gameplay made for a recipe for excellence. So many gasps were coming from my friend and I when we were given the wonderful two-player puzzles, things we’d never done before in gaming. I won’t be able to play a Diablo-style game again without comparing it to Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Really, if people don’t start adopting this type of controls, puzzles, and game design for dungeon crawlers, I won’t have much faith left in humanity.

I also had a single, but very exciting session of Tomb Raider on PC this week with my wife. I’m really getting into it and I am liking the puzzles, though it has been way too easy so far. It is a little hard being restricted to the more linear gameplay after coming off things like Far Cry 3, but I understand that it is a little easier for pacing, progression and storytelling to drive me in one direction.

So, I was all excited to come report on the excellent experience with The Legend of Grimrock that I was having all week. After my initial step back from it last week due to the stark retro experience it was offering, I got to the meat of the game...and what succulent meat it is.

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The overall experience is very much the Dungeon Master, (early) Might and Magic, The Bard’s Tale, and Eye of the Beholder games of yore. This is not a game for those easily frustrated, for those with a bad sense of direction, and those who don’t like to die A LOT. However, it is for those who like a challenge, those who enjoy great puzzles, and those who really like desperate survival gameplay.

Like I said, I *was* excited to come report all that. While the above is true, the game screwed me out of two hours due to what I think was terrible game design for at least this one puzzle. ***SPOILER*** ahead. (if you are getting off here, still let us know what you are playing this weekend).

I’m going to set up the puzzle that screwed me and let you decide the fairness.

So I am “trapped” on my current level. Usually you can go up and down stairs to get to previous levels, but I was told I was trapped on this level. I am assuming I need several keys to get out of the level and I’ve found a couple so far to unlock a series of gates, but I need yet another key to go further on.

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This is one of the labelled areas:

It is likely safe to assume that one of the keys lay in here somewhere. Once inside I am confronted with this:

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The space in front of me is a pit that can be closed. Down the pit is nasty stuff but only brings me back to an area I’ve already discovered. See that face down there? That is usually a “lock” at least in my previous encounters. Previously I’ve put gems in the eyes or mouth to open doors. Directly in front of the face is a pressure plate. Stepping on it, or placing an object on it will trigger something. In this particular instance, throwing an object across the pit on to the plate will cause the face to spit out a fire ball.

To left of where I am facing is this, which is likely a “clue” to get across.

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To the right is this, which is a fire bomb.

So, knowing only these things I couldn’t see a way across, so I went down the only other hallway in the “Hall of Fire”. It leads me to a scroll that shows me how to cast a fireball spell, some of these (which I’ve never encountered before),

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and then I found this:

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So, none of this struck me as any way to deal with the pit in question, so I left the area in hopes of finding something else to help me along the way. Certainly the “Hall of Fire” lives up to its name so far with the fire objects and baddies.

The remaining area of this entire dungeon level is generally filled with these:

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The new flame blade is GREAT at killing them as it shoots fireballs to damage them from a distance. It has charges, so I am a little concerned about using it all up. Usually these games let you recharge the item with something, but this isn’t always true. However, I am not strong at all and quickly killing these lobstrocities (Dum-a-chum? Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick?) is something I deem worthy of using the charges on.

So I adventure forth. I solve some great puzzles, fight loads of stuff, find some interesting objects and some keys to unlock more of the doors. I’ve used up all the charges in the flame blade, but the only things re-spawning are giant snails that are easily dispatched, so I am happy with the results and hope to recharge the flame blade later. If I can’t recharge it, it is at least a sword that does additional fire damage as a melee weapon.

I still need more keys and the only area left is the “Hall of Fire”. I haven’t found anything that helps me, so I proceed to throw everything I have across the pit at the pressure plate and the face. I cast my only projectile spell (poison bolt) at the face, use up all my various bombs (including the fire bomb that was placed right beside this pit), shoot all my arrows, launch all my throwing weapons, and throw most of my other inventory to no avail. I go back, search everywhere else in the dungeon for secret rooms, something I've missed...nothing, no luck.

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So...I give in and do what I loathe to do...I go looking on the internet for help.

Guess what the solution is? Shoot a fireball at the face...and LOADS of people had the same problem I did. Now, I’ll concede that the place is called the “Hall of Fire” but I encountered enough fire beings and fire objects to live up to that name. I know the clue next to the pit says “Mage’s entrance” but I think that using a fireball as the solution is an extremely long and unfair stretch to a solution, especially since the flame blade's fireball does not need to be cast my a mage. But that’s not the worst part.

I have only two ways in the game to cast a fireball. One is with the blade that I’ve used up and the other is with the spell I found. The spell won’t work either. I’ll need to raise my mage up two levels to be able to cast that spell and since I am trapped on this level with only snails to kill, I’m betting it would be better than 6-10 hours of killing snails before I went up the two levels (if it is possible at all, maybe the respawning stops). Also you CAN’T recharge the flame blade, ever. There is apparently no recharging of magical items in this game, which is a big spoiler that I wasn’t happy to learn, but needed to know to get past this point. And why doesn't the fire bomb that they give you right beside the pit work too; that's fire too? (not that I think that would have been a fair solution either given the previous interactions with these faces).

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I am reduced to going back to the save that I had at the beginning of this dungeon level and wasting over two hours of my time.

I don’t think the puzzle was very fair to begin with. The bigger problem is that it isn’t just for some secret loot or side-quest area, but for the main progression of the game. I think it is bad design and harkens back to the idea of old that I need to maintain a whole list of save files to prevent getting screwed by bad game design.

I firmly believe that saves should be only use for when you need to quit. I think saving before experimentation takes away from the flow and the discovery aspects of the game. I actually prefer check-point systems and save+quit when I need to go. Regardless of how you feel about save systems, I think we are well beyond the need to keep multiple save files in case the game screws you.

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Games really shouldn’t screw you like that anymore. We are beyond being screwed in games now I think. Games are entertainment and the entertainment should always move you forward. The flaws in the above scenario bring the game to a grinding halt. I shouldn’t have to go back and replay old save files to get around flaws in game design. Up until this puzzle, the game was flawless in execution and really stumped me on some puzzles for a good long time, but I was always able to discover a way through. This puzzle leaves me no choice but to go back and replay a good chunk of game.

Sorry for the long exposition, but I felt it necessary (and cathartic) to point out the flaw. I do really love the game and I am going back to re-do all that gameplay this weekend to solve the puzzle and move forward. Hopefully this is an isolated incident of the worst of game design in what is otherwise an amazing game.

I’ll report back next week to let you know if I encounter any other issues. Up to this point I would have heartily recommended this to veteran gamers who enjoyed these games in the past and to newer gamers who haven’t experience this type of gameplay before. Now, I am undecided and will let you know more as I move forward in the game.

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So, that’s the un-fun gaming I am re-doing this weekend. What are you playing this weekend?

***UPDATE***

So, somehow I am a big stupid tool. I don't know what happened in my first playthrough, but I had very different results in my second attempt at the level described above. I needed only 3 keys to get to the stairs to the next (lower) level. There are 4 major "areas" in the level I was on, each with a key. The 4th key gets you a bonus secret, presumably for solving the puzzles in all the areas.

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So, on my second playthrough I ended up with all 4 keys now that I knew the "secret" of the fireball puzzle. I was absolutely reeling from the difference in the outcome. The only thing I can guess is that I "lost" a key somewhere on my first playthrough. Maybe I picked it up and then somehow threw it instead of getting it in to a character's inventory. My best guess is that I must have somehow chucked it into one of the teleporters in the teleport puzzle room and not seen where it went. I'm still unsure though, I mean I SCOURED that level really, REALLY thoroughly...or a least I thought I had. I'll certainly take all the blame here for the missing key.

This of course makes my claims of the problem being "game-breaking" completely untrue. If you only need 3 of the 4 keys to get out, then the poorly designed fireball puzzle doesn't need to be completed to get off the level. I still contend that the puzzle discussed above is a terrible puzzle, but if it doesn't stop the progress of the game, then it isn't nearly as bad as I was making it out to be.

This also taught me to be much more careful about what I read into discussions. I did a lot of searching for solutions to the puzzle on the internet. I found LOADS of people with the same problems I had with the puzzle. Several people suggested that reloading was their only solution. However, since I "lost" a key somewhere (I'm still staggered that this could have been the case) I was making the assumption that these people complaining about the problem were also not able to continue on in the game.

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Sorry Almost Human for maligning your game. All is how it should be and my faith in you is restored...though I still think that puzzle was a terrible puzzle. My faith in my observational skills is certainly fractured now though. So, I am completely back in the camp of loving the game. I just can't put it down. It would make a fantastic tablet game too...hopefully their planned iOS version is still in the works. Really a must play for the fantasy and puzzle game fanatics.

Doh!